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My Russian Dog

Stories of a dog’s life in Leningrad
By Mikhail Sonkin, March 2021, Updated June 2021
russian dog

The First Acquaintance

Somewhere in the middle of a snowy, frosty Leningrad winter, in the evening, the apartment bell rang. I opened the door and found Galina, my wife, on the threshold, holding a dog in her arms, along with two bags full of food. Without a shadow of doubt or hesitation, the dog jumped down from Galina’s arms, ran quickly through all the rooms, its claws tapping on the parquet floor and, happily waving its stump of a tail, returned to the hallway with a tennis ball clenched in its teeth. I carefully removed the ball from its mouth and threw it into the living room. Slipping on the floor, the dog rushed after the ball and in a few seconds, was already standing in front of me offering to continue the game.

 The long, weighty ears; black coat with white spots; and short tail helped me identify the breed: an English Spaniel. A quick follow-up examination established the gender as well. As it was customary to say in Russia, it was a girl.

Later, as she undressed, Galina told the story of the “acquisition.” On her way home from work, she decided to stop by the bookstore on Courage Square. As she went inside, she noticed the dog huddled in the corner of the waiting room. “Comrades, whose dog is this?” she asked the customers. No one responded, but the saleswoman said that the dog had been hanging around for a long time, and everyone was tired of it.

Galina returned to the dog, squatted down in front of it and asked if it would like to go with her. The dog raised its head, raised itself and pressed itself against her shoulder. Galina (unexpectedly for herself), took the dog in her arms and went to the bus stop. With difficulty, she entered the bus, which was packed as usual at that hour, and sat down in the seat offered to her.


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The dog, clinging closely to her, responded with an unfriendly growl to all attempts to lower her to the floor. So, she stayed in Galina’s arms until my tired wife reached our apartment.

All our further attempts to find its owners by making a call to the Society of Hunters did not give any results.

First Walk

After the dog had eaten and had some water, of course, she had to be walked. We had already realized that there was nothing to fear from her, but it was risky to go out without a leash, and we were also worried that she might run away and die. Galina found a long strap, made a sort of collar out of a strip of cloth, then the dog and I, a new dog owner, went for a walk.

Across the street from our house was a huge wasteland, big enough for walking all the dogs of Leningrad. That’s where we went. We crossed the street, and the dog began to fulfill natural needs. She did not pull me by the leash, and I immediately felt superior compared to other owners, who pretended that stumbling after pets who were madly rushing somewhere in the distance was the way it should be.

After a while, I was suddenly horrified to find that I was holding a strap in my hand that was not attached to anything! The collar had become untied and my dog was running around quietly, periodically glancing at me, as if checking whether I was here or gone. Her decent behavior reassured me, and I decided not to try to attach a collar again, especially since I did not know how to address her. We slowly made our way back to the street, which was fairly busy with cars. The dog walked beside me.

At the edge of the road, I said the only thing I could think of: “Stop!” To my surprise, she did. Waiting for a safe moment, I shouted, “Go!” and the two of us ran across the street. I breathed a sigh of relief and realized that we would have no problems with this dog. When we got home, after scurrying around in the hallway, she brought me the first slipper she saw. It became clear that we had a new tenant.

Naming the Dog

Attempts to find out her real name, saying nicknames we know and watching her reaction, did not have a positive result. There was only one thing left: to come up with a new, original, unique name for her. The names suggested during the discussion were immediately rejected. We were at a dead end when I remembered the children’s book that the artist Charuschin had written and drawn. The book was dedicated to an English Spaniel, whose name I have forgotten.

We decided to name the dog Chara, in honor of the artist. This was her official, so to speak, passport name, which was also used for orders or in case of “bad” behavior. In the family environment, we called her affectionately Charuscha. She accepted her new name easily, without resistance, and within a few days, would immediately come running to the call. To our surprise, much later, we learned that this is a fairly well-known dog name, although I am sure that no one associated it, as we did, with the name of the artist.

