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• Saturday, March 19th, 2016

Mikhail Afanasyevich Boulgakov was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1891, during the Russian empire, and died from a kidney disease in 1940 in Moscow during the Soviet era. He was one of seven children, the eldest of three brothers. His father was an assistant professor at the Kiev Theological Academy and his mother a former teacher.

After finishing high school, Boulgakov studied medicine at the Medical Faculty of Kiev University. He graduated in 1916 and worked as a surgeon in Chernovtsy hospital in Ukraine before dedicating his life to writing: plays, novels and short stories. He married three times, the first in 1913, the second in1924 and the third time in 1931.

Boulgakov was known for his scathing attacks on the communist regime which caused his disgrace by the authorities and by 1930 he was no longer allowed to publish his work. His request for permission to leave the country was refused and his literary ostracism remained until he died. Boulgakov was posthumously and slowly rehabilitated ten years after his death in the late 1950s but it wasn’t until 1962 that many of his plays, novels and short stories were published.

Heart Of A Dog, written in Russian and published in 1925 was banned from publication by the Soviet authorities soon after, because it was considered to be controversial and regarded as an allegory of the unsuccessful Russian revolution as well as a criticism of the new regime and an attack on their political idealism. The novel was first translated into English by Michael Glenny in 1968, long before it was allowed to be officially published in the Soviet Union in 1987, sixty-two years after the novel had been written and forty-seven years after Boulgakov’s death.

The story is set in Moscow in the early nineteen twenties. It starts with a badly mistreated, injured, suffering and moaning street mongrel dog, who due to starvation has been rummaging through dustbins searching for food when a cruel cook scolds it with boiling water as a deterrent. The poor dog, out of breath, lies in agony under a porch, crying and bitterly bemoaning his fate, his rough life and the challenges he has to endure for survival, especially in the cold freezing winter.

The renowned surgeon, professor Filip Filippovitch, who happens to be passing, encounters the shabby dog. The professor gives him a piece of sausage, buys him food, takes him home, feeds him, looks after him and treats his badly wounded, burnt flank.

The dog is given the name Sharik (a common name given to dogs in Russia) and is a Godsend for the professor who wants to carry out an audacious experiment, with the help of his assistant, Dr Bormenthal, by transplanting the genital glands as well as the pituitary gland of a freshly dead human unto Sharik’s body. The result is astoundingly successful but the draw back is that the good natured dog becomes an uncontrollable, lustful, hairy man with a foul vocabulary, a thug, an alcoholic and a petty thief like the twenty-eight-year old deceased man he is replacing. Nevertheless, he still keeps some of the dog impulse like hating and chasing cats.

Sharik evolves into Sharikov and blends in well with communist society by becoming an eager government worker. When Professor Filippovitch is faced with all the indoor and outdoor problems that Sharikov is creating he becomes strict with him by trying to educate him to be civil, reasonable and act responsibly but to no avail. Sharikov resents the professor and his strict discipline. In fact he dislikes him intensely and threatens to denounce him to the authorities for being a reactionary by making negative remarks against the revolution.

Heart Of A Dog narrated by the dog, Sharikov, is a scornful satirical comedy on pseudo-science, a surreal mixture of fact and fantasy. The author denounces the corruption, prejudice and bigotry of the communist regime and its leaders who were more intent on pillage and class vindictiveness than creating a better new life for their citizens. In his novel the author expresses, through professor Filippovitch, the overcritical protagonist, his disapprobation of the Soviet system by depicting a 1917 revolution that lost its way and went wrong.

The unprecedented, presumptuous, cruel and inhuman experiment that Professor Filippovitch and his assistant Dr Bormenthal undertake, depicts the folly of men who don’t know the limits of their power and start tampering with the unknown, to the detriment of celestial and natural powers, to end up with an alarmingly threatening and fiendish result. Heart Of A Dog is an imaginative story with a strong message that can be interpreted as an allegory of the Soviet Union’s political system, which is like professor Filippovitch’s experiment on the stray dog, clearly doomed to failure.

Luckily, with the experiment done on Sharik, there is a reversibility. After realising his failure, professor Filippovitch undertakes a surgical operation on Sharikov, this time removing the human glands and transplanting to Sharik his original genital and pituitary glands which had been preserved. After the successful reverse operation, the uncontrollable, ungrateful fake human, Sharikov returns to his former harmless state as the pleasant, grateful dog, Sharik.

At the time of writing his novel, Boulgakov didn’t know that his wish would come true, one day, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 after about seventy years of existence and fifty one years after his death. Mikhail Boulgakov was a man with a vision that was ahead of its time.

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