After I wrote up the first news item about Sochi’s campaign to hunt and kill the city’s stray dogs in preparation for the Winter Olympics, one of the comments really stuck in my craw. A woman named Elaine said: “I guess I will add the Russians to my list of despicable people of the human race. China being 1st.” I understood the anger and disgust. There is nothing to breed loathing and anger like having to know a story so intimately that you can summarize it in 500 words.
But no matter how disgusted I felt with the Sochi situation, it never became a reason to despise Russians as such. It’s not a story about how debased Russian culture is; it’s a story about the brutality of greed and unchecked power. Even here in the United States, when the Olympics come to town, it’s generally bad for anyone who’s considered undesirable or unprofitable. Homeless people and sex workers regularly get swept up in mass arrests and harassment when the Olympics (or, say, the Super Bowl) are on.
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Many of the dogs were, in fact, put on the streets by the Olympics. In building the new venues for the games, many homes were demolished, and the families who lived there were given apartments in compensation. The apartments had no yards, no room for pets, and so the animals wound up homeless.
The news that’s been coming out of Russia since that first story has born out my optimism. The citizens of Russia are working to fight the extermination policy any way they can. Yesterday brought the story of Vlada Provotorova, a young dentist who is part of a network that rescues dogs off the streets of Sochi and brings them to a makeshift shelter. And almost as soon as the article about Provotorova went live, I found the story of Igor Ayrapetyan, a 41-year-old Moscow resident who drove his SUV 1,000 miles to Sochi to rescue 11 stray dogs and bring them home. He planned to make another trip, but road closures due to the Olympic torch relay prevented him. Ayrapetyan says he plans to make another trip after the games start this Friday.
But no matter how hard they work, individuals like Vlada Provotorova and Igor Ayrapetyan can only save so many dogs. Provotorova estimates her group has rescued 70 to 100 dogs; Ayrapetyan rescued 11. There are still thousands on the streets of Sochi.
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Today, the Internet is abuzz with the name of Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who has financed a last-ditch rescue effort to rescue the dogs, rather than leaving them to the mercy of the exterminators who are said to shoot them with poison darts. Deripaska has built a makeshift shelter just outside the city. The shelter is called Povodog, a pun referencing the Russian word “povodok” (“leash”). Deripaska, a major investor in the Sochi games, gave about $15,000 to build Povodog, and has pledged to give $50,000 per year to maintain it. Olga Melnikova, one of the people coordinating the rescue effort, says that authorities have been putting a lot of pressure on them. “We were told, ‘Either you take all the dogs from the Olympic Village or we will shoot them,’” she said. “On Monday we were told we have until Thursday.”
Although in the end, Povodok may do more good for Sochi’s dogs than individual citizens combing the streets, the stories of Vlada Provotorova and Igor Ayrapetyan warm my heart in a way that Povodok doesn’t. The old punk rocker in me identifies with the DIY spirit of Provotorova’s shelter, held together with spare wood, baling wire, and hope. She and Igor Ayrapetyan have put themselves on the line in a way that Deripaska hasn’t. And there’s part of me that’s very afraid that Povodok is too little, too late.
The issue of stray dogs in Sochi originally came up last April. When the public became outraged at the mayor’s plans to start exterminating dogs, he backtracked and swore — pinky-swore — that he wouldn’t kill off the dogs and that shelters would be built for them. The shelter were never built, and instead the mayor hired a man who thinks of stray dogs as “biological garbage” to kill them with poison darts.
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In helping prepare for the Winter Games, Deripaska helped pay to refurbish the local airport, build a new seaport, and build the Olympic Village. It’s hard not to feel that after spending all that money, his 11th-hour rescue attempts might be motivated primarily by the fact that his money isn’t well-spent if the Sochi Olympics of 2014 are primarily known for gay-bashing and dog-slaughter.
But regardless of Deripaska’s motivations, fewer dogs will die because of him. Workers drive a golf cart around the campus, picking up dogs and bringing them back to Povodog. It seems obvious that even without the Olympics, this is something that Sochi desperately needed. The New York Times reports that on Tuesday, someone dropped two puppies off at the shelter. There are many more where those two came from.
What do you think about the situation? It’s terrible, but is it a cause to hate all Russians?
Photo: Stray mother dog by Shutterstock