Chara’s Place

We came to the conclusion that the best sleeping place for Chara was under the table in the kitchen. Galina sewed a small mattress, which was solemnly placed in the designated place in the presence of Chara. She was asked to lie down, which she immediately did. Satisfied with the agreement reached, we went about our business. But as soon as we left the kitchen, Chara followed us. Attempts to send her back did nothing. In response, she cheerfully waved her tail and pretended that she did not understand human language well.

There were only two occasions when she would go to her “place”: when food was being prepared and when we were sitting down to eat. She would also go there when I was angry at her unseemly behavior and shouted, “Place!!” Looking at me with sad, disapproving eyes, she would lower her head and slowly trudge to the kitchen, where, with a deep, heart-felt sigh, she would literally fall on her bedding. I don’t think she spent more than five minutes there. Soon, she was rolling merrily into the living room, pretending to be an innocent dog slandered by an over-fastidious owner.

At the same time, if in her presence we tried to remove the bedding from under the table, she grabbed it with her teeth, dragged it back and growled menacingly. Her concept of private property was well developed. At night, if we left the bedroom door open, Chara would sleep on the floor at our feet. But on the weekend, as soon as I got up and went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, she immediately climbed on the bed, stretching out next to Galina.

What Chara did in our absence and where she rested, we did not know exactly, but we definitely suspected that it involved the couch. Still, every time we opened the door, we found her in the hallway with a slipper in her mouth.


I do not know how it is now, but then in the Soviet Union, there was no dog food, so dogs ate what their owners ate. Chara was no exception. All the scraps and leftovers went into her bowl. However, as soon as we sat down to dinner, Chara would sit down in front of the table and, holding her breath and sometimes whining a little, would begin to hypnotize us with her pleading eyes. It was not easy to endure this moral torture, and pieces of food made mysterious flights right into her mouth or into the bowl. However, it was impossible to satisfy her hunger; in a moment, she was sitting in the same place, staring at another member of the family with the same desperate gaze, waiting for a handout.

Like all dogs, she was partial to sweets. And also like all dogs, Chara had a wonderful nose. As soon as Galina started preparing to bake something sweet in the kitchen, Chara was there, ready to pick up a piece of raw dough or a grain of sugar. Chara, who could hold a piece of meat on her nose until she was allowed to eat it, completely lost her mind and self-esteem when it came to sweets.

She would lick a bowl of leftover ice cream endlessly. Once, by mistake, we left her alone in the apartment with a plate of cookies on the coffee table. When we returned home, we found the plate empty, and Chara, eyes full of both guilt and reproach, under the table. It was simply impossible to scold this repentant creature.

She also helped with the purchase of products and goods. Since few people remained indifferent to the charms of Charuscha, after a long time standing in long queues, she sometimes got an extra dozen eggs, an additional kilogram of tangerines, or two to three rolls of toilet paper.

Sense of Smell

It is clear that dogs and humans have different understandings about what makes a pleasant smell. However, what I once observed in Chara was beyond the bounds of reason from a human point of view. During one of our walks, Chara ran quite far away from me and, sniffing at something, suddenly lay down on her back and began to roll on the ground, carefully rubbing something into her fur. When I finally reached her, it was too late. She reeked of a sickening, disgusting smell that certainly gave her great pleasure. It took me half an hour and a few shampoos and soaps to clean her up. The poor dog stood dejectedly in the bath, mourning the loss of this wonderful smell with each wash.

One winter, Galina took Chara with her to the store. On the way home, as she cleared the snow from Chara’s ears, she lost her keys. The loss happened in front of the door to the apartment. Galina went back, looking carefully at the sides of the path. Suddenly, Chara ran forward, stopped and began to bark. When Galina came up to her, she saw the keys lying on the snow.

Another “smell” story: Returning home after work, Galina threw her doctor’s robe into a bag of dirty laundry. Soon, we saw Chara pacing up and down the corridor, clearly worried. The reason for her excitement remained unclear to us until Galina found a piece of codeine wrapping paper in the pocket of her robe.

