One night in Moscow a number of years ago, I exited a metro station to find myself pounced on by four wild dogs. Unfortunately (for you, dear reader) the rest of the story isn’t as good as the beginning. There was a lot of flailing and me yelling "sobaka!" Obviously, one should always try to speak to crazed feral dogs in their native language, but I had only taken one year of Russian at the time and the word for "dog" is the only one that came to mind at that moment, so I was just yelling "dog" at a dog. A group of homeless men sitting nearby found it hilarious. Eventually the dogs left me alone with only a small scratch and no bites. It could’ve been worse, but it wasn’t the high point of my summer.
I was reminded of that night at Tsvetnoy Bulvar this week by all the attention being focused on the stray dogs of Sochi. One apparently wandered onto the cross-country ski course during trial runs today, showing it was at least smart enough to avoid the biathlon. Hundreds of strays have apparently been killed around the Sochi area in the lead-up to the games, sparking complaints by animal rights groups and a campaign backed by oligarch Oleg Deripaska to move them to a shelter.
Local animal rights groups say many of the strays are pets who were abandoned by families whose homes were demolished to build Olympic venues. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, blames the problem on construction workers building the venues who fed the dogs.
But stray dogs are hardly unusual in Russia. There are an estimated 35,000 just in Moscow, about one for every 300 people. Russia’s not unique in this regard—the World Health Organization estimates the global stray population at about 200 million—but Russian dogs seem to have a bit more cultural cachet than most, or at least get more press. For instance, one of the best-known satirical novels of the Soviet era—Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog—is narrated by a stray who takes on human form after being transplanted with human glands.
Recently, a group of Moscow strays who have learned to use the city’s metro system have become internationally famous.
Then there’s the odd case of Malchik, a black stray who made his home in the Mendeleyevskaya metro station, who was stabbed to death a few years ago by a fashion model after he barked at her Staffordshire terrier. A bronze statue of Malchik, which means "boy," was erected in the station in his honor.
Official estimates in 2010 put the number of people attacked by dogs in Moscow at 20,000. In the Soviet era, authorities used to simply kill them, but today—officially at least—they’re supposed to be neutered or spayed and placed in shelters. A large part of the problem is apparently that neutering remains uncommon among Russian pet owners.
I certainly don’t want to stereotype all Russian strays—the vast majority are harmless, and I’ve known some adopted ones who were lovely—but based on my limited experience I’d say it’s a good idea to give them a wide berth on the streets.
Also, for what it’s worth, if you are actually threatened by a dog, the Humane Society says you should do basically the opposite of what I did.
Update, Feb. 6: And how could I forget to mention pioneering cosmonaut Laika, the most famous Russian stray of them all.