A Dog's Heart: Bulgakov’s Sharp and Funny Allegory on the Rise and Fall of the New Soviet Man
Mikhail Bulgakov, a former doctor, was just 33 when he invited a group of writers and critics to sit through a reading of his novella, A Dog’s Heart. Among these 50 or so people gathered in his Moscow apartment on March 7 1925, was a Soviet informer who saw the book – correctly – as a thinly-disguised attack on the fledgling Bolshevik state. Soon after, the manuscript was seized by the secret police and the book wasn’t officially published until 1987, nearly half a century after its author had died.
Bulgakov’s ingenious sci-fi novel, in which a professor implants the sexual organs and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into a stray dog - creating a loutish monster who fits easily into the new communist society - remains a scathing critique of the early Bolshevik state.
The informer’s report of the reading was extremely detailed, implying that his furious note-taking was clearly visible to everyone in the room, including Bulgakov himself. The author likely didn’t fear the state as he then saw it as a fleeting anomaly in Russian history and his writing could play a small role in its demise. Furthermore, the line between literary criticism and repression was only just beginning to blur. This was not yet a fully-realized Stalinist state.
Nevertheless, the manuscript was seized, tarnishing the writer’s reputation the following decade. Bulgakov, a condemned and isolated figure by the 1930s, would only survive Stalin’s mass terror as a result of the dictator’s enthusiasm for his earlier novel The White Guard, about the Civil War’s spread into Ukraine.
A Dog’s Heart begins from the perspective of a mangy mongrel surviving on the cold streets of Moscow during a blizzard. Nearby, the dog spots a man, Professor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky (whose name means “he who transfigures”), who he identifies as a “gentleman” rather than a “comrade,” walking out of a brightly lit shop carrying sausages. The sausages are intended to lure the dog to his luxurious seven-room apartment within a building under the control of an over-zealous Communist committee.
The setting is amusing in itself. As a gentleman of the old establishment, Professor Preobrazhensky is untouchable as a result of the new elites’ reliance on his medical expertise – as a result, he is able to retain his privileged lifestyle. This tension harks back to Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) reforms, which reintroduced markets to the war-torn Soviet state, creating a tense limbo between the old and new order. In this environment intellectuals and experts were needed to boost the economy, yet they were deeply mistrusted by the Communist Party. This was the political context in which Bulgakov wrote the novella.
One year before its publication, Trotsky released Literature and Revolution, a series of essays arguing for the creation of a New Soviet Man through science and art. It is this Bolshevik experiment to create an authentic Homo Sovieticus that functions as the center-piece of the novella’s critique.
Professor Preobrazhensky surgically replaces the dog’s testicles with those of Klim Grigorievich Chugunkin (whose name means ‘cast iron’ which many see as a reference to Stalin ‘man of steel) – an alcoholic bully killed in a brawl. The creature that emerges from the operation walks on two legs, drinks, smokes, and is “familiar with every known Russian swearword.” Humorously, the dog is given official identification along with the name Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov. The creature adapts easily to the norms of Bolshevik society and becomes head of a government department. Whereas the monster in Mary Shelley’s gothic horror Frankenstein was doomed to be an outcast of the society into which he was born, Bulgakov’s grotesque creation thrives. In Bulgakov’s work, the mass social experiment being implemented by the Bolsheviks is much more grotesque than the creature from Professor Preobrazhensky’s experiments.
For the bowtie and monocle wearing, cigar-smoking Bulgakov, the emerging communist order was as an affront to good taste. This perspective is evident in an amusing scene in which the professor and his assistant Bormenthal attempt to teach Sharikov basic table etiquette. The creature responds by dismissing manners as a relic of Tsarism and insists that it is better to behave “naturally.” As a result, Sharikov continues to curse in front of women, refuses to shave, and dresses and eats like a slob.
A Dog’s Heart remains a masterpiece of early Soviet literature, and one of the best insights into the economic and political turmoil in the wake of the Russian Civil War.
Nevertheless, Bulgakov displays a meritocratic streak via his critique of the Russian bourgeois. His portrayal of Professor Preobrazhensky is portrayed as vain, self-centered, and oblivious to the idea that his privileged way of life was inherited rather than truly earned. The problem with the communist project, as presented in the novella then, isn’t its obsession with building a new world, but the fact that the reality has become a base quest for plunder and class vengeance.
This is evident is the gruesome pages detailing the surgery. Preobrazhensky is presented as a ruthless butcher driven by his own ego – a slight against upper-class revolutionaries like Trotsky. Prophetically, Bulgakov implies that the bourgeois intellectuals who brought about the revolution were on the verge of falling prey to its most violent impulses. A vision that foreshadows the rise of Stalin and Stalinism after the bloody battles of succession that took place within the Communist Party following Lenin’s death.
The novella’s narrative is complex, with Bulgakov experimenting with the multiple viewpoints that would be perfected with the release of his later masterpiece The Master and Margarita. The novel also switches between first person and third person during various scenes. Thematically, the book draws its influence from Gogol and Chekhov, the masters of Russian satire.
A Dog’s Heart remains a masterpiece of early Soviet literature, and one of the best insights into the economic and political turmoil in the wake of the Russian Civil War. It also foreshadows the thuggish brutality of the tyranny that would soon follow.