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Eugenics, Rejuvenation, and Bulgakov's Journey into the Heart of Dogness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


This new reading of Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog challenges the two lines of thought that dominate existing interpretations. Cold Warinspired critics saw in the banned novella an anti-Soviet political allegory and ignored its astute treatment of Soviet debates on biosocial issues. Most other critics have cast Preobrazhenskii as a mad scientist in the Frankenstein tradition, unleashing forces he himself cannot control. Putting aside false antitheses, Bulgakov's novella emerges as a fictional exploration of ideas in eugenics, hormone replacement therapy, and the nature-nurture debate that had real urgency for early Soviet geneticists struggling for ideological support, and for Bolshevik policymakers trying to create a “New Soviet Man.” In this article, Yvonne Howell describes the competing scientific paradigms that provide a backdrop to Bulgakov's work and shows how attitudes from across the “nature-nurture” spectrum appear and interact in Heart of a Dog through the voices of its principal characters.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2006

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I am grateful to David Brandenberger for his stimulating comments on an earlier version, and for many conversations thereafter. Tim Sergay responded with cogent critiques and witty suggestions to every query I sent his way. I also want to thank Diane Koenker, Jane Hedges, and the two anonymous reviewers for their astute and thoughtful readings. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote the original manuscript of Sobach'e serdtse from January to March 1925 and submitted it to the journal Nedra for publication. No less than L. B. Kamenev eventually torpedoed its prospects for publication, denouncing the novella as “an acerbic broadside about the present age.“J. A. E. Curtis, Manuscripts Don't Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov. A Life in Letters and Diaries (London, 1991), 75. The history of the manuscript's subsequent confiscation (from Bulgakov's apartment on 7 May 1926) and posthumous recovery has been discussed in detail elsewhere. See Curtis, Manuscripts Don't Burn; Edythe C. Haber, Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); and Lesley Milne, Mikhail Bulgakov, a Critical Biography (Cambridge, Mass., 1990). The first Russian-language edition of Heart of a .Dog-was published in Germany in 1968 (Grani, no. 9, 3-85), but it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987 (Znamia, no. 6, 76-135). Since 1987 it has been continually in print. Marietta Chudakova's masterful “Arkhiv M. A. Bulgakova” (1976; held in Gosudarstvennaia biblioteka im. Lenina, Zapiski otdela rukopisei, no. 37) managed to invoke Bulgakov's banned work indirectly, referring to it in a discussion of Soviet press coverage of rejuvenation in the 1920s. The epigraph and all quotations in this article are taken from Mikhail Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, trans. Mirra Ginsburg (New York, 1968).

1. Peter Edidin, “In Search of Answers from the Great Brains of Cornell,” New York Times, 24 May 2005, Section F.

2. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 104.

3. Ibid., 105.

4. I am indebted to the many previous critical studies of Bulgakov's novella for their various insights. I do not agree with the two lines of thought that dominate existing interpretations of Heart of a Dog, however. Cold War-inspired critics did not dwell on the novella's scientific theme, obscured as it was by the presence of subversive political satire, which they were eager to find in a piece of banned Soviet literature. Most other critics have cast Preobrazhenskii as a mad scientist in the Frankenstein tradition, one who unleashes forces he himself cannot control. See, for example, Proffer, Ellendea, Bulgakov: Life and Work (Ann Arbor, 1984)Google Scholar; Wright, A. C., Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations (Toronto, 1978)Google Scholar; and Diana Burgin, “Bulgakov's Early Tragedy of the Scientist-Creator: An Interpretation of Heart of a Dog,” Slavic and East European fournal 22, no. 4 (1978): 494-508. While there is ample evidence for the importance of political satire and the condemnation of scientific hubris in the novella, taken together the two approaches yield unsatisfactory contradictions. If one sees in the novel a thundering anti-Soviet tirade, then Preobrazhenskii, as the most forceful and articulate voice of this tirade, must be viewed in a positive light. To cast him as a sinister scientist is difficult when it is clear that Bulgakov has enormous sympathy for his formidable protagonist, whose views on society, political reform, and Soviet housing committees he largely shares. On the other hand, if one views with horror the elitist Professor's dangerous dabbling in sex gland grafts and trans-speciation, then Bulgakov's intent to create an anti-Soviet broadside is called into question.

5. The essays in Irina Paperno and Joan Delaney Grossman, eds., Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism (Stanford, 1994) foreground the uniquely Russian modernist impulse to literally transform artistic, mystical, and religious ideals into real life. Philosophers like Nikolai Fedorov and Vladimir Solov'ev called for projects that would make metaphors about “eternal life” and “universal love” into scientific and social realities.

