Encyclopedia of the Dog
An annotated edition of Sasha Sokolov's Between Dog and Wolf



What, in fact, is the Dog? Is it simply a novel? Is it a twisted version of the Russian language, a beast, a friendly invitation to a nightmarish experience in the upper reaches of the Volga River? Let’s consider these options.

At the core of Sasha Sokolov’s second novel, as in all his work, is the Russian language. But it’s not just any Russian language. It’s Sokolov’s intoxicating concoction of mixed registers (high, low, in between), neologisms that burst open the possibilities of our imagination, puns and metaphors that disrupt the reader’s sense of what’s real (on the page and beyond it), and a wide-ranging diction that tests even native speakers’ patience. This combination is a Sokolovian version of Russian, one that he has gifted us and to the Russian literary tradition. It’s a commonplace in Sokolov scholarship to suggest that this language is the real hero of his art, but it’s a truth worth remembering.

Indeed, the focus on language—this beastly thing—is what challenges so many readers. Part of the reason why is that this feature of his writing shifts the focus from more obvious, traditional elements of fiction such as plot and character. Here is how we described the plot in our introduction to a special issue of Canadian-American Slavic Studies devoted to Between Dog and Wolf:

The events of Sokolov’s novel take place on the Upper Volga, which is also called the Itil’ River (its Tatar name) by his heroes. There, the reader encounters a group of men who spend their time hunting, ice skating, drinking, talking, and otherwise killing time however they can. The book is divided into three narrative planes. The first is narrated by the knife-grinder Ilya Petrikeich Zynzyrela, who is missing one leg. His chapters (1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17) consist of a letter of complaint that recounts how — the reader only learns gradually — he was murdered by the whipper-in Yakov Ilyich Palamakhterov after a sequence of events beginning with Ilya attacking one of Yakov’s dogs after mistaking it for a wolf. His epistle to Pozhilykh also contains numerous other stories and tangents on such subjects as Ilya’s relationship with the love of his life, Orina (also known as Maria); the mysterious dama who visits the hunters, tempts them, and, somehow, leads them to their suicides; his interactions with the other men around him in this cruel, strange space; and his stay in a hospital after the loss of his leg (the details of which accident are explained in several ways).

Another set of chapters (2, 5, 9, 13, 16) tells the story of Yakov. If Ilya’s chapters are told in the first person (stylizing the epistolary genre) and in a strikingly colloquial style, then Yakov’s read much differently. Here, the third-person narrator makes use of plentiful infinitive constructions, passages that mimic the classics of Russian literature (Gogol’s works most evidently), and other rhetorical devices to paint a portrait of a character who is the polar oppo- site of Ilya, but who may be his son, depending on whose story you believe. Many of these chapters (some of which are titled “Pictures from an Exhibition,” an intertextual reference to Mussorgsky’s piano suite) are stylized ekphrastic descriptions of paintings, and in this sense, they consist of a stroll through a museum space, as the narrator reproduces in writing various works of art, including Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow — a key motif in Sokolov’s novel.

Finally, chapters 3, 7, 11, 15, and 18 are made up of 37 numbered poems (called “Notes,” Zapiski) ostensibly penned by Yakov and sent down river as messages in a bottle. As in the Yakov-related chapters, many of these poems are highly stylized, often parodying or otherwise resembling works from the nineteenth century. At times, they recount events seen in the prose chapters, but many trade in the folkloric or describe the natural world around the heroes of the novel.

Thus, it can be easy to feel like you’re wrestling with a beast, perhaps even that dog-wolf hybrid Ilya encounters on the frozen river one drunken night, when reading Between Dog and Wolf. Everything keeps shifting. Characters blend names and identities. Temporal and geographic settings unexpectedly slide away. Everything taken as a whole resembles an animal resisting comprehension, writhing against our mental grip, moving too quickly in the twilight for us to get a firm look. This struggle is, after all, a concretization of the novel’s title: Between Dog and Wolf suggesting not only the shifting of these two animals but also of perspective. The title serves as the epitome of a world where idioms turn real. If “two boots make a pair,” the one-legged Ilya and Yakov turn into a curious duo when they come across an actual pair of boots.

It’s no wonder, then, that Sokolov warned one of us to let his students know that the novel might generate some nightmares. The novel can also be a tough read in its content: murder, maiming, suicide, other violence both physical and sexual. A mysterious gloom descends upon the Volga and reader’s mind alike, and it doesn’t let up until those dazzling final lines: “So I dare you to burn, you dumb-as-a-bell, / My amazing, ingenious lines!”

