Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is most famous for his epic farce The Master and Margarita (written in the late 1920s). But Heart of a Dog is a satirical take on Bolshevism—it was written in 1925.
As with his most famous work, the publication of this novella was heavily delayed in the Soviet Union. Not until 1987 was it first published in Russia, hitting book shelves elsewhere from 1968. Woof.
The Heart of a Dog
Whilst a rather macabre novella, Bulgakov’s work is also crammed with a sense of slapstick satire and a fine lust for the absurd.
Yes, with an opening line like that it’s fair to say we thoroughly enjoyed this book.
The plot? Set in Moscow, 1924, a stray dog foraging through restaurant trash is scalded with boiling water by an enraged chef.
The dog believes its end is nigh, but a rich and successful surgeon called Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky spots the dog and saves it.
Although a brilliant surgeon, he’s also pompous, pretentious, and overprivileged.
All the same, initially he comes across as kindly. The surgeon feeds the beast and brings it home to live in his huge apartment. He also calls the dog Sharik.
Whilst there, the dog meets the surgeon’s protegé Dr. Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal and two female servants.
Philipovich is anti-communism, but the state doesn’t do him in because of his surgery skills assisting with the Soviet Union’s leadership.
Sharik settles in and believes he’s simply a pet, but his master has experimental plans for him. And sedates the dog and operates, giving the dog a human pituitary gland. Plus a pair of human testicles.
The dog survives the operation and Philipovich considers himself a worthy genius. And to his amazement, Sharik begins showing human-like behaviours.
The surgeon and Dr. Bormenthal attempt to teach the man/dog hybrid basic etiquette, but are appalled to find the being is a bit of an unhinged maverick.
He chooses the absurd name Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov. Considering manners a relic of Tsarism, his behaviour is also bizarre and distinctly worrying.
He refuses to wash, swears openly in front of everyone, and dresses poorly.
Sharikov is, simply put, a bloody menace and has a fixation on wiping cats off the face of the Earth.
Philipovich is increasingly appalled by his creation, viewing himself as something of a failure.
Particularly as the man/dog’s behaviour becomes more and more alarming. Especially his fixation on cats, with a determination to wipe them all out (Sharik later gets a job that involves removing felines from Moscow).
This all means Philipovich and Sharik are constantly bickering, with the latter viewing his creator as his dad.
"Take that trash off your neck. Sha... if you saw yourself in a mirror you'd realise what a fright it makes you look. You look like a clown. For the hundredth time—don't throw cigarette ends on to the floor. And I don't want to hear anymore swearing in this flat! And don't spit everywhere! The spittoon's over there. Kindly take better aim when you pee. Cease all further conversation with Zina [one of the servants, an attractive woman]. She complains that you lurk round her room at night. And don't be rude to my patients! Where do you think you are—in some dive?" "Don't be so hard on me, Dad," The man suddenly said in a tearful whine. Philip Philipovich turned red and his spectacles flashed. "Who are you calling 'dad'? What impertinent familiarity! I never want to hear that word again! You will address me by my name and patronymic!"
And later on in the book, Philipovich rages some more. This is as the man/dog becomes more intelligent and starts to even best the doctors in arguments.
"You belong to the lowest possible stage of development," Philip Philipovich shouted [Sharik] down. "You are still in the formative stage. You are intellectually weak, all your actions are purely bestial. Yet you allow yourself in the presence of two university-educated men to offer advice, with quite intolerable familiarity, on a cosmic scale and of quite cosmic stupidity, on the redistribution of wealth... and at the same time you eat toothpaste."
The Heart of a Dog plays out like this some more, with the man/dog’s ridiculous behaviour proving hilarious and troublesome.
So the themes of mocking Bolshevism are present, but also the work is thought of as a criticism of eugenics.
And flat out, we have to say we really loved the work. It’s a joy to read—witty, lively, bizarre, and amusing.
The central aspect of Sharik behaving in a bizarrely anti-human way is a fine source of laughs. With Philipovich’s increasingly exasperated behaviour proving groovy for some schadenfreude delight.
Philipovich was aiming for some sort of surgical career highlight (despite the nefarious nature of the operation).
Instead, he’s left facing this nightmare situation of his own creation. To which he’s unclear how to react, despite his intelligence.
So you have this pompous geezer trying to be a sophisticated intellectual, yet he’s created this boorish lout who becomes the bane of his life.
Marvellous. Here we have a classic, no less. And another fine reminder that Bulgakov really deserves more acclaim in this era as a satirical wit.
Heart of a Dog—Film Adaptation
In 1988 there was TV film adaptation directed by Vladimir Bortko.
It stars Yevgeniy Yevstigneyev as Professor Philipp Philippovich and Vladimir Tolokonnikov as Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov.
We don’t understand the language at all, but apparently it was a very faithful adaptation. Almost word for word from the novella.
Interestingly, the budget for the film adaptation was pretty high. $5 million with the production company Lenfilm.
And, of course, it’s a relic of the Soviet Union era. So we’re surprised it came to be, considering its cynical attitude towards certain Russian politics.
Bulgakov’s Literary Woes
As with his peers (such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn—famous for Cancer Ward), Bulgakov faced serious Soviet censorship issues.
In fact, it was so bad it pretty much ruined his writing career. After his first book was published in the early 1920s, he wrote The Heart of a Dog.
He expected this (as you might think) to publish rapidly. However, that was pretty much it for Bulgakov during his lifetime.
His satirical writing clashed with Stalin’s totalitarian vision. The Russian despot blocked every effort Bulgakov made to have further work published.
He tried writing stage plays to earn a living, but that avenue also came to an end (thanks to Stalin’s efforts).
Eventually, the author had to write to Stalin directly in the effort to hold audience with him. They chatted on the phone.
Bulgakov listed his various complaints and demanded Stalin get him a job. The latter duly did this, as assistant director at Maly Teatr in Moscow.
Now this may seem all rather gracious, but if you know anything about Stalin it’s remarkable he didn’t have the writer bumped off to a Gulag (or just shot, The Death of Stalin style).
Although Stalin did have a soft spot for certain creatives, such as with pianist Maria Yudina (1899-1970). She dared to criticise Stalin, but he loved her playing so much he didn’t dare kill her. Nice of him.
And the same seems somewhat true with Mikhail Bulgakov. In his works (notably his stage plays), he painted Stalin in quite a positive light.
Death and the Penguin author Andrey Kurkov notes in his introduction to this edition of The Heart of a Dog:
"If the rumour is to be believed then Stalin had actually taken offence at Bulgakov's portrayal of him as too gentle and kind."
From 1928 onward, alongside his theatre work, the author obsessed wildly about The Master and Margarita (published after his death in 1940).
He got so frustrated with it, he burned the whole manuscript in a fit of distress. Then changed his mind and typed the whole thing out again later.
Well, you don’t write a Russian epic the easy way, eh?