The Dog of St. Petersburg

Fall set in soon after I arrived, and the colors of St. Petersburg had begun to change. I decided to walk the two miles to the Summer Gardens, built by Peter the Great in 1704 and lined with Italian sculptures from the 17th and 18th century. I left the hostel and merged onto the sidewalks of Revolution Street. I turned west onto the famed Nevskiy Prospekt, pausing near a man standing on a power box, playing his trumpet. He began to play Katyusha, a WWII love song, as a small crowd sang the lyrics. I hummed along, thinking back to when our tough old Kazak professor required that we memorize this song in our very first Russian language class exactly two years prior.

I turning north a few blocks later, and the roar of Nevskiy began to fade, reduced to only an occasional passerby emerging from the dotted shops and cafes. The few stores gave way to a long stretch of residential buildings and a median walkway lined with flowers. I crossed over to the walkway and slowed my pace, taking in this rare pocket of silence in a city of nine million.

My distant gaze was broken when I happened upon a small, dirty gray clump of life. It was a little dog, curled up in a strange, tortured posture, awake but not alert. I quickly realized this dog was dying. It was shutting down, drooling on itself, barely conscious. I wondered why. The weather in Petersburg had been tolerable for the entire summer, even during the night. And in such a vast city, there was always food waste to rummage through and plenty of water from the canals.

Regardless, it was evident that the dog’s health had been deteriorating for a long time. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t malnourished. It was simply fading. But, it was fighting nonetheless. It was sitting, trying to hold its head up. Evidently its conscious awareness had collapsed to a point that forced its instincts to try to maintain some form of defensive vigilance. It hadn’t given up, but there was no hope. I didn’t know when it would die. Maybe the next day or the next month.

I stared at that dog for a long while, completely forgetting about the beautiful Petersburg behind me. Continuing on, I entered a narrow part of the street, stepping into a different realm of the city. My perception changed. I began to notice the real Russia. The people’s Russia. I saw the prostitutes, faces washed with despair. I saw the grandmothers, slumped over, rocking back and forth as they continuously prayed in hopes that a less suffering passerby would drop a few Rubles into their sole metal cup. The narrow corridor opened, revealing a small, fancy restaurant on the left side, tucked underneath a large plaque. My vocabulary lacking, I understood only one phrase in the paragraphs worth of text: “Glory to the great Soviet people!”

Glory. I read that word aloud over and over again. I recognized it more from sound than from sight. I had heard it many times before, from the recent conflict dispatches in Ukraine to the Georgians who fought alongside us in Iraq. The strength provided to the people from that glory was fading, such as a similar strength was fading in that dog. The slightly overt turmoil perpetuating in Russia was embodied and wholly evident in that dog. A good friend of mine and native of Petersburg once told me, “I want to feel safe in my country, but now I do not. Faith in the future . . . there is none.”

I maintain some hope for the individual in Russia. I’m always optimistic for those who strive to withdraw from their country’s anguish. But no amount of hope or strength can hide the decaying marrow of their society. A culture with such a proud tradition shouldn’t suffer a slow and painful death.