Monday, May 11, 2009

My Faithful Dog Sharik by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When the afternoon's work was over, and I returned to the prison in the evening, weary and exhausted, a terrible feeling of anguish once again overcame me. ' How many thousands of days like this one still lie ahead of me', I thought, 'all of them like this one, all of them the same'. When it was already getting dark, I was wandering silently and alone behind the barracks, following the line of the prison fence. Suddenly, I saw our dog Sharik running towards me.

Sharik was our prison mascot, just as there are regimental mascots, battery and squadron mascots. The dog lived in the prison longer than anyone could remember, belonged to no one, considered everyone his owner and was fed on scraps from the kitchen. He was quite a large dog, black with white spots, a mongrel, not very old, with intelligent eyes and a fluffy tail. No one ever fondled him or paid him the slightest attention. From my first day, I stroked him and gave him bread out of my hand. When I stroked him he would stand quietly and look at me affectionately, gently wagging his tail as a sign of pleasure.

Now, not having seen me, the first person to fondle him in several years, for a long time, he had been running around looking for me among all the other convicts, and finding me behind the barracks came rushing towards me with a yelp of joy.

I don't know what came over me, but I rushed forwards and kissed him, throwing my arms around his head; in one running leap he placed his forepaws on my shoulders and began to lick my face. 'So this is the friend that has been sent to me by fate', I thought, and every time I returned from work during those early sombre days, the first thing I did, before going anywhere else, was to hurry behind the barracks with Sharik jumping up in front of me, yelping with delight, embrace his head and kiss it again and again, while a sweet yet agonizing bitter sensation gnawed at my heart. And I remember that I would derive great satisfaction from the thought- as though taking pride in my own agony of spirit- that there was in the whole world left to me only one creature that loved me, that was devoted to me, my friend, my only friend- my faithful dog Sharik.

-The House of the Dead- (1860)


  1. The prison was the infamous Krepost ("fortress" in Russian) which was still operating in 1914 when Paul Wittgenstein was interred there as an Austrian P.O.W: "the big mousetrap"- a place of utmost horror.

    Even in Siberia the Krepost of Omsk was considered unique. It consisted of several low wooden and brick shacks and an exercise yard surrounded by a twenty-one foot wooden palisade fence with six watchtowers for armed guards. Each sack was a single narrow, leaking, unheated room: "a dung-shack, an ice hole, a place to catch typhoid and other maladies, an establishment for lice."Originally built for 300, 1,000 were interred there during the war. The men lay side by side closely pressed against each other in tiered rows of bunks, many sleeping on the bare asphalt floors. The air, a repellent stink, was thick enough to cut. Water dripped continuosly from the ceilings.The food was disgusting, the daily meat ration being sold by the guards and substituted with scrag ends, boiled head, ear or hooves. Even the tea was made with water dragged from the exact spot where all the town's sewage discharged into the river. For lavoritories the prisoners had to make do with holes in the ground, a great inconvenience for the many amputees in the prison at the time.

    In Wittgenstein's time the commandant, conscious of his social inferiority to the educated prisoners under his charge, issued pointless and sadistic commands purely to assert his power over them. He addressed them all as "German swine", had them stripped and horsewhipped in front of him, constantly searched, forced to run the gauntlet of Cossack knouts for minor offenses.

    At the height of the typhus epidemic in 1915 between 20 and 30 prisoners died every day.

  2. Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!- we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?

    William James, "On a Certain Bindness in Human Beings"