So, what then? Why read Between Dog and Wolf, and what’s to be drawn from it? If you’ll forgive us the too obvious metaphor, what does it mean to hunt for meaning in Sokolov’s novel? It’s notoriously difficult, a complex intertwining of multiple plots, voices, and Russian languages. Typically the reader’s task is to trail the author’s words and follow a clearly defined path — the plot or story, in other words. Sokolov, on the contrary, ensnares his reader along the way, but it’s in falling into this trap that we can know the exhilaration of the Dog. For all the challenges (and why not welcome readerly challenges?), there’s a certain thrill in devouring the Dog, setting aside vegetarian preferences and picking through the novel’s body to make sense of the unusual, to discover unexpected connections across its three primary narrative arteries, and to savor the heady buzz of Sokolov’s boundless linguistic virtuosity. (It also happens to be a deeply comic novel that rewards connoisseurs of both puns and pratfalls.) Sokolov presents us with the complexity and ever-changing, yet everlasting aspects of reality and of life, which are far less linear and logical than we often like to believe, for when we try to chart their supposed linearity, we end up misunderstanding what we actually see, taking a dog for a wolf.

The Annotations

Much as the enigmatic hunter Krylobyl serves Ilya as his guide in the afterlife, these annotations aim to serve the reader, whether novice or familiar, in the Dog’s numerous channels.

We began the project in February 2022 with Sokolov’s blessing and a suggestion for the title—The Encyclopedia of the Dog. We hoped to build upon what Alexander Boguslawski and Boris Ostanin had accomplished in their translation endnotes and “Dictionary” (slovar’) to the novel, respectively, so this concept of the encyclopedia felt perfect. Our aim was to annotate Between Dog and Wolf as thoroughly as possible. No level should remain untouched. No stone, including that offered to Ilya by the river at the end of chapter 1, would be left unturned. As the annotation tags show, we examine Dog, Wolf, and everything in between: register, style, characters, locations, settings, motifs, themes, phraseologisms, time, musical and Biblical references, differences in editions, folklore, intertextuality, intratextuality, and more. With this digital platform, we could incorporate images, audio, and video that a traditional physical book would not allow.

Our process involved using Hypothesis to generate annotations that we could then modify, correct, and edit together. Indeed, the project was deeply collaborative, and at times it reminded us of the interlocking layers of Dog as we wrote over one another’s annotations, confusing authorship in these fragments just as it quickly becomes debatable who wrote what in Sokolov’s novel. We were also very fortunate to have the author answer many of our questions.

These annotations are intended as a companion to the text, faithful as the dog who joins Ilya in his wanderings and scribblings at the novel’s end, and we encourage readers to keep a hard copy at hand, too, if possible. Page citations to Sokolov’s works refer to the Azbuka edition in Russian and to Boguslawski’s translations of Between Dog and Wolf and A School for Fools in English. We hope that the hunt will be all the more enjoyable with this commentary, for it has been a joy to craft it together, and Between Dog and Wolf is a novel that rewards multiple and group readings.

As you come up for air during your bouts with the Dog, we wish you a “happy resurrection.”

Author Biography1

Thanks to numerous interviews, audio and video recordings (including a documentary, Sasha Sokolov: The Last Russian Writer), letters, and biographies (Johnson 1987; Litus 2006), we know quite a bit about Sasha Sokolov’s life and temperament. What emerges from this material, however, is a hybrid character, a constructed mask who continues to elude any fixed location, who refuses stability and classification, and who has cultivated a sketchy, anecdotal image of himself, a playful attitude he has cultivated even toward his own name.

Aleksandr Vsevolodovich Sokolov was born on November 6, 1943, in Ottawa, Canada. However, his complete name can be found only on his Soviet passport: the writer has gone by the name Sasha Sokolov since at least 1976, when Ardis published Shkola dlia durakov (A School for Fools), arguably his most successful work. Like his future “Kremlin orphan”-hero Palisandr Dal’berg (the protagonist of his third novel, Palisandriia), Sokolov was born a child of the nomenklatura (his father was an important Soviet spy deployed in Canada), and a deep need for freedom tormented him since his restrictive childhood. The urge to establish an independent life led him to gradually sever his familial and social ties.

