Heart of a Dog

Heart of a Dog The Place of Bulgakov in Early Soviet Science Fiction

After the October Revolution of 1917, Russian science fiction took on a new, wholly distinctive character. While pre-revolutionary science fiction and fantasy can primarily be classified within the purview of Romanticism and broken down into genre fiction (e.g., horror fiction, narratives of space travel, etc.) and utopian narratives, early Soviet science fiction focused more heavily on a variety of political and social themes. For example, Alexey Tolstoy's famous novel Aelita, later adapted into a highly acclaimed movie, is about a social revolt that occurs on Mars due to frustrations with the Martian leader, Mr. Gor. Such novels and stories were broadly sympathetic with the Soviet political enterprise. Still other works, however, like Tolstoy's The Revolt of the Machines, are spurred by an interest in the new technologies of the time yet caution against the wholesale acceptance of new technologies in pursuit of selfish political ends (something Soviet authors would likely have charged the American government with doing). Thus, as a general body of work, early Soviet science fiction can be said primarily to focus on a wide variety of technological innovations occurring in the wake of the Revolution; at the same time, however, it also not always accepting of these technologies and can be seen to consistently advance a Soviet, socialist, or at least collectivist agenda.

This is not to say, however, that this ideological and highly fantastical fiction was written without concern for scientific rigor or accuracy. Alexander Belyaev—often considered the founder of Soviet science fiction—for example, remains well-known worldwide for his novels' inclusion of strong logic and scientifically accurate details. Writing about wind power (The Airship), hydroponic agriculture (The Underwater Farmers), and space exploration (The Star KETs), Belyaev was not only prolific but also highly respected for writing about realistic, near-future enterprises. At the same time, however, in novels like Professor Dowell's Head and The Amphibian Man, Belyaev reflected a dislike for bourgeois life. In the latter, for example, a maverick doctor gives his son gills via a transplant, while in the former, a professor's severed head is able to work independently of its body. Such stories endeavored to show that, consistent with larger Soviet themes from the time, when new technologies are harnessed for individual gain, the results can be devastating and undesirable.

Within this larger milieu of early Soviet science fiction, however, two writers who are famous in contemporary academia stood out. First, Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of the dystopian novel We, was painted as a counterrevolutionary by Soviet critics and authorities of the time, though he is respected today as a dystopian fiction writer who predates even Aldous Huxley. The second, of course, is Mikhail Bulgakov. Because of his anti-Bolshevik sympathies, Bulgakov was also glossed over by many of the Soviet critics of his time, with many of his works only finding publication later in the 20th century. Even so, though so-called "Socialist Romanticism" was the official policy of early Soviet science fiction, one cannot deny that Bulgakov's works like Heart of a Dog and The Fatal Eggs contain elements of science-run-amok and science-as-fantasy that fall within the bounds of modern science fiction. Even though he was overlooked during his life as an important trailblazer in Soviet science fiction, he is now an undeniably important member of the modern Russian-Soviet canon, even more well-known than many of the authors who outshined him in life.