6. Siniavskii, Andrei, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History (New York, 1990), 114.Google Scholar

7. Leon [Lev] Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York, 1957), 184.

8. See Adams, Mark, “The Soviet Nature-Nurture Debate,” in Graham, Loren, ed., Science and the Soviet Social Order (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).Google Scholar Adams cites letters from the Petrograd publisher M. V. Sabashnikov to Iu. A. Filipchenko, in which Sabashnikov inquires about “books with a materialist approach to man and nature that he felt would appeal to political authorities” (98). Eric Naiman also emphasizes the vitality of the public discourse connecting biomedical and social topics in die 1920s. A good example is the discussion carried out in the popular press about the endocrine system, which some authors “used … to explore the real meaning of the term ‘soul’ … or as proof diat God did not exist.” Eric Naiman, Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology (Princeton, 1997), 143. This kind of biosocial discourse was effectively cut off in the 1930s and did not return to the Soviet press again until the 1970s, when a few journals began to publish censored versions of essays on sociobiology by V. R. Dol'nik, V. P. Efroimson, and others.

9. See articles by V. P. Osipov, “K voprosu o merakh fizicheskogo ozdorovleniia potomstva,” Russkiievgenicheskiizhurnal 3, no. 1 (1925): 37-45; A.V Gorbunov, “Rozhaemost’ moskovskoi intelligentsii po dannym ankety russkogo evgenicheskogo obshchestva,” Russkii evgenicheskii zhurnal 6, no. 1 (1928): 3-53; and Ia. Ia. Roginskii, “Ucheniie o kharaktere i evoYmtsii,” Russkii evgenicheskii zhurnal 6, no. 2 (1928): 65-106.

10. N. K. Kol'tsov, “Uluchsheniie chelovecheskoi porody,” Russkii evgenicheskii zhurnal l, no. 1 (1922): 1.

11. I have not been able to determine whether Bulgakov had specifically read Kol'tsov's programmatically titled article. Given Bulgakov's decision to use the popular topic of rejuvenation surgery to motivate his plot, it is even more likely that he would have seen Kol'tsov's edited volume Omolozheniie (Moscow, 1923). As a former medical student, and as the relative of several doctors, Bulgakov knew scientists of Kol'tsov's generation socially and translated his acquaintance with their milieu into the deeply felt portrayal of Preobrazhenskii. Thus, in Preobrazhenskii-die-scientistwe find the quirks of a very threedimensional man (one who addresses a political tirade to “the hapless cardboard duck which hung upside down from the sideboard,” 36). These quirks convincingly inhabit the two-dimensional figure of Preobrazhenskii-the-wizard who plays a more symbolic role in the novel.

12. An invaluable overview of the rise and fall of the Soviet eugenics movement can be found in Mark Adams, “Eugenics as Social Medicine in Revolutionary Russia,” in Susan Gross Solomon and John F. Hutchinson, eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, 1990). In recent years, Russian historians have used opened archives to produce a fuller account of the nexus between genetic science and social issues in the early Soviet years. See, for instance, a forthcoming cultural history of the Soviet eugenics movement by Vasilii Babkov (Moscow, manuscript in preparation).

13. Kammerer, Paul, The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics (New York, 1924).Google Scholar

14. Note that this view is still hotly defended in some circles. In Russia, as late as 1992, Nikolai Dubinin's Istoriia i tragediia sovetskoi genetiki (Moscow, 1992) singles out the biosocial theories of V. P. Efroimson, M. E. Lobashev, B. L. Astaurov, and P. F. Pokitskii for hostile attack. By taking the work of these geneticists out of context, Dubinin implies that their belief in biological contributions to certain ethical and psychological phenomena is equivalent to “anti-humanist eugenics … the basis of racist, fascist ideology” (324).

15. With NEP (1921-1928) Lenin hoped to jump-start the country's devastated economy by temporarily allowing some private economic activity. Entrepreneurs in certain market sectors were able to flourish, and it is this class of nouveaux riches that Bulgakov pokes fun at in the depiction of Preobrazhenskii's clients. Interest in rejuvenating organ transplants was hardly native or unique to Russia in the 1920s, however. The most famous and notoriously successful purveyor of sexual rejuvenation in the United States was “Doctor” John Brinkley. Brinkley ran a lucrative business transplanting the sex glands of Toggenburg goats into an unending stream of male clients who were convinced by Brinkley's claims that the procedure would cure impotence and reinvigorate the whole endocrine system. At his peak in the 1930s, Brinkley was a fabulously wealthy man whose political connections reached to the White House. See also Kahn, Arnold, “Recovering Lost Youth: The Controversial and Colorful Beginnings of Hormone Replacement Therapy in Aging,” Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences 60A, no. 2 (2005): 142-47Google Scholar; and Freeman, Erica R., Bloom, David A., and McGuire, Edward J., “A Brief History of Testosterone, “Journal of Urology 165, no. 2 (February 2001): 371-73.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

16. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 1.

