Moscow's Heart Goes Straight to the Dogs

Here are many viewpoints on Moscow today, and not all of them are human. For all the wrenching shifts and strains in post-Communist Russia, it is still mostly a good place for a dog. But the dog scene reflects the human scene as well.

There is the proliferation of newly arrived muscular security types - whether they're crewcut fellows in black collarless shirts and Italian suits or rippling, hyper-alert Brazilian boxers with tiger stripes. There are the more traditional tough guys - both the beefy ones with tattoos and track suits and their wolfen German shepherds crashing through parks fetching sticks the size of railroad ties.

One ran right through me the other day, sweeping my legs so cleanly out from under me that I landed smack on my shoulder blades. The dog was on his way to check the documents of another dog - a tradition of Russian authority that suits big dogs - and I did not register as a significant obstacle.

The owners drive their Ladas the same way, always traveling at some odd angle to the actual lanes in the road and figuring that if anything is in the way it will move.

Like Russian people, dogs are dividing more visibly these days along class lines. There are the dispossessed, living at the margins. Dirty and matted dogs that look like a sort of averaging-out of all common breeds sleep undisturbable on busy sidewalks, like the dirty and matted people sleeping around Moscow train stations.

Some dogs are semi-adopted, such as the short-haired dirty blond that hangs out by the bar my dog and I pass each morning. Employees seem to feed her there, and in return, she protects the premises from passing dogs like mine - yipping and nipping as we trot past on the sidewalk. Sometimes babushki (grandmothers), with barely enough to eat themselves, adopt dogs into their homes.

Some Australian friends take in abandoned dogs occasionally and find homes for them in the West. We just loaned them our carrier to send one to Germany.

The great majority of dogs, though, are doted on and well-fed in homes struggling to get by - not unlike most Russian people.

Muscovites keep surprisingly big dogs in their small apartments. They treat their dogs like children, and they treat their children well. My wife and I arouse a slight disapproval when we tell Russians we feed our dog simple dry dog food. Many Russians cook for their dogs. We meet people in the park who stand and stroll two hours every day, year-round, while their dog cavorts and socializes.

For some reason, English names are popular for dogs - although never for children. In the park across from our apartment, we daily meet a rowdy young German shepherd that was named Norman by his owners from Kazan, in Tatarstan, a day's train trip to the east. Then there is the gregarious boxer named Robby. Bruce is a slow-moving Great Dane; Betsy's one of a large breed that Russians call "Dog.'' A Rottweiler goes by Dustin Hoffman. A friend met a small dog on a train recently that goes by Marjorie.

Unlike Paris or Rome, you will probably not see a dog in a Moscow restaurant. But take a dog into the neighborhood grocery store, and there is a good chance it will not be alone. Dogs are allowed on trains - not always officially but nearly always in practice. I took an international flight to Kazakstan once, and was surprised to see a woman walking a retriever-sized dog down the aisle during the flight.

The favorite American dog these days, the Labrador retriever, is a rarity here. Huskies or Samoyeds, the real winter dogs, are even rarer. Cocker spaniels appear now and then; poodles more often. Irish setters are not rare. Occasionally a sleek Russian Borzoi hound, the hunting dogs of the old Russian aristocracy, will appear. But German shepherds dominate. Broad-chested Rottweilers are also popular, as are Doberman pinschers and various large boxers. Home security is obviously a factor.

There are common dog-types here that I have never seen in the United States, such as the Caucasian shepherd, a massive dog with the frame of a Saint Bernard and a grayish, collie-type coat. They are apparently aggressive, because the owners often warn strangers away from making friendly contact.

IT'S difficult to know how dogs fare in winter. There are few, if any, reports of dogs freezing to death. Like most, our dog loves the snow, submarining through it and bounding out into the air like a dolphin. The only thing he likes better than a day of cross-country skiing through the Russian countryside is to encounter a herd of goats that he can round up and take to wherever he decides must be home.

When summer arrived last year, some homeless women, sometimes accompanied by a small boy, moved into our big local park. They lived by begging from cars at the intersection. One day, they called over our dog, a strange-looking descendant of a couple of Australian herding breeds, and fed him biscuit after biscuit from their small stash of food as we chatted. They bragged that they had a dog of their own, too.

The next day, sure enough, Buster and I loped by on our early morning run, and a pinto-colored terrier was sleeping with them on their blanket on the grass. A couple days later, after a bomb had exploded on a Moscow trolley, the Moscow mayor announced a crackdown on the usual suspects: Vagrants, that is. People without official Moscow residency permits would be rounded up and expelled. The women disappeared, the dog with them. Together or making their own separate ways, who knows?

* The original, extended version of this essay is available on the electronic edition of the Monitor at:

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