If you want to learn how to speak Russian, get a dog

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The Independent Online
It has taken a while for the group to form, but it has finally happened. We gather in a park long after dark, standing among the poplar trees, calf-deep in snow, flapping our arms against the cold like penguins. Such is the amount of clothing required to survive this most Russian of encounters that, beyond our silhouettes, none of us knows what our fellows look like.

When I arrived in Moscow nearly five months ago, friends and colleagues offered differing advice about the best way of mastering the Russian language. There was no shortage of teachers: Russia is awash with underpaid academics willing to try drumming every troublesome case and tense into a Western skull for a dollar or two. What no one suggested, though, was getting a dog.

In my corner of southern Moscow, our golden retriever, Rupert - so called because he shares an appetite for newspapers with a magnate of that name - has made me an insider at last. I get to stand around with the local dog owners, gossiping at midnight while our animals caper and copulate under the moon.

It may not sound much, but the evolution of this social gathering is a personal breakthrough in a city where getting to talk to people is not always easy. When it comes to meeting Westerners for the first time, Russians are no less awkward and ham-fisted than the British. Like us, they have, in their post-imperial confusion, forgotten what exactly to do. Some shake hands with their gloves on. Some shake hands with their gloves off. Some don't do anything, beyond issuing a gruff "zdravstvuytye" - "hello" - and some don't even manage that. Asked how they are, most Russians will reply with a flat "normalno" - "all right" - a remark that doesn't exactly brim with promise. Some will anticipate the response by asking, "How is your 'normalno' doing?". The process is as tortuous as not knowing when to kiss a party hostess, or how many times, or which cheek to attack first, and finally jabbing your nose in her eye.

Not so with the dog owners of Dmitriya Ulyanova Street. A few token exchanges about the hounds' names - curiously, often English, such as Jack or Dan - and their sex, and the ice is broken. "Look at that," Andrei, a young officer, said without a second's awkwardness, by way of an opening gambit; he was gazing lovingly at his red setter. "He brought back 24 ducks last year. That's what I call a good hunting dog."

Before long, we were deep in a conversation about his appallingly low and delayed wages, politics, books (he's still recovering from the shock of meeting an American who had never heard of Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck) - all without one "normalno" or bungled handshake getting in our way. For dogs allow candour: a Russian will think nothing of stopping you in the street to tell your dog is too fat.

The Russian fondness for dogs is one of their stranger foibles, and not only because it can extinguish their general shyness. They'll walk past a dying man in the street, some of them, without so much as a wince, so hardened are they to human suffering, but a stranger's dog gets showered with kisses and hugs. Millions tune in every week to the television programme Dog Show, in which owners and their pets perform, watched by a studio audience who - for reasons best known to the producers - also bring their animals. Some city-dwellers in Moscow have been known to share their apartments with up to 40 strays, to save them from the cold.

But there is also something slightly alarming about it all, an unspoken desire for protection in this unstable and violent society. My neighbourhood is mostly made up of people who live cooped up in two- or three-room apartments, as is the case in most of Moscow. But far from producing a dog population of small hounds, this crowded city's parks are full of St Bernards, Rottweilers, and a breed of horse-like mastiff which the Russians simply call "Dog". For the most part their owners turn out to be mild-mannered professors, or nurses, or laboratory technicians, although there are those who train their dogs to fight - a nasty lot, to be sure.

Which leads me to my pet theory, honed after several sessions with the Dog Group: you can tell a Russian's politics by his choice of hound. Supporters of the madcap ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky will have small dogs, dachshunds or boxers - irritating, at times comic, but with a slightly brutal streak. The fan of Grigory Yavlinsky (the liberal economist) will be the guy with the sheep dog or cocker spaniel, friendly, woolly, and usually unintelligent. Communists prefer fighters: rottweiler and pit bulls. And Yeltsin's ailing band? Poodles and other lap-dogs. All right, it's not great science. But, hey, it's a better way to start a conversation than asking someone how their normal's doing.

Phil Reeves