17. Ibid., 5.

18. Ibid., 122.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 25.

21. Ibid., 24.

22. Ibid., 104.

23. Ibid., 34.

24. Ibid., 35.

25. Ibid., 56.

26. Ibid., 60.

27. Note that Mechnikov's portrait hangs on the wall of the Professor's waiting room until the unruly Sharik smashes it in a rampage that precedes his operation. Mechnikov's study of comparative pathology helped put the older notion of a “great chain of being” onto firmer scientific footing. In 1908, Mechnikov won the Nobel Prize for work that showed that the immune defenses in higher organisms show traces of dieir evolutionary origins in more primitive animals. Evidence that higher organisms retain structural features of the lower organisms could be interpreted philosophically as a validation of the “unbroken chain of evolution” that leads from animal to man. Indeed, in his 1909 speech Mechnikov emphasized that the study of comparative pathology had shown us that “man is a blood relative of the animal world.” See Alexander Vucinich, Darwin in Russian Thought (Berkeley, 1988), 281.

28. In this view, no fundamental, mysterious divide uniquely separates Homo sapiens from the rest of die animal world. This concept is also explored (and rejected) in Osip Mandel'shtam's poem of the same period “Lamarck.” In the knowledge of good and evil, Mandel'shtam implies, we are unique and have stepped off the evolutionary scale.

29. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 63.

30. The theories of Bulgakov's near contemporary, the Soviet linguist Nikolai Iakovlevich Marr (1864-1934) might have influenced the direction of Bulgakov's satire as much as the delicious temptation of translating the Pygmalion story, with its valorization of elitist values, to the inverted world of a socialist cultural revolution. Already prior to the revolution, Marr had arrived at his idea that all human languages can be traced back to a single universal proto-tongue. After the revolution, he found an easy compatibility between his original sociolinguistic leanings and Marxist doctrine. He proposed that language mirrors class consciousness, like any other superstructure. He went so far as to suggest that the languages of the economic underclass—whether French, German, Russian, or Chinese—should have more in common with each other than with the corresponding upper-class language spoken by the elite of each language group. In short, Marr suggested that if the economic base of a society changes—as it had most dramatically in Russia—then language will change, too. Bulgakov pokes fun at the problem that this theory— which reigned supreme in the 1920s—posed for the zealous proponents of socialist rebuilding. Heart of a Dog presents a world in which the Russian language seems to be strained to the breaking point: The Professor speaks with elevated correctness and constantly sings verses from Giuseppe Verdi's operas under his breath; the housing committee members speak in an incomprehensible new language of Soviet bureaucratese; and Sharikov continues to swear with gusto, even as he assimilates bureaucratic jargon to manipulate his advantage.

31. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 64.

32. Quoted in Adams, “Eugenics as Social Medicine in Revolutionary Russia,” 213. Iu. A. Filipchenko (1882-1930) received his doctorate in zoology and comparative anatomy in 1917 and was soon promoted to professor of zoology at Petrograd University. Filipchenko was an indefatigable teacher, organizer, and promoter of genetic research in Petrograd. His view of eugenics—which he avidly promoted in the college curriculum and in popular books—was based on a stricdy Mendelian understanding of how traits are inherited. Therefore, he understood eugenics as having to do with the promise of scientific research to improve human lives (what today we might call “medical genetics“), but he had no patience for any suggestion that hereditary traits can be acquired through the influence of the external environment.

33. One view of linguistic origins is essentially biological, as evidenced in the implicit meaning encoded in our ideas about “native speakers” and the “mother tongue.” T. P. Bonfiglio, unpublished manuscript. If the innateness of our capacity for language somehow extends to an “innate” aptitude for the language of our forbearers, then Sharikov has inherited his “native” capacity for Russian from Klim, and he presumably sucked in the sounds of mat along with his mother's milk (he was born a street mutt).

34. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 99.

35. Ibid., 68.

36. For a full discussion of the intersections between Russian literary culture and early twentieth-century psychiatric theory in Russia, see Sirotkina, Irina, Diagnosing Literary Genius: A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, 2002).Google Scholar

37. Bulgakov depicts the recipients of sex gland grafts as sexual maniacs indulging in grotesque excess (one old man relishes visions of being flocked by naked young women every night; a female patient in her fifties keeps up with her ardent young lover, etc.). Yet as Naiman points out in his chapter, “The Discourse of Castration,” in Sex in Public, early Soviet interpretations of rejuvenation therapy were enthusiastic for reasons that were antithetical to Bulgakov's satirical portrayal. In the Soviet press, rejuvenation was tied to the sublimation of sexual energies, presumably into the healthy work of building socialism. So, for instance, a procedure that involved tying the vas deferens to prevent ejaculation was assumed to have a rejuvenating effect becavise it prevented vital secretions from being spent externally and redirected them internally to the benefit of the whole organism. Also, this procedure would obviously prevent the man from being the cause of (unwanted) pregnancy.

38. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 37.

39. Several sources have noted that Bulgakov's uncle, N. M. Pokrovskii, had also complained to die authorities that his living space was being reduced. See, for example, Milne, Mikhail Bulgakov, 62; Haber, Mikhail Bulgakov, 275.

40. Filipchenko, Iu. A., Chto takoe evgenika (Petrograd, 1921)Google Scholar; Filipchenko, , Kak nasleduiutsia razlichnye osobennosti cheloveka (Petrograd, 1921)Google Scholar; Filipchenko, , Puti uluchsheniia chelovecheskogo roda: Evgenika (Petrograd, 1924)Google Scholar; and Filipchenko, , Frensis Gal'ton i Gregor Mendel! (Moscow, 1925).Google Scholar

41. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 104.

42. Freeman, Bloom, and McGuire, “A Brief History of Testosterone,” 372.

43. Note that the first stage of the dog's operation is modeled after existing rejuvenation techniques that were in vogue at the time. The rage for rejuvenation therapy was based on the findings of the French physiologist Charles Eduoard Brown-Sequard, the Viennese surgeon Eugene Steinbach, and the Russian emigre (to France) Sergei Voronoff. Steinbach favored ligation of the vas deferens (tube tying); Brown-Sequard injected patients with a serum made from the seminal fluids of animals; and the Russian emigre Voronoff surgically grafted testicular tissue from monkeys into men. The latter procedure is close to the one depicted in Heart of a Dog. Although the surgical techniques pioneered by these men (and their many less scrupulous followers) were eventually discredited (for lack of long-term results), the early rejuvenation pioneers were operating on the sound principle that hormone levels decline as the organism ages, precipitating various signs of aging. To reverse aging, it seemed logical to replenish or replace the hormones.

44. Naiman, Sex in Public, 143.

45. The 1920s saw the first heyday of the use of hormone replacement therapies for purposes of rejuvenation. See Kahn, “Recovering Lost Youth,” and numerous recent articles that find instructive analogies between the history of rejuvenation surgery and the current wave of enthusiasm for hormone therapies: for example, Sengoopta, Chandak, “Tales from the Vienna Labs: The Eugene Steinbach-Harry Benjamin Correspondence,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, no. 2 (2000): 27 Google Scholar; Setchell, B. P., “The Testis and Tissue Transplantation: Historical Aspects,” Journal of Reproductive Immunology 18, no. 1 (1990): 181-88.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

46. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 63.

47. Naiman, Sex in Public, 143. More than one contemporary commentator suggested that the discovery of the endocrine system obviated the need for a religious concept of the “soul.” See, for example, Ts. Perel'muter, Nauka i religiia o zhizni chelovecheskogo tela (n.p., 1927), and A. V. Nemilov, “Uznaem li my kogda-nibud’ chto takoe ‘dusha'?” Chelovek i priroda, no. 4 (1924). Naiman argues convincingly that this enthusiasm for endocrinology in the nonmedical press can be attributed in part to its status as a postrevolutionary scientific field. Furthermore, endocrinology was a science that could plausibly challenge religious explanations for the intangible aspects of human nature. In this way, the nascent field of endocrinology and the emerging field of genetics were alike: both had much to offer the scientific, secular Soviet regime, but the latter foundered on a politically motivated ideological campaign against “bourgeois biology” in the 1930s (Lysenkoism).

48. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 104.

49. In this interpretation, Preobrazhenskii's position echoes that of Filipchenko (and most other Russian eugenicists). Filipchenko was adamandy opposed to the policy of selective sterilization practiced in the United States. Since there was no practical way to selectively breed for better people, and he considered it unethical to mandate sterilization, Filipchenko's eugenic platform remained largely theoretical. His 1925 article Evgenetika v shkole advocates “eugenic” instruction in high schools, which he defines as simply a series of courses teaching the basics of human reproduction and the principles of Mendelian genetics. In other words, eugenics begins by inculcating a sound knowledge of biology and sex education.

50. Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog, 103.

51. Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita, trans. Burgin, Diana Lewis and O'Connor, Katherine Tiernan (New York, 1996), 104.Google Scholar

52. Marxist philosophers and Bolshevik policymakers reached a different conclusion. By the early 1930s, the regime had firmly charted a course of official strict environmentalism. The Russian Eugenics Society was disbanded, the eugenics division of Kol'tsov's institute was abolished, chapters in both Soviet and translated western textbooks that treated the topic of human heredity were excised, and the word eugenics disappeared almost completely from Soviet discourse.

53. Pinker, Steven, introduction, in Dawkins, Richard and Folger, Tim, eds., The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004 (Boston, 2004), xix.Google Scholar

54. Ibid., xx.

55. Naiman, Sex in Public, chap. 6.

55. Naiman, Sex in Public, chap. 6.

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