Every winter, four or five dogs die weekly of cold or starvation in Moscow. A homeless dog that’s not rounded up and brought to a pound has roughly six months to live, if it’s lucky. This may explain the prescient gaze that stray dogs direct at humans who make eye contact with them: a look that says Yes, I’m thinking about death, and so are you.
Stray dogs in Moscow evoke pity, especially when they sprawl on the snow, but you don’t want to try petting them. They may snap at you. Often they navigate the streets in little packs, shoulder to shoulder. You round a corner and suddenly find yourself in a cluster of lean, lupine dogs; after they part to let you pass, they reconvene and continue trotting in tight formation, like a well-trained brigade.
Drunks in this city are not so purposive. In fact, they exude deliberate purposelessness, as if getting drunk were a defiant obliterating of aims and goals, of progress and development. In winter, drunks don’t shiver. Once they move past the aggressive or truculent behaviors, the sentimental singing, the slurring, and the sluggishness, they become wholly self-annulling. The bitter cold claims whatever physical vitalities they possess. They don’t even try to fight back; they release themselves, surrendering to abjectness.
Convenient targets of scorn, Moscow’s drunks are actually difficult to deride. That’s because they enact the secret desire of every Muscovite to pack it in—to check out. Their bodies give off the intimate scent of neglect, a scent that saturates this city. Moscow reeks of it, even in wintertime. Each morning, the same thing: you step out, inhale, and carry on.
Moscow’s multiple modes of public transportation form a fragile web that is continually imperiled by weather, politics, or caprice. Rapid substitutions and interventions are necessary to maintain this web. When a tram line’s power is knocked out in winter (which frequently happens after highly corrosive salts, applied to the city’s streets to melt ice, eat through cabling as well), old trolley buses are pressed into service. These buses are given a temporary route number and a temporary driver. No one likes using them, not only because they’re always more crowded than the trams they replace but also because they’re inherently unreliable.
The bus that substitutes for the number 27 tram, which runs from Savyolovsky train station past Dinamo Stadium and along March 8th Street, is assigned the number 0. One brisk December afternoon, the double doors of the 0 bus swing open at the Praga Cinema stop, admitting a very drunk man who is hoisted up the steps by two of his mates. They deposit him in a seat just opposite the doors, then hop off the bus.
The drunk man lists precariously as the 0 bus picks up speed and caroms around the corner onto March 8th Street. The driver is pushing this vehicle much faster than it normally goes; even seasoned babushkas tighten their holds on their plastic bags. Then—between stops, and without warning or announcement—the driver brakes hard, pulls over, opens all the doors of the bus, climbs down the front steps, and walks away.
His act—is it rebellion, or desertion?—silences all talk. Wordlessly, the riders watch his figure recede. They are contemplating the weight of the bags they must carry, their distance from home, the rubles in their pockets. All at once, their fatigue becomes palpable. Physical immobility is a relief.
The drunk man looks around foggily. When he finally realizes that the 0 bus has stopped, he stands up, totters over to the narrow steps that lead down to a snow covered sidewalk, and gathers his strength for his departure. Apparently forgetting that he must, in fact, descend those steps, he hurls himself outward, arms and head thrust forward like a skydiver’s. He lands face- and torso-first in the snow, fully spread-eagled.
His fellow passengers observe his exit without comment. One by one they descend, sidestep his inert body, and make their ways onward. If the man were a dog, the riders might cluck their tongues at him, sympathetically urging him to get up and get going. He’s a drunk, though, so everyone looks away. Nobody is surprised when vodka meets yearning, self-loathing, or rage. It’s old hat, this encounter.
Eventually, the drunk manages to stand up and stagger off. The imprint of his body remains. Shortly thereafter, a dog arrives, lies down, and curls up in it.
In the late evening, dog-owning Muscovites bundle up for the last walk before bedtime. Hat, gloves, boots, scarves—all must be donned once more. The leash is hooked onto the eager dog’s collar; the foul-smelling elevator takes dog and master down to the poorly lit foyer, whence they emerge into moonlight and onto snow, crunchy underfoot.
They head for someplace quiet. A park is best, of course, but even a little dvor, or courtyard, suffices—someplace as calm as can be found in a city not known for its capacity to soothe. The owner chats softly to his companion, reprimanding or praising or exhorting. The dog’s role, especially at this hour, is to give the man something other than his own unruly doubts and desires to supervise.
The dog strains at the leash, pursuing wayward scents. Off the main avenues is darkness. The owner walks flat-footed, peering downward, keeping his balance in case of a sudden encounter with an icy patch. The dog pulls him forward impatiently: These walks are never long enough! We never go far enough!
At a small cluster of kiosks selling snacks and booze, a few drinkers lean against rickety tables. Their ears and noses and fingers are red. They’ve stopped trying to untangle the mess of the day. None of it— Yeltsin, Chechnya, bandits, foreigners, capitalism, communism, loss of work, irritable wife, ailing parents, strident kids—upheaval, upheaval!— makes any sense. Never has, never will. Best thing’s to tell tales or jokes, to laugh. And to drink.
A lone dog circles the perimeter, waiting for someone to toss a bit of food, some bread or the remains of some shashlik. One of the drunks sees the dog and calls to it, beckoning. Shyly, uncertainly, it limps over. The drunk, swaying as he leans down, offers the dog a swig of beer, which it refuses, and a bone, which it takes. Food in mouth, it stands next to its benefactor, watching the approach of the man and dog who have come this way for their evening stroll.
The two pairs—dog and master, drunk and stray—recognize each
other in silence, in the darkness. But isn’t that—why, yes, that’s me!
Martha Cooley is the author of two novels—The Archivist, a national bestseller published in a dozen foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons—and a memoir, Guesswork. She co-translated Antonio Tabucchi’s Time Ages in a Hurry and the poetry of Giampiero Neri and Loris Jacopo Bononi. Her short fiction, essays, and co-translations have appeared in A Public Space, The Common, AGNI, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. She is professor of English at Adelphi University. (updated 9/2019)