Dacha Life Goes to the Dogs

Out in my old peaceful village, the times they are a changin'. There's a 24-hour bar that belts out music day and night said to be controlled by the local, administration-based mafia. There's a big new shop being built that is under the "roof," people say, of the Moscow Chechens. Plots in the forest have been sold off illegally to newcomers, and the trees around the village are coming down.

Top-of-the-line Mercedes are everywhere on the roads today, in place of the battered old Ladas of the past. Brand new dachas are mushrooming. And not long ago one of the laborers from Belarus, hired to work on them, was accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl. "The workers are without a woman and far from home," said a villager recently, as if the killing was simply an inevitable symptom of the current moral climate. "What do you expect?"

It's in the local dogs, though, that I can see today the clearest break with the past. In the old days, the dachniki, or dacha dwellers, had, well, if not exactly pooches -- Russians tend to favor pure-bred dogs -- at least a wide variety of Labradors, poodles, Airedales, retrievers, and collies, dogs like that. These days, though, they're heavily into guard dogs, all muscle and fang and threat. And the result is that neighborly encounters in and around the village can all too abruptly escalate into all-out war.

Take my friend V., for instance. Now, V.'s family has been in the village for three generations or more. And not long ago his dog, a collie-German Shepherd cross that the villagers all knew, was shot out of hand when he pursued a would-be girlfriend into the grounds of the fancy local sanatorium. The sanatorium, I should say, used to belong to the Council of Ministers, but has long since been privatized and is now a tidy little earner.

Anyway, V. told this story to a Moscow newspaper, and it was duly reported. At which point the guards in question actually called up and challenged the staff of the newspaper to a duel, a shootout. (I kid you not.) The staff, after a bit of panicked doddering, said: "Right. Come over to the building" at such-and-such a time -- having made sure that the newspaper's own bodyguard would be on hand. The sanatorium guards, however, never showed up.

Soon after this brouhaha, my friend V. got another dog, a bitch, to avoid the consequences of his previous dog's wanderlust. But he hadn't reckoned on the wiseguys who by that time had moved into a house two doors away from him -- and had brought dog-trouble of their own: a slathering menace that tended to attack any and all passers-by.

It started by attacking the Gazprom executive who had rented the house in between, on the property of a famous academician's family. The Gazprom executive immediately told the wiseguys to chain the dog up, and then, when they refused and told him where to take himself, he said: "Either you chain that dog up, or you're soon gonna be every bit as dead as it'll be." (You don't mess with Gazprom, "the roof," as somebody once called it, "of all roofs.")

Anyway, shortly afterward. V. took his family off for a walk past the wiseguys' house, where they were drunkenly gathering around a barbecue. (Earlier, they'd been asked to turn the music down by a neighbor, whom they'd then truculently confronted, demanding to know whether he was making a "claim" -- the technical gangland term for the opening-up of a dispute.) As soon as it saw V.'s bitch, the wiseguy's dog attacked it. Mayhem: slathering, snarling, rearing, teeth bared; the lot. Finally, V. managed to separate them. But then he was faced with a furious gangster's moll. "If your dog attacks our dog ever again," she said "we'll simply shoot it on sight!"

Cutting short his walk, unable to believe his ears, V. soon went into a huddle with the young Gazprom executive, who immediately said he'd take care of the matter. How he proposes to do so is not yet clear. But according to V., he plainly has resources -- huge resources, even if he has only a tiny portion of Gazprom's holdings -- including the weaponry he presumably keeps, like a lot a people of in the village these days, about his person.

Dog days, then; dog-wars in the village today. It seems to have changed out of all recognition since the days I lived there. The only plus V. can think of is that robberies of the dachas have almost completely dropped off this winter, and the dachniki are eternally grateful. The truth is, of course, that there are just too many killer dogs about in the village -- not to mention guys and wiseguys -- for the risk to be any longer worth taking.