Voices: Czar

by James McKinnon ’07

June 15, 2007

If you overlooked the unique dress code, the scene could have been pulled right out of any major financial center in the United States. That is, until you noticed the pack of feral dogs just beside the entrance.

When the temperature reaches 40 degrees below zero, the traditional distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit becomes irrelevant. This is the point where the two scales coincide—when taking off one’s gloves to answer a cell phone becomes a dance with frostbite.

I found myself in these conditions nearly a year ago when I stumbled through the frozen streets and struggled to keep warm on my way to my first day of class in Moscow, Russia.

I soon realized that I would have to adjust to a lot more than the weather.

That first day, shivering with cold and nervous about getting lost, I saw something that crystallized this realization for me.

About a quarter of the way along my route was a bank. It certainly looked like a bank at any rate—I couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet, so its signs were useless to me. It did have a modern lobby on the other side of a revolving door that discharged lines of Russians wearing the uniform of the young Muscovite professional—expensive slacks and a huge, fur-lined parka. The women wore high-heeled boots (one of the great mysteries of Russia is how the women manage to walk on four-inch heels even though the ground is murderously slick) while the men wore pointy, elf-like dress shoes (a style that could only be fashionable in Europe). If you overlooked the unique dress code, the scene could have been pulled right out of any major financial center in the United States. That is, until you noticed the pack of feral dogs just beside the entrance.

It was obvious—and not just because they weren’t wearing collars—that the dogs were wild. Imagine a German shepherd mixed with a wolf—gray, shaggy fur over a large, muscular body that supported an angular skull with frosty blue eyes. Most of them were lounging on a large mound of snow, while two others were locked in a vicious brawl at the base of the mound. The rest of the pack seemed oblivious to the yelps and growls of the two combatants and everything else, not even lifting their heads to acknowledge the occasional passerby that brazenly walked in their midst.

The sidewalk forced me to pass closer than I would have liked to this pack of urban wolves, but I hoped that they would extend the same indifference toward me that they showed the rest of the foot-traffic. For the most part they did, except for the largest one, who was lying at the top of the mound. As I came close, he raised his head, focused his icy blue eyes on me, and bared his teeth. That was unsettling, but nothing compared to the growl that followed. It wasn’t the ordinary loud growl that builds up to a bark. This was a low, steady growl, so quiet that it was as if the dog didn’t want anyone else to hear the message that was meant exclusively for me.

I couldn’t bring myself to turn my back on him until I had made it around the corner. He never relaxed his lurid half-smile, and his pale eyes never left me; he even ignored the people that were stepping over him and his comrades. It was clear that I was a foreigner in a strange land, and he had singled me out.

I was forced to face this beast every day as I went to class. He was always lying at the top of his mound. Some days he would be asleep and I would pass without harassment. Most days he saw me, and he would never fail to show his teeth and emit his menacing growl.

One day, I was walking back from class with a half-eaten chicken wrap that I had just bought from a street vendor. As I passed the pack, my old friend gave me his traditional greeting. I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I tossed what was left on my wrap toward the dogs, where it was quickly devoured. He never made a move toward my offering. But he relaxed his snarl, stopped growling, and put his head down. From that day forward, I always came with a meal for his pack. In return, he let me pass in peace. I like to think that I even saw his tail wag at my approach once.

Eventually, winter released its grip on the city and temperatures rose above one degree Celsius (the distinction had regained its importance). In high spirits I set off to class with my jacket unzipped and my hat at home. I stopped at a food stand for breakfast and a snack for my comrades at the bank. But the dogs were nowhere to be found.

At the university, I ran into one of my American friends who told me that the Russian police had rounded up and killed all of the stray dogs in the city the previous evening. As foreigners, we were becoming accustomed to being bewildered by Russian officials, so we cracked a few jokes and went on our way. I never let on how much I had grown to look forward to seeing that pack every morning, especially the leader upon the mound.

Over the next week, the snow melted and I watched as the pack’s mound shrank out of existence, leaving nothing but a pile of garbage that the snow had concealed.


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