Winter Walks

We lived just a stone’s throw from Sosnovka, a large, green, unkempt area that bore the name of a park. In winter, hundreds of skiers rushed there to recharge their batteries and breathe the fresh, frosty air. We did the same thing. And there is where we took our first winter walk with Chara.

At first, she ran so close to us that we were afraid we would hit her with our ski poles. Then she grew bolder and began to run from front to back, periodically sinking into deep snow. Before long, her ears were covered with snow and, becoming even longer, dragged in the snow. It’s hard to say if she enjoyed the run, but soon, she was sitting down and doing something with her paws. It turned out that the snow had formed small balls on her paws, making it difficult for her to run and possibly causing pain. Chara used her teeth to remove the snowballs from her paws, then kept running until she had to stop and repeat the procedure. After that, we took her with us only when it was cold enough for the snow to be non-sticky.

Chara and the Dogs

To our surprise, Chara generally ignored the other dogs, as well as their owners. It was as if only we existed, and everything else was a distraction. Perhaps the fear of being lost again caused her to be near us all the time, constantly checking our presence. In any case, I never saw her running to another dog to meet.

Usually, it was the opposite, and after the usual ritual of sniffing, Chara immediately lost all interest in the stranger. However, there were two exceptions. Chara adored Collies and as soon as they appeared, she ran happily to them, performed some strange pirouettes, passed under their bellies, and in every possible way showed her love and affection. Oddly enough, the Collies responded in kind. Ancient family ties?

But there was another breed of dog that Chara was terrified of. One day, during a routine walk on the sidewalk, she suddenly, without permission, turned and ran across the street to the other side. Attempts to stop her failed, and I ran after her. From the other side of the road, I turned and saw a pair of shaggy brown Chow Chows. Everyone knows these friendly dogs. What it was about them that caused Chara’s indescribable fear remained unknown.

Life in Chudovo

Galina’s mother decided to move out of Essentuki, a famous city in the south of Russia, closer to us. But she was only able to buy a dacha (country residence) in the small city of Chudovo, the Novgorod region, three hours from Leningrad. It wasn’t exactly a house—it was a wreck, but it was cheap. The next year, we put up a better house and the old one was dismantled. We took up agriculture to produce vegetables, which helped us in difficult years.

Summer came and we decided to take Chara to Chudovo, where she would be more at ease and my mother-in-law would not be bored. The question immediately arose: How do we take her to the station? After all, dogs were not allowed in the subway, and the tram would take a very long time. By this time, we had realized that Chara was remarkably silent. She only barked at the apartment bell, and after the door opened, she immediately dragged a slipper to anyone who entered. So, we decided to use her silence.

Galina sewed a large, zippered bag; I cut out a piece of plywood for the bottom; and we started training. In fact, only one session was needed. Chara calmly stepped into the bag, and I zipped it up, slung it over my shoulder and walked through the rooms. There was no sound from the bag, no sigh. As if nothing had happened, Chara then got out of the bag, looking in surprise at our happy faces.

Then came the day of our first trip to Chudovo with Chara. As always, I began to pack my backpack. Chara suddenly began to fuss. Apparently, she was familiar with the backpack from the old owners, and the appearance of it immediately reminded her of trips to the country, out of town or hunting. At any rate, she was ready. I put on her collar, put on a leash, put on my backpack, and we set off.

We took the bus to the metro. Chara got into her bag, and I quickly went to the escalator, opening the zipper just a little to let her breathe and reward her with a couple of cookies. In the subway car, I put my bag on the floor and let Chara stick her head out completely. She looked around with pleasure, and the passengers looked at her with understanding and smiles. The exit from the metro was also successful, and then we were on the train.

At the dacha, Chara got used to the place very quickly. For some reason, she decided that the entire area inside the fence was a clean zone and for all of her affairs, large and small, she asked for the gate. She also learned to walk only between the vegetable beds, although when she was chasing sparrows, she sometimes forgot about the rules.

