Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Alexei Bayer explains that the Putin regime has literally gone to the dogs:
What surprised me about Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning is how many of my American friends in New York, generally so ignorant of Russia, have taken the trouble to learn about the case. Of course, it is probably the first nuclear terrorist act in history. But I’ve noticed greater awareness of other murky things going on in Russia, as well, such as the murders of maverick journalists. A lot more attention is being paid by the public to President Vladimir Putin’s bellicose pronouncements and Russia’s squabbles with its neighbors.
I’ve been getting calls from people I haven’t heard from in years, wanting to know, in essence, what’s going on in Russia. I find that Russia’s political reality can be best understood through works of Russian fiction. Today’s Russia, for instance, calls to mind “Faithful Ruslan,” a novella by dissident writer Georgy Vladimov.
Written more than 40 years ago and circulated clandestinely in the Soviet Union, it is a story of a Great Terror labor camp told from a guard dog’s viewpoint. Ruslan, a smart, ferocious German shepherd, finds himself at loose ends after Stalin’s death, when the gates of the camp are thrown open and the prisoners are set free. Naturally, Ruslan hates the new world, where people can do whatever they want and go anywhere they please. He pines away for the time of blind obedience and recalls fondly the power he used to have over the inmates.
The book ends with the arrival of a party of construction workers. As they walk from the train station, former guard dogs spontaneously gather and begin to escort them. The workers turn upon the dogs once they realize that they are being formed into a column, and Ruslan is killed. A similar incident, supposedly, did take place in the mid-1950s on the site of a former labor camp. Writing at the start of Brezhnev’s era, Vladimov no doubt meant his book as a warning against the restoration of Stalinism. The novella — and especially its prophetic ending — works wonderfully, however as an allegory for Putin’s Russia.
The Soviet system was cruel, murderous and misguided, but it was based on an ideology and, however vile the crimes it committed, everything was done in the name of that ideology and followed an internal logic. The Communist Party gave the marching orders and employed the state security apparatus to make sure everybody marched. Since Putin came to power, his former colleagues from the security services — those who, to use the Russian expression, wore the epaulets — have come out on top. They have appropriated the state and have renationalized lucrative resource industries for their own benefit and profit. They have re-introduced many of the features of the old Soviet Union — from the tightly controlled media to a poor man’s version of the Communist Party, in the form of United Russia. The rhetoric and the pervasive spy mania of the Soviet era are back, and even the Young Pioneers are being revived.
What the system lacks is a bona fide ideology at its core. The nation is being gradually formed into a column, but in the manner you would imagine a pack of guard dogs going about this task — all form but no content. This explains cruel, senseless acts like the botched hostage rescues at Dubrovka and in Beslan. Or Litvinenko’s grotesque murder. Or Russia’s foreign policy, which brings to mind Ruslan snarling at Kiev or Tallinn rather than civilized diplomacy.
Vladimov died in 2003, just as the arrest of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky marked the end of the 1990s’ liberalization. It would have been interesting if he could have extended “Faithful Ruslan” along the lines of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” — how the dogs would have handled the situation had they overpowered the workers and locked them up in the barracks. I suspect it would have looked much like Putin’s vertical of power.