Before then, however, in December 1947, his family had to leave Ottawa and move to Moscow as a result of the Gouzenko affair (one of the key episodes that launched the Cold War). In the Sokol district of Moscow, where the Sokolov family was assigned, by a bizarre coincidence, an apartment in the early 1950s, the nearby cemetery and morgue became morbid attractions for the young Sasha. His strange passion for death and for the dead led him to work as an attendant in the morgue in 1961, shortly before he enrolled at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages at his father’s request (1962–1965). However, in the autumn of 1962, Sokolov spent three months in a psychiatric hospital (the Kashchenko Institute), having simulated mental illness in order to avoid military service: on that occasion, he claimed—persuasively, we shall assume—to be a drum, a harp, or an unexploded bomb. According to Sokolov, madness, just like death, should be brought back into everyday life, thus unmasking the pretentiousness of our social order that attempts to hide it in predefined spaces and categories. All of Sokolov’s characters are afflicted by real or perceived mental illness, by excesses of their ego, by emotional and/or physical dysfunction. Paradigmatic in this sense is also the “old navigator” (Staryi shturman), the protagonist of the short story that in 1971 secured Sokolov his first prize in a literary contest. This competition was organized by Nasha zhizn’, a newspaper devoted to the world of the visually impaired and blind. With this short text, the young Aleksandr Sokolov won 100 rubles for “the best short story about blind people.”

In the early 1960s, Sokolov joined the underground group of young artists known as SMOG who aspired to take up the legacy of the Avant-Garde and Futurism, in particular of Mayakovsky, in the shadow of whose statue they gathered in Moscow. However, wishing to remain separate from any kind of group, Sokolov chose to leave SMOG soon after.

In 1966 he enrolled in the Faculty of Journalism at Moscow State University, which he defined as the “freest institution at the time, if we exclude mental asylums” (Vrubel’- Golubkina 2011). Journalistic writing served as a testing ground for him, especially on the formal and stylistic levels. Sokolov took advantage of fieldwork opportunities, in particular in northern Siberia, before eventually choosing to register as a non-attending student due to his frustration with city life. He moved to the village of Morki in the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic with Taisiia Suvorova, a fellow student and his first wife until 1974. He concluded his studies in 1971, having already started to collaborate with the prestigious Literaturnaia gazeta back in Moscow. Shortly thereafter, however, Sokolov could no longer bear living in the capital and sought refuge elsewhere: he spent the period between May 1972 and November 1973 at the hunting estate located near Bezborodovo in the Kalinin oblast (today Tver’). These months constitute one of the most significant periods in the writer’s life. In Bezborodovo, Sokolov not only wrote his first novel, but collected material that would become fundamental for his later work.

This space embodied a “world of casual violence, generally alcoholic” (Johnson 1987: 208). However, it was also a repository of a rich oral culture almost anachronistic in nature — an incredible store of stories, legends, profiles, motifs that enriched Sokolov’s imagery. The anecdote at the basis of Between Dog and Wolf originated from his Bezborodovo experience. The territories along the Volga River constitute a highly mythopoeic place in Sokolov’s mental map. These landscapes did not disappear from the writer’s memories even after emigrating: when later on, in Vienna, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Sokolov found himself admiring some paintings by Bruegel the Elder, he was surprised to find strong similarities with the hunting estate where he had lived two years earlier.

However, A School for Fools, concluded during this retreat, could not be officially released in the Soviet Union. This book became an unexpected success only after the manuscript reached the publishing house Ardis, run by Carl and Ellendea Proffer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The nearly illegible manuscript somehow arrived in the United States via Alexandria, Egypt, in very poor condition with no indication of author or provenance (Vail’, Genis, 1986 21). If not for Johanna Steindl, an Austrian lecturer of German whom Sokolov met in Moscow, not only would the text not have reached its prospective publishers, but he would not have obtained official permission to leave the country.

In 1974 Sokolov decided to break free from his relationship with Taisiia and resettled in Moscow. During this period, he met Johanna who began to inquire at the Canadian consulate about the writer’s possible expatriation, naively handing over Sokolov’s birth certificate registered in Ottawa. The following day the young man was arrested and interrogated. Steindl and Sokolov began to complete the necessary paperwork to arrange their marriage. As a Soviet citizen, however, Sokolov had to obtain the explicit consent of his parents to marry a foreign woman. They not only categorically refused, but also raised doubts about their son’s mental health. After a long, arduous process on both sides of the Iron Curtain, including letters addressed to the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and to the United Nations, Sokolov, disowned by his family, was allowed to leave the country on October 8, 1975, and moved to Vienna, where he married Johanna.

Sokolov spent less than a year in Austria since his relationship with Johanna quickly deteriorated, and the birth of a son, Daniel, could not convince the writer to reject Proffer’s offer to join them in Michigan in September 1976. In Vienna, Sokolov found a job as a carpenter, but above all he eagerly immersed himself in books previously forbidden to him in the Soviet Union, beginning with Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, who— unusually for him—celebrated Sokolov’s talent, and his words—”an enchanting, tragic, and touching book” (obaiatel’naia, tragicheskaia i trogatel’neishaia kniga)—have accompanied A School for Fools ever since. As his first novel gained international success, the writer began to write a second book.