Soon I realized that the dog’s soul is deep, that in addition to the usual attachment to a person, they also have feelings that are similar to ours. Foolishly, I decided to build a hut for Chara so she would spend more time outside and not run back and forth in the house with dirty paws. It took half a day to build, and half a minute to settle in. Chara reluctantly went into the hut at my insistence, twirled around and walked out with a show of offended dignity. She never entered it again. A year later, I dismantled the hut for firewood.

Kuzya and Chara

Valera, Galina’s brother, brought his mother a tiny red kitten, which she named Kuzya. The next day, Galina, Chara and I arrived at the dacha. When we entered the house, Chara found Kuzya on her bed. Without hesitation, she picked up her bedding with her teeth and dragged it into another room, where she lay down triumphantly on it. Chara guarded the bed all day. However, the next morning, we found Kuzya sleeping quietly under Chara’s ear.

The next time we arrived in Chudovo with Chara, Kuzya was grown up, and when he saw the dog, he hissed and arched his back. It took some time until Kuzya got used to Chara. I can’t say that they were friends, but somehow, they supported “peaceful coexistence.” By the way, Chara didn’t have a bad habit of chasing cats. When Chara was already seriously ill, and we were leaving the dacha for Leningrad, she went up to Kuzya and licked him. As my mother-in-law used to say, “She said goodbye.”

Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherhood

Chara came into heat at the dacha. In the city, where she only went out for a walk, we had no problems. In the country, it was impossible to keep her at home, because she was very sexually preoccupied.

Naturally, all the non-chained monstrous males got into the habit of visiting us. Large, medium and small; old, mature and teenagers: they organized a round-the-clock siege of our site, which, unfortunately, was not completely fenced. Some dogs could be easily driven away, but others chose the tactic of long-term waiting, hiding in the bushes and the ditch. Sometimes, only the wary prick of their ears betrayed their presence.

The male who was the most persistent did get his way. In the time it took for us to lose sight of Chara for a few minutes, the “event” was over. In addition to pregnancy, she also, as a bonus, picked up lice, which we were able to eliminate only after long and persistent treatment.

The pregnancy proceeded normally and, in the fall, Chara began to give birth in the spot we made for her a corner of the room. Soon, she was carefully licking four puppies. She turned out to be a very caring mother, constantly cleaning the puppies, never refusing them milk. As soon as she finished all her business during the walk, she rushed straight home. The puppies were adorable, very much like their mother.

This prompted us to cut their tails. The operation was carried out in sterile conditions, quickly, and surprisingly did not seem to be painful. Chara quickly licked the wounds, and we began to think about the fate of the puppies. We distributed them for free, of course. One went somewhere in Sweden and looked like a real Spaniel. Another one, Chigrya, was taken by our friends, the Prokofievs; she grew up to be a long, short-legged creature, possessed of excellent character and exemplary behavior. This was Chara’s first and last pregnancy.

Illness and the End

When Chara, always cheerful and playful, was suddenly diagnosed with mammary cancer, we, as doctors, felt a quick fear. She had an operation, and I remember carrying her, still half-asleep, from the veterinary clinic in my arms. I was not allowed to go on the subway, although I explained her condition, and it took a long time to get to another transport.

Chara recovered fairly quickly from the operation and lived with us for another two years until she developed what appeared to be cancerous peritonitis. Because of the large amount of fluid in her abdomen, she was suffocating when she lay down. I made her a kind of hammock so she could sleep standing up. The vet I called declared her condition hopeless, and the next night, she died. Thank God, Galina was away and did not see Chara’s suffering. In the morning, my son and I wrapped Chara in a sheet, put her in the bag in which we used to take her to the dacha, took her to Sosnovka and buried her.


It became very empty in our house. Though we were thinking about a new dog, when the call came for an interview at the American Embassy, we were no longer up to it. Sixteen years later, when I recalled Chara, I decided to write my memories of her. Whether I have succeeded, even partially, in reviving these memories is up to you, my dear friends.

Mikhail Sonkin was a medical doctor in the USSR. In 1992, when he was 48 and shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he, his wife and his son emigrated to the U.S. He found a medical position in a histology lab, from which he retired in 2013.