The