Moscow

Life for the Soviet dog has taken a dramatic turn for the worse this year, becoming increasingly difficult, precarious and often downright dangerous--a dog's life indeed.

Consider first this recent action of the Soviet state against man's best friend: a new law has come into effect on "the regulation of maintenance by the population of unproductive household animals," imposing a large annual tax on pet dogs and setting a limit of one pet per household.

The tax on a large dog comes to the equivalent of $281 a year, well over the monthly wage of an engineer or a young physician. To keep a lap dog, one has to pay to the state $170--more than the monthly wages of a secretary. Elderly dog lovers are particularly hard-hit, since monthly pensions start at around $60.

Another factor that has put man's love for dogs to a severe test has been the shortage of furs for the traditional Russian winter hats known as shapkas. Some enterprising individuals have started making shapkas from dog fur. The hats sell from $180 to $280.

The combination of new taxes and the absence of fur hats in state shops has led to another new activity here: dognaping. Large numbers of persons seem to be involved in this particular form of crime.

The owners of short-haired canines such as boxers or bulldogs consider themselves lucky, because chances are slim that their pets could suddenly vanish without a trace. This is not the case with longer haired Irish setters, German shepherds, collies or poodles, which can be turned into attractive shapkas.

THE DEAN of Moscow's theatrical life, Sergei Obrastzov, was the first to issue a public howl against man's inhumanity to dogs.

Obrastzov, founder of the famed Moscow Puppet Theater and its director for the past 50 years, denounced the massacre of dogs by speculators involved in the production of dog fur hats.

"I was born in Moscow and have lived here for 80 years," he wrote in a letter to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. "It is hard to believe that such things are taking place here, but they are."

He said thieves lure, kill or poison dogs and then sell them at $14 apiece to the entrepreneurs. The skins are prepared and dyed at illegal shops before being shaped and sewn into shapkas, which then are retailed for as much as 20 times that amount. Clearly, there are profits all around in this venture.

One of the centers of this business is Himki, a Moscow suburb, where police recently arrested 15 speculators. In Zagorsk, about 40 miles from Moscow, 44 persons were arrested in a police crackdown on manufacturers.

Ironically, as the newspaper Sovyetskaya Rossiya put it, "Russia still does not have laws dealing with cruel treatment of animals." The speculators are charged with violation of a decree prohibiting the sale of animal skins by individuals--in other words, their crime is engaging in private enterprise in an area regarded as state monopoly.

BUT OBRASTZOV and other animal lovers appear to be waging a losing battle. The plight of the dogs is rooted in economic problems created by man. Take for instance the new tax. By making dog ownership prohibitively expensive, the state is apparently trying to conserve dwindling supplies of meat and bolster its revenues.

The levy is so high that meat-eating pets, already a luxury in an economy riddled with scarcities, seem destined to virtually disappear from Soviet cities in the coming years.

There have been some lukewarm official explanations for the new law suggesting it was drafted in response to public complaints about the lack of supervision of pets.

But the real explanation is that not enough meat is available for human consumption, that supplies have continued to decline because of shortages of feed grains, and that the state therefore had to make a choice.

Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party newspaper, conceded as much when it reminded its readers recently that studies had shown that dogs consume more than $2 billion worth of meat every year.