Maria Mutka ’21
Last week, the Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (REES) Department’s “Revolutions” Film Series rallied again for its second meeting.
The film selected for screening was Vladimir Bortko’s 1988 adaptation of Russian counter-revolutionary Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “Heart of a Dog” (собачье сердце). Bortko’s film is a faithful adaptation of Bulgakov’s comedic, science-fiction novel, originally produced in 1925, that contains a strong political message.
As Professor Evgeny Dengub, lecturer in Russian, explained in his brief introduction to the film, “The historical and political contexts of this novel are a crucial part of its staying power today.” This could also explain why the film adaptation was produced over 60 years after the novel’s inception.
In 1925, Mikhail Bulgakov was writing “Heart of a Dog,” during the short-lived New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia. According to the BBC, the NEP was the “return to a market economy and a brief period of stability,” before Stalin’s rise to power.
Amidst this blip of extreme fragility in the Soviet government, only eight years after the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Bulgakov choose to boldly assert his disapproval of the regime’s new ideal for the “New Soviet Man,” with his biting and thinly disguised satire.
When Bulgakov first read “Heart of a Dog” to an audience in 1925, according to critic James Meek from The Guardian, “The bulk of the audience seem to have hoped that Bulgakov's new novel, A Dog's Heart, would similarly mock the rickety state of affairs that Vladimir Lenin's heirs had inherited. It did.”
Unfortunately, however, the new Soviet government took the criticism to heart and seized the manuscript and thus precluded its publishing. Ultimately, “Heart of a Dog” was not officially published until the tail end of Soviet Russia in 1987. Only a year later, in 1988, Bortko’s film was released, signifying the popularity and resonance of the work with the Russian people, despite the six decades of separation since it was written.
From the opening moments of the film, as the sepia-filtered shots slowly crackle to life, the viewer is transported to 1925. Initially, the story is told from the perspective of a stray dog, Sharik.
Not unlike what some Soviet citizens were experiencing at this time, he lives in a harsh, unforgivingly cold environment of abuse and starvation. That is until Sharik is lured into a warm, kind home by Professor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky, a stand-in for the remaining bourgeoisie in society, who also practices some questionable medicine.
Whilst working in his practice, the professor is soon confronted by his new Communist Party neighbors, who are attempting to limit the professor’s home property to fewer rooms. Thus, he is constantly bemoaning their existence, particularly their constant singing and lack of galoshes, resulting in muddy footprints in the building.
From here, things begin to spiral downward for the professor. Assisted by the equally ridiculous Dr. Ivan Arnoldovich Bormental, he performs an operation on Sharik. He gives him a human pituitary gland and testicles. This results in a massive change unforeseen even by the world-renowned professor. Sharik, now a Frankenstein-esque creation, morphs into a man.
Over a span of days, Sharik begins to speak, walk, talk and think for himself. Sharik, who soon renames himself Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, is now the “New Soviet Man,” in line with Bulgakov’s interpretation of the proletariat who rose up to govern Russia as crude and uneducated. Unbeknownst to the professor, he has just created what he despises most: The new Soviet proletariat.
Soon after his humanization, Sharikov begins wreaking havoc. He lusts and chases after women, destroys property and is difficult to tolerate in general; he remains entirely an animal in his behavior. Sharikov is then easily groomed to join the Communist Party, where he takes up the job of ridding the city of cats.
In the end, the professor has lost all patience and reaches his limit with his creation. Unable to stand this archetypal “New Soviet Man” any longer, the professor reverses the operation. Sharikov’s body again matches his mentality and his actions. As a result, there is some powerful questioning of science and ethics, in addition to all the political allegory.
The REES Department’s “Revolutions” Film Series will continue on Thursday, October 19 in Seelye 106 for a screening of “The Last Station” at 7 p.m. There will be an introduction to the film at 6:45.