In times of crisis, the literature of this great Russian writer is good therapy to combat pessimism. Bulgakov discovered the beneficial effects of irony in The Heart of a Dog, although his emphasis of this technique proved to cost him dearly.
The Heart of a Dog was the beginning of Mikhail Bulgakov’s long and tortuous relationship with political power. It was not a good time to write with a sense of humor.
When he settled in Moscow in 1921 and quit medicine for journalism and literature, Bulgakov began to write about the contradictions of socialism, the problem of housing, the absurdities of bureaucracy and the confrontation between citizens fortified by the NEP—the New Economic Policy projected by Bujarin—and the strict followers of orthodox Communism. In short, as a man of his time, Bulgakov reflected upon the preoccupations of Muscovites and the rules that governed life in the city.
The year after he arrived in Moscow, the OGPU (the secret police of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1934) started keeping a secret file on the writer. The apparent motive is trivial: Bulgakov published an article in a Berlin magazine announcing his intention to create a bibliographic dictionary of contemporary Russian authors without distinguishing between those who lived in the USSR and those living in exile. This news was received with suspicion by the government, because, as is well-known, writers who lived abroad were considered enemies of the people.
In secret report number II0, the informer explained that Mikhail Bulgakov gave a reading of his new novel to the literary circle he moved in. The novel was titled The Heart of a Dog. “The entire work is written in hostile tones and breathes an infinite contempt upon the Soviet order…,” the writer of the report concluded. Suspicions about the writer began to grow and the OGPU tracked his movements. It was right at that time when Bulgakov began to enjoy some success thanks to the publication of his first novel, The White Guard, and also Diavoliada, his collection of satirical stories about Soviet life.
On May 7th, 1926, the police searched his house and confiscated The Heart of a Dog and his three diary notebooks. On September 22nd, they summoned him to an interrogation, where he explained:
“I can’t write about peasant themes because I don’t like the country. (…) More than anything else I am attracted by Russian intellectual life. I love it and consider it, despite its weakness, the best sector of the country. Its destiny affects me and its sufferings touch my heart.”
Bulgakov is direct and transparent, and so he defended his style of writing: “(…) But my mood is satirical. And my quill produces things that apparently are not well-received in Communist circles. I always write with a clean conscience and just the way I see things. The negative aspects of Soviet life catch my attention more because I instinctively observe in them good fodder for my works (I am a satirist).”
In The Heart of a Dog, as occurs in the highly-recommendable The Fatal Eggs (1924), Bulgakov resorts to a present-day doctor who, seduced by the scientific spirit of the time and lacking ethical principles, performs a transplant of certain organs from the cadaver of a common criminal to the body of Sharik, a street dog in Moscow. Doctor Philip Philipovich intends to study the influence of the pituitary gland and the testicles on the rejuvenation of the human body, a plot which at that time must not have been considered as crazy as it would be now, for after the October Revolution in the USSR, there was an eruption of feverish activity in all areas of knowledge, including medicine. Bulgakov, as a doctor, would surely have been aware of his colleagues’ research. One of them was Alexander Bodganov, unlike Bulgakov, quit politics and literature for the researcher’s robe in 1924. Bodganov was convinced that blood transfusions could extend life and rejuvenate patients, in addition to being a shot in the arm to the “Soviet exhaustion” that existed among the country’s elite. If Bodganov—who, incidentally, died from a contaminated blood transfusion—proposed that “hematological revolution in socialism,” it was not strange that Bulgakov would take advantage of the new wave of “social engineering” at the service of the perfect society to ridicule its little gods and its scientific aberrations against Nature.
In The Heart of a Dog, Professor Philipovich’s experiment triggers an unexpected result. The mongrel adopts the features and all the characteristics of the man, including his intelligence. When Sharik becomes aware of his new identity, he rebels against his creator, criticizing his counter-revolutionary spirit and his bourgeois existence. When Sharikov (his new name) becomes a man, he becomes a repulsive, rude and aggressive “comrade” for everyone, especially for Philipovich. Doctor’s creature becomes his worst enemy, yet Sharikov is the only genuine character, the only one who remains faithful to his convictions.
In this work, Bulgakov presents the freedom of the individual contrasted with the masses. He also criticizes the forced movements in a society that moves according to the dictates of its governors, favoring discord among the citizens and the appearance of denaturalized individuals. The Heart of a Dog was not published in the USSR until 1987.
Bulgakov’s preoccupation with the freedom and essence of man, his conception of the world and of Good and Evil, would be displayed in his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. By that time, this master of Russian literature had endured a career laden with troubles. His novels ceased to be published; his plays were continually censored; his determination to emigrate was never seriously considered by Stalin. Bulgakov died a neglected figure, a stateless person in his own country. However, time has done him justice. Mikhail Bulgakov is considered one of the bastions of universal literature. Readers the world over have surrendered to his power of seduction.
It must be because now, like then, Bulgakov’s irony can save us from pessimism.