Sunday, 19 February 2017

Rasputin: full of ecstasy and fire

As we immerse ourselves in this year’s commemoration of 1917, we should not forget the recently passed centenary of the man who was more responsible than any other for bringing down the Romanovs. Such a grand claim for Grigory Rasputin’s significance may invite scepticism, but Douglas Smith’s engrossing and deeply researched biography shows that it is sustainable, as long as “Rasputin” is securely encased within inverted commas. This Siberian holy man was important less for what he was and did than for what he was taken to do and be.

His story remains astonishing, even after all the previous tellings. In 1897, Rasputin was in his late twenties, middle-aged in peasant terms, and living with his parents, wife and son in a typical rural household in Western Siberia. He suddenly broke with family routine by embarking on several years of pilgrimage, returning home only intermittently. This period of spiritual quest and adventure honed his gifts of psychological insight and persuasion: as he wandered from one set of strangers to another, he learned to assess them rapidly, speak to their fears and concerns, and exude rough-hewn sanctity. Within a few years he had established himself as a local holy man with his own set of followers.

In 1904 or 1905, after making his way to Kazan and impressing prominent local clergymen, Rasputin gained an introduction to the St Petersburg Theological Academy. In the capital, he quickly found important patrons in the mystically inclined aristocratic and court elite. These connections led him soon enough to the imperial couple. He met the emperor for the first time in November 1905, and in due course became Nicholas and Alexandra’s most trusted and valued confidant. He would retain this status in the face of extraordinary pressures. For years he was hounded by Russia’s unruly press and subjected to close surveillance by the security police, usually at the instigation of officials deeply hostile to him; the voluminous police files are a large part of the reason that we know so much about Rasputin, and that Smith’s book can stretch to 700 pages without strain.

The Church was another powerful antagonist: Rasputin was investigated at length by the ecclesiastical authorities in his native Tobolsk on suspicion of engaging in a particularly nefarious form of sectarianism, and later on he would earn the undying enmity of much of the empire’s clerical establishment. Rasputin achieved the striking feat of uniting Russian society, if only in the conviction that he was responsible for corrupting the country’s autocracy and, in 1915–16, for leading Russia towards disaster in the war. A long succession of ministers, courtiers and family members warned Nicholas and Alexandra that Rasputin was undermining their authority and ruining the country, each time presenting them with apparently incontrovertible evidence of his depravity. Some of Rasputin’s opponents went even further: a deranged follower of the renegade monk Iliodor knifed him outside his house in June 1914, no less a figure than the Minister of Internal Affairs tried to arrange his murder, and Rasputin received death threats even on the day before the assassins finally got to him. In the early hours of December 17, 1916, he was shot dead, probably while fleeing his assailants in the yard of an aristocratic Petersburg residence.

We are left pondering several related questions: how did Rasputin survive as long as 1916; what was it about him that made the imperial couple shut their eyes to his ostensible turpitude; and what did his influence on them amount to? The reasons for Rasputin’s longevity lie partly within the imperial couple themselves. Nicholas was reserved and diffident, Alexandra was mystically inclined and pathologically private, but they both believed absolutely in the prerogatives of autocracy. They craved emotional support from someone who was not part of or beholden to the court elite around them. As Smith points out, Rasputin was not the first “Our Friend” at the imperial residence of Tsarskoe Selo: in the early 1900s Nicholas and Alexandra had been intimate with a renowned occultist named Monsieur Philippe, parting with him only after being told repeatedly of the damage he was doing to their reputation. It was only a matter of time before the Frenchman was replaced by someone closer to home. Rasputin was the right candidate at the right moment: as an authentic Russian peasant, a native of Siberia, that bastion of fearless and uncorrupted national values, he offered the imperial couple a direct line to “the people” and indulged their belief that they ruled in the interests of common folk and in defiance of treacherous urban elites. Perhaps Nicholas and Alexandra were not entirely misguided: the elites of court and high officialdom were hardly the most reliable source of disinterested information or intelligent insight, as Smith shows us at many turns.

