Ivan Mishukov’s story is one Charles Dickens would find hard to believe. The six-year-old boy was discovered wandering the streets in Reutov, a small Russian village. But Ivan was not lost. He had left his home when he was four and had since been living with dogs.
However, this is not one of those 18th-century stories about feral children raised by wolves. Ivan was found in 1998. So, who was Ivan Mishukov and how did he end up living with dogs on the streets in modern Russia?
Why would a four-year-old boy leave the safety of his home in the 1990s to live on the streets with dogs? To understand how this happened, you have to know a little about Russian history.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to widespread poverty amongst working Russians. National industries were sold off for a fraction of their worth, creating super-rich oligarchs.
A new market economy allowed mass privatisation but produced a two-tier system of wealth inequality. Power and money resided with the oligarchs. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians suffered tremendous hardship. Millions of workers were not paid for months at a time, unemployment was rife, and inflation was at an all-time high.
By 1995, the economy was in free-fall. Prices had increased by over a staggering 10,000 times, yet wages had decreased by 52%. Economists have described the period from 1991 to 2001 as ‘one of the hardest in Russian history’.
The social impact of these changes was huge. As economic and social conditions worsened, crime and drug abuse increased. Life expectancy fell and birth rates plummeted. And therein lies a problem. A country as large as Russia needs a robust population.
Concerned about declining population numbers, Vladimir Putin addressed the nation:
“There are still many for whom it is hard to raise children, hard to provide the old age they deserve for their parents, hard to live.” – Vladimir Putin
Women were encouraged to have children, with the state offering help in the form of extended maternity and child benefits. However, there were little or no resources provided for raising these children once they were born.
In essence, no attention was paid to the primary cause of the fall in population, which was an excess of deaths, particularly in the male population. So, while Putin encouraged women to have more children, there were fewer young men to help provide for them.
This instability of little or no wages, single parent households, rising crime, and drug abuse left many women unable to care for their children. As a result, many children ended up on the streets or in orphanages. And this is where we pick up the story of six-year-old Ivan Mishukov.
It is not certain whether Ivan Mishukov’s parents abandoned him or whether he left willingly. What we do know is that he was born on 6th May 1992. His father was an alcoholic, and at the age of four, Ivan found himself on the streets of his hometown.
He befriended a pack of dogs by begging for food during the day and sharing it with the pack at night. In return, Ivan would follow the dogs at night, and they would lead him to shelter in Reutov. The dogs would curl around him as he slept to keep him warm in temperatures reaching minus 30 degrees.
This symbiotic relationship developed from hardship, and survival created a staunch bond between Ivan and the dogs. It took social workers three times to ‘rescue’ Ivan. By this time, he had become the leader of the dog pack, and they fiercely protected him from strangers.
For a month, officials had to bribe the dogs with food to entice them away from Ivan. Unlike some abandoned children, Ivan had lived with his family for the first four years of his life. As such, he could relearn the Russian language and communicate with officials.
Once in their care, Ivan told them,
“I was better off with dogs. They loved me and protected me.” – Ivan Mishukov
Ivan spent a short while at the Reutov Children’s home before starting school. He can speak fluently, and after studying at a military academy, served time in the Russian Army. He now gives interviews on Russian and Ukrainian television.
Unfortunately, Ivan Mishukov’s story is not rare. He has, however, inspired several authors to write about his predicament.
Children’s author Bobbie Pyron based her book ‘The Dogs of Winter’ on Ivan and his story in 1998.
Ivan Mishukov features in Michael Newton’s book ‘Savage Girls and Wild Boys’, of which an edited extract appears in the Guardian. Newton describes our fascination and horror with so-called feral children, and how they represent the worst of humanity and the best of nature:
“These children, on one level, represent really extreme instances of human cruelty. And nature, which is often thought of as hostile to man or human beings, is suddenly revealed to be more kindly than human beings are themselves.” – Michael Newton
Australian writer Eva Hornung was inspired to write her novel ‘Dog Boy’ in 2009 after reading about Ivan’s story. In 2010, English author Hattie Naylor wrote the book ‘Ivan and the Dogs’, which was subsequently turned into a play. The Telegraph describes how Naylor captures the steadfast bond between Ivan and his dogs:
‘Hattie Naylor’s writing beautifully conveys the incredible way the boy and dogs connected, and one leaves the theatre feeling disgust for those on two legs, but admiration for those on four.’ – The Telegraph
Ivan Mishukov certainly did not have the best start in life. Can you imagine being four years old and having to fend for yourself? It just shows how open animals are to loving and protecting a different species.