Once in the U.S., Sokolov had a series of contracts and appointments arranged for him by Proffer, including lectures and readings delivered at a number of universities. During a stay at UCLA he met Lilia Parker, who later became his wife from 1978 to 1980. Meanwhile, Sokolov also sought Canadian citizenship, which he received in 1977.

Contrary to other émigré writers, Sokolov felt the urge to escape from urban centers, heading to Vermont, or Quebec—rural and isolated oases, suited to his restless nomadic and solitary spirit. In these years he was constantly on the move. For example, in June 1978, he resided in Montreal; in July he was invited to Norwich in Ontario to read extracts from A School for Fools; in September he wrote to Proffer of his presence in Los Angeles, while mentioning his next move (or rather, escape) to Quebec.

A final version of the second novel was ready at the beginning of the following year and was published in 1980. Critics in the Soviet Union (unofficially, through samizdat) showered Between Dog and Wolf with praise, awarding it the 1981 Andrei Bely prize for the best Russian prose.

In the meantime, in Sokolov’s mind the idea of a third novel was already emerging, a book that, according to him, “would end the novel as a genre” (Johnson 1987: 217). At this time, Sokolov cultivated friendships with members of the Russian émigré community, such as Aleksei Tsvetkov and Eduard Limonov. Sokolov had also left Lilia for Karin Lundell, a young aspiring interpreter: they now lived together in a small apartment in Pacific Grove, California. In its claustrophobic restroom, as Johnson attested (1987: 218), the author wrote much of the future Palisandriia (a novel in which the tub indeed plays a major role). The 1980s were also the years of Sasha Sokolov’s lectures. The transcripts of his speeches constitute the corpus of his important theoretical-poetic—or rather proetic—essays (they are translated and collected in the volume, edited by Alexander Boguslawski, In the House of the Hanged: Essays and Vers Libres).

In the spring of 1983 Sokolov finished his third novel, which had to wait more than a year and a half to be published (April 1985), with its final changes induced by the death of the Soviet leader Andropov. The publication was hailed by the critics as Sokolov’s new contribution to the postmodern canon, while the writer’s popularity was so great at the time that in 1987 the Fond pochitatelei tvorchestva Sashi Sokolova (Fund of Admirers of the Work of Sasha Sokolov) was established in the United States.

In the Soviet Union, Between Dog and Wolf was finally (and officially) published in the August and September 1989 issues of the journal Volga. That year, having been invited to the Soviet Union in order to collect the Oktiabr’ prize, as well as to participate in radio, television, and festivals, Sokolov obtained an entry visa and returned to Moscow. He spent less than a year there, accompanied by his current wife Marlene Royle.

After Moscow, Sokolov found refuge in Vermont, marking the beginning of his ongoing tendency to become even more isolated. He follows his wife’s professional commitments (she is a professional rowing coach and former U.S. National Team rower), moving nomadically between Florida and Canada. In the 1990s and 2000s, Israel—home to a vibrant Russophone community—became a new haven for him, while in Vermont he became a ski instructor and spent some summers teaching Russian.

In the last thirty years, collections of his writings appeared in the Soviet Union and then Russia: in 1990, Ogoniok-Variant published his first two novels in Moscow; in 1999, Simpozium gathered all his works (essays included) in two volumes, published in St. Petersburg. Since 2006, Azbuka has republished all Sokolov’s works, and in 2007 this publishing house printed a separate volume containing only the essays. Translations of his works (in particular, of his A School for Fools) have appeared in a dozen different languages.

In 2011, Sokolov unexpectedly authored a new book, Triptikh (Triptych), published by Moscow publisher OGI. It combines under one cover three compositions previously published in the Israeli magazine Zerkalo (Mirror) that make up an experimental and in many ways hermetic text composed in its entirety by an uninterrupted dialogue between indefinite voices. In 2013 OGI also started to republish Sokolov’s novels in editions finely accompanied by black-and-white illustrations by the artist Galia Popova. Finally, in 2020, Azbuka published his complete works.

Triptych was followed by two other short publications, the first of which, titled “Ozarenie” (Illumination), appeared in the special issue dedicated to the ninetieth anniversary of the magazine Oktiabr’ (October) in 2014. The latest publication by Sasha Sokolov was included in the Canadian-American Slavic Studies special issue we, Martina Napolitano and José Vergara, edited in 2021. The writer not only enthusiastically supported our work but also enriched it with a new “proem,” a personal reply to Donald Barton Johnson’s stimulating article “The Galoshes Manifesto” (1989).

  1. What follows is an abridged excerpt from the first chapter of Martina Napolitano’s monograph devoted to the author’s life and work. ↩︎