But the causes of Rasputin’s success also lie within the man himself. He may not have possessed supernatural powers, but he did have a compelling aura of sympathy, insight, vitality and inner strength. His “miraculous” healing of the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei can readily be explained as the power of calming words delivered at just the right moment in just the right tone. At the same time, Smith shows, Rasputin’s broader influence on tsarist decision-making was hugely exaggerated. It is true that he offered a great deal of advice to Nicholas and Alexandra on matters of state; in his very first letter to Nicholas, just four days after their meeting, he told the Emperor how he should conduct himself in the face of the “terrible argument” (namely, revolutionary unrest) that was convulsing Russia at the time. But it is hard to demonstrate that this advice was ever decisive on any matter of great import. Rasputin’s main role was to tell the unconfident but deeply stubborn Emperor what he wanted to hear, and when he failed to do so, he was not notably more successful than anyone else in persuading Nicholas to change his mind. Although the international press speculated that Rasputin lent a hand in Russia’s slide to war in 1914, in fact he argued strongly against joining hostilities, and pacifism was an admirable constant in his world view. Here, as when he urged the Tsar in 1916 to make popular well-being his highest priority, Rasputin was quite often ignored when he gave good advice. He also tended to be ignored when he gave thoroughly useless advice on matters far beyond his competence. Where he was often successful was in securing more limited interventions – to put right cases of perceived injustice, to further careers, or to push through pet projects. Like any court favourite, Rasputin had considerable powers of patronage, which he dispensed in relatively equitable fashion, keeping open house to the endless flow of petitioners at his apartment on Gorokhovaya St. It was hard and dangerous work being a Svengali, and by late 1916 the compensations – drinking, dancing, women – probably did not seem adequate.

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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The untold story: Why Stalin created a cult of Alexander Pushkin

In 1937, the year of the Great Terror, Stalin decided to celebrate Pushkin as a socialist god in order to build popular support for his regime. While the poet was revered as a literary genius before the Russian Revolution, the Soviets took his reputation to a whole new level, almost deifying him in a sort of cult.

This year we mark not only the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, but also the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror in 1937. That year Soviet Russia also commemorated, on an unprecedented scale, the 100th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin’s death. The great poet had hitherto remained in the shadows, but in 1937 he took a central place in the Soviet cultural pantheon.

In place of nationless Marxism that rejected culture, national spirit, traditional statehood, and spirituality, Stalin decided to present the world with an almost classical culture-centric empire that had Pushkin at its heart.

The decision to celebrate Pushkin as a socialist god belonged to Stalin. To fully appreciate how unconventional his initiative was, it’s worth remembering that in the 19th century Pushkin was a poet known by only the intellectual elite. The reading list for the revolutionary intelligentsia did not include Pushkin because he was considered too distant and removed from the urgent needs of the people.

Stalin, however, was well-versed in classical Russian literature and was fond not only of the revolutionary Chernyshevsky, but also of Dostoevsky and Pushkin.

The decision to celebrate Pushkin was strongly influenced by the fact that starting from the mid-1920s the Russian diaspora abroad, which Soviet Russia was closely watching, developed a strong interest in Pushkin’s works. Stalin himself subscribed to nearly all major publications by Russian émigré circles.

In 1937, the Russian émigré community was planning to hold their own events celebrating Pushkin, which meant that the poet’s legacy could become a dangerous political weapon in their hands. So it was imperative to snatch this tool from the hands of the enemy! Such may have been Stalin’s logic, though historians aren’t sure.

Starting in 1922, annual official memorial services marked the anniversary of Pushkin's death where he was described as a "Russian spring, Russian morning, Russian Adam," and also compared to Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe.

Pushkin’s cult was promoted on an unprecedented level. Preparations for the anniversary involved everyone - academics, writers, composers, politicians and public figures, publishing houses, cinema companies, theaters, factories, as well as collective and state farms. Every single person in the country was to know that Pushkin is great! Pushkin is sacred!

New monuments to Pushkin were unveiled in Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi, and Yerevan. New streets, squares, schools, parks, subway stations, train stations, collective and state farms were either renamed after Pushkin or built in his honor. Artists painted giant canvases dedicated to Pushkin, composers wrote music singing his praises, and the leading theaters of Moscow and Leningrad competed in a race to make productions of Pushkin’s works.

Pushkin’s name was exclaimed by loudspeakers and gramophones, streets and squares were decorated with his portraits, and posters and postcards were printed. Literally every school, factory, and collective farm throughout the country staged nearly identical exhibitions about Pushkin.

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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Nicholas Roerich - Biography

Nicholas Roerich, also known as Nikolay Konstantinovich Rerikh, was a Russian artist, writer, archaeologist, philosopher and traveller.

He was the father of orientologist George Roerich (Yury Roerich) and artist Svyatoslav Roerich. Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena were founders of the Agni Yoga Society.

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One of the brightest representatives of Russian symbolism and modernism, his legacy is enormous. More than 7,000 paintings are exhibited in famous art galleries in different parts of the world. Being as gifted a writer as he was a painter, Roerich wrote books, tales, legends, poetry and commentaries on life and events. Nicholas was born in St. Petersburg into the family of a notary on October 9, 1874. In 1893 he enrolled simultaneously in the University Faculty of Law and the Emperor’s Academy of Arts, where he studied in the studio of the famous Russian landscape painter Arkhip Kuinji.

In 1900 Roerich studied in Paris with the artist Fernand Cormon.

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In 1901 Nicholas married Helena, the daughter of the architect Shaposhnikov, and a niece of prominent Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Helena was a talented pianist and the author of a number of books.

Also in 1901 Nicholas became Secretary of the School of the Society for the Encouragement of Art, later becoming its head, the first of many positions that Roerich would occupy as a teacher and spokesman for the arts.

In 1902 the Roerichs celebrated the birth of their first son Yury and in 1904 Svyatoslav was born. In 1909 Nicholas Roerich became an academician of the Russian Academy of Arts and in 1910 he became chairman of the ‘World of Art’ movement.

Roerich left Russia in 1917, the year of the revolution. He lived and worked in Scandinavia and England. In 1920 the Roerichs emigrated to the United States.

In 1923 Roerichs’ longtime dream came true when they embarked on their Central Asian tour, visiting India, Chinese Turkestan, Altai, Mongolia and Tibet. Nicholas wrote about this expedition in his book ‘Heart of Asia’, in which he described these mysterious lands and peoples. Nevertheless, the images are nowhere as vivid as in the paintings that resulted from the expedition.

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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Andrei Gelasimov's new novel shows all shades of cold

Into the Thickening Fog often feels like a quintessential Russian novel: it starts with a bout of heavy drinking, is set in a frozen northern city, and features dogs, demons and existential angst. Andrei Gelasimov’s novels have earned him numerous awards, and this 2015 offering, just out in English, has many hallmarks of his prize-winning playful style.

Eduard Filippov, a fashionable Moscow director, finds himself, impossibly hungover, on the floor of an airplane toilet with a misspelled boarding pass in his pocket. He is flying home to the “strange frozen city” where he grew up and where his young wife is buried.

As descriptions of hangovers go, this one is up there with the all-time literary classics, like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (his mouth had been “used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum”) or Stepan Likhodeev in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (“brown spots rimmed with fiery green floated between his eyeballs and his closed eyelids”).

Filippov wakes to find he has “someone else’s head … disgusting, sticky, recalcitrant. The alien head wouldn’t lift.” His other body parts start to revolt; “his stomach demanded to be taken where it could be sick … his hands’ modest wish was to shake and be covered in perspiration.” Filippov’s rallying is comically heroic.

Gelasimov’s earlier novels, with their lonely, battle-scarred young heroes, have a similar mix of gloom and comedy. This is the fifth Gelasimov novel that Marian Schwartz has translated, and she is a past master at capturing his allusive, elusive style. Here, his free-range references flap from classical (Circe, Charybdis), biblical (friendship three times denied) and Shakespearean (leaping, like Hamlet, into his dead wife’s grave or quoting Macbeth’s sound and fury) to pop cultural (his noisy breathing like a “raspy, unintelligible, and infinitely lonely Darth Vader”, hair standing up like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future).

This many-layered cultural tapestry and a strong sense of the town’s frozen atmosphere are the novel’s strengths, outweighing the sporadic tug of its deliberately fractured plot. Into the Thickening Fog has a strong sense of place. Gelasimov himself grew up in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. An indifferent hotel receptionist looks at Filippov and, for a second, “the entire millennial tundra, with its deer, nomad camps, lichen, midges, lost geologists, and hard frosts, was looking at him through her narrow eyes.”

Cold is both symbol and central character in Gelasimov’s sometimes baffling tale. Schwartz has called the English translation Into the Thickening Fog, underlining Filippov’s confused adventure into the murky past, but the original Russian title means simply “Cold”.

In December 2002, the Siberian city of Yakutsk, where Gelasimov went to University, had a real-life emergency similar to the one in the novel, leaving the city in danger of freezing. Gelasimov uses this extreme cold as an extended metaphor for human alienation, rather than the basis for an apocalyptic scenario (although one character observes “our situation is more of a disaster novel”).

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Monday, 23 January 2017

The Living Truth - Alexander Herzen

‘Time is money’, say the English. In reality, time is much, much more precious than money: time is ourselves. — Alexander Herzen 

It is difficult to write about Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. One can hardly say the simplest thing about him: he was a Russian aristocratic philosopher, but born a landowner’s illegitimate son who polemicised against Tsarism; an early revolutionary, he cautioned against going too fast, lest Russian society broke under the strain; hailed for denouncing official misrule, ultimately he was scorned by both the Romantic dissenters of the 1840s and the nihilists of the 1860s; once as famous as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy, he died in relative obscurity; patient, even unrealistic about people’s real intentions, he could be a bitter critic who engaged in long-running feuds; an attentive and loving family man, he committed adultery and was distraught when his wife fell in love with a minor German poet; trained in the natural sciences at Moscow University, he went on to write philosophy, political essays, socialist polemics, history, fiction and a monumental memoir.

Herzen left no central body of doctrine after his death, was adopted by figures as different as Lenin and Isaiah Berlin, and continues to generate various interpretations about his ‘real’ significance.

One can say one thing with certainty, however: to read Herzen is to get involved in ‘those damned questions’, as Dostoevsky called them. How should we live? Where does human responsibility end and fate, or God, or evil begin? What is freedom – is it a supreme virtue or a crime? Is Utopia attainable or even desirable? Is a ‘better’ society valuable to the present, or a nasty dream, used to deceive today’s freethinkers?

Such questions weren’t idle to many 19th century Russians: instead, they were treated with a seriousness that is easy to caricature (the ‘heart-on-sleeve’ bearded Russian, holding forth about life and death deep into the night, candle on the table, icon on the wall, feverishly smoking a dozen cigarettes), but harder to dismiss.

Moreover, Herzen’s magnum opus – his autobiography My Past & Thoughts – transgresses genres and stylistic registers: it is at once a realistic account of a 19th century life, a biting reflection on Tsarism, a love story with a bitter twist, a historically fascinating analysis of European revolution and counterrevolution, and a searing socialist testament. It rivals Tolstoy’s War & Peace in its impatient ambition to say more than others, in a form shaped around its multifaceted content.

To be frank, this kind of seriousness is astonishing.

Slavic scholar Aileen M. Kelly, a veteran interpreter of Herzen, is acutely aware of how difficult her subject is to describe: one does not doubt how many troubled hours she must have spent getting his life and thought into a coherent shape for her wonderful, sprawling – if ultimately flawed – The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen.

Correctly seeing Herzen as an anti-systematiser in an age of grand theories and projects (e.g. Marxism, imperialism and forceful Christianity), Kelly grounds her subject in the natural sciences. She casts him as a humanist par excellence, who nonetheless started with a fierce interest in science, developing into a Darwinian before Darwin, later taking evolutionary theory to be a rich exploration of all that is contingent, messy and disruptive.

On the one hand, Kelly is excellent when she analyses how Herzen argued that time is not a unifying force; that the future isn’t bound by external laws to be better or simpler; that responsibility cannot be deferred; and that one must act with the tools at hand to make the present as just as possible. And yet, for all her intellectual brilliance and elective affinity with Herzen, she focusses too much on the brain, often remaining neutral or silent about the heart, in a way her subject certainly did not.

The Discovery of Chance has a neat structure. It takes us from Herzen’s birth and upbringing to his intellectual awakening; literary career and anti-authoritarian polemics; domestic and foreign exile; marriage and parenthood; political fame as founder and publisher of The Bell (imported into Russia from Herzen’s exile in London, and often credited with single-handedly creating Russian public opinion); later familial and political disappointments; and relatively quiet death.

Nonetheless, despite its traditional construction, each chapter bursts at the seams with learning, restless curiosity and an infectious admiration for its polymath subject. Herzen is present on virtually every page, frequently outthinking both friend and foe, driven to say more, even when he is conscious of the loss of his legal position in Russian society, the support of fellow radicals, political influence, friendships and family members (he fell into deep depression at one tragic point in his life, when his mother drowned and his wife died in close succession).

Kelly is a superb guide, not only aware but fully conversant with Herzen’s explorations of thinkers as diverse as Francis Bacon, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Proudhon and Bakunin, not to mention the less famous names Herzen either championed or, not infrequently, argued with.

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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir

TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Leo Tolstoy in 1879. First, he had mostly given up on fiction, having published his two titanic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter book exhausted him physically and morally: not long after its appearance, he termed his saga of adultery “an abomination.” He found novel writing to be a poor substitute for confronting religious issues and his existential lot. Second, because of his early literary acclaim and the immoral lifestyle it had spawned and enabled, he was miserable. He was so ashamed of himself that post-Karenina his ambivalent atheism collapsed and he sought a new relationship to the “truth.” He abdicated the throne of novelist and took up the mantle of religious critic — on the side of Christianity and against it.

Raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy lost his religion at 18. After a life of debauchery, in his early 50s, he wanted religion — or some source of intellectual security — back. In 1882, he published his Confession, a retrospective analysis of the previous five years in which his midlife crisis of faith unbalanced his literary and philosophical bearing. It is among the oddest of Christian tell-alls, a treatise searching for its own focal truth. Throughout, he hungers for spiritual fortitude: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” Readers note that the title has no “a” or “the” attached. (There are no articles in Russian, but this particular absence in English is meaningful.) The singular noun by itself emphasizes its currency.

Early on in the book, he asserts, in defiance, that “Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one’s relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one’s own life.” He pegs believers as “stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.” He tags unbelievers as the finest people he knows: they have “[i]ntelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality.” He renounces religion in favor of “reading and thinking” — in essence, reason — and recalls that five years prior “my only real faith […] was a faith in self-perfection.”

Of course, reason means progress, and progress, for an egoist like Tolstoy, entails an unchecked liberality in one’s behaviors. At this, the young Tolstoy, an aristocrat and braggart, more than excelled. Here’s part of his resume:
I killed people in war, I challenged people to duels in order to kill them, I lost at cards, I consumed the labor of peasants, I punished them, I fornicated, I deceived. Lies, theft, adultery of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder. … There was no crime I did not commit, and for all this my contemporaries praised me and thought me a relatively moral man, as they still do.
But the hyper-observant and self-obsessed Tolstoy suffers, despite his ego, a debilitating paranoia. He believes that people ridicule him because of his alcoholic, adulterous, and arrogant excesses. He has often imagined he’s dying: the darkness is drawing close, and he must find a purpose, because soon, for him, “nothing will remain but stink and worms.” (The death-obsessed Russian lived another 30 years after Confession.) At times, despair clings to his words like a rose vine: “You can only live as long as you’re drunk with life; but when you sober up, you can’t help but see that all this is just a fraud, and a stupid fraud. Precisely that: there’s nothing even amusing or witty about it; it’s simply cruel and stupid.” He says he doesn’t know why the universe exists. He is tortured by the question. He wants it answered; he can’t bear living in an untended and unintended cosmos.

By mid-book, Tolstoy’s searching starts to change — not just his focus but his sensibility. To unburden his longing, he quotes Bible passages, an Indian sage, and nuggets from the saints and the martyrs, honoring what he said earlier were useless “teachings of faith.” He wonders if to feel secure all we need is the wisdom of the ancients. These teachings have, he argues, lasted this long. His disclosures work him into a lather, and he declares that a pure belief in reason, without room for God as ultimate mystery, leads to insanity and suicide. A worrywart, Tolstoy plunges on with the tone of a querulous depressive. Moreover, he shifts, as it suits his gain, the blame for who should tow his anguish: from pagan nihilists to scientific rationalists to Orthodox dogmatists to jurisprudent bureaucrats — these last, the Ivan Ilyiches of the world. The only blameless one, he decides, is he who lives as Jesus lived. And yet, he counters, who can? It’s impossible.

Tolstoy decides that no faith is truer than the Christian peasant’s, whose “irrational knowledge” paves the road to happiness. Irrational knowledge is faith, he posits. Peasants should know. They are (though he aspires to join up, Tolstoy is definitely not one of them) the “great mass of people, the whole of mankind” — the nonindividuated mass, whom he lauds but who also rise, in his characterization, no higher than type. Uniformly, he writes in Chapter VIII, they believe God is “one and three,” father, son, spirit, “creation in six days, devils and angels and everything I couldn’t accept as long as I didn’t go mad.” That odd admission, with its tortuous grammar and emphatic final clause — as long as I didn’t go mad — is a performative leap away from his natural inclinations. He needs to believe something that transcends his inherent, incessant self-questioning, and he decides to do so. For him, peasant certainty is true because he, the great literary arbiter of truth, has arrived at it, not because Christianity has told him to accept it.

Thus, with a thunderclap, Tolstoy’s short and intensely self-defensive polemic turns into a classic Christian conversion story, worthy of Augustine’s tale of tribulation. After weighing all the possibilities, mad or not, Tolstoy drapes the crucifix around his neck. As one of his best biographers, Martine de Courcel, writes, he has, rather Christianly, “admitted his sins and proclaimed his faith.” Saved, he declares that his actions from now on will embody his intentions — he will attend church, participate in sacraments, live frugally, leave his bourgeois habits, love God and peasant equally. But wait. Opening faith’s creaking door hardly calms his restlessness. Though Tolstoy says he erred “not so much because I thought wrongly as because I lived badly,” the insight is not enough. He cannot settle his thoughts. Try as he might, Tolstoy, a self-cleansing fanatic, cannot rid himself of his deviant past or his disputatious nature. He can neither forgive himself nor stop analyzing the demands of Christian belief. As long as he keeps writing pages, he’s not sure about Christ as savior or about divine intervention. His belief demands more and more tuning.

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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog still bites

Mikhail Bulgakov was 33 years old, a former doctor and an up-and-coming playwright and short-story writer when he invited a group of people to a reading of his new novella, The Heart of a Dog. He had held a similar soiree the previous year to launch another novella, The Fatal Eggs, and though the earlier reading had gone well, it had made him anxious enough to muse in his diary: “Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? … I’m afraid that I might be hauled off … for all these heroic feats.”

His premonition proved right. Among the 50 or so people who gathered in the Moscow apartment in March 1925 to be introduced to Sharik, the humanoid dog, and the arrogant surgeon who created him, was an informer who took violent exception to his send-up of Soviet society. Bulgakov’s flat was searched and the manuscript seized. Though it was returned to him four years later, and was widely read in samizdat, it would not be officially published in Russian until 1987, nearly half a century after Bulgakov had died.

Sharik makes his first appearance as a mangy mongrel, cringing in a blizzard after being douched with boiling water by a cook. Out of a brightly lit shop walks a man (“definitely a citizen, not a comrade, or perhaps even – most likely – a gentleman”) with a nasty smell of hospital and cigars. Philip Philipovich also smells of the sausage he has just bought to lure Sharik back to his apartment, a seven-room suite in a building that has been requisitioned by a committee of zealous young revolutionaries.

This opening scene conveys so much about the early Soviet Union as Bulgakov saw it: the State Food Store selling cheap horsemeat sausage, the middle-aged professional “gentleman” hanging on to his privileges in an edifice that has been turned over to a proletarian command and which struggles to keep the boilers working and the galoshes from being stolen from the communal hallway.

Into the middle of it all bounds the cat-hating Sharik, who literally shatters the glass between the two orders of society before being hauled on to an operating table and subjected to Philip Philipovich’s latest experiment, described in gruesome medical detail: to see what happens when a dog is implanted with the testicles and pituitary glands of a human.

The creature that emerges from the operation walks on two legs, drinks, smokes, and is “familiar with every known Russian swearword”. Issued with identity papers in the name of Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, he is placed “in charge of the Moscow Cleansing Department responsible for eliminating vagrant quadrupeds (cats, etc)”, but not before he has stolen from gentlemen and comrades alike, brought vagrants in from the street and attempted to have his wicked way with the women of the house while they slept.

A year before the fateful reading of The Heart of a Dog, Trotsky published an essay collection, Literature and Revolution, which argued for a people’s art capable of creating “a higher social biologic type, or … superman”.

But if Bulgakov the political commentator was sending up Soviet theories of human perfectibility though communism, Bulgakov the former physician was also poking fun at the western Europeans who were flocking to Paris-based celebrity quack Serge Voronoff in the belief that he could restore virility with an injection of monkey glands. These are the crumple-necked ladies, the men with green hair or heads as bald as dinner plates who Sharik woozily observes stripping off in Philipovich’s consulting room in the hope that their old money will buy them new vigour.

In Bulgakov’s own formulation, his novella is both satire and provocative gesture. Its genius is that its sights are multi-directional, so 92 years and many regime changes later it still seems freshly defiant.

It is also a riotous science-fiction comedy that anticipates the current vogue for political dystopias. It also harnesses the archetype of the overreaching scientist to the task of lampooning vanities that are too easily recognised in the age of cosmetic surgery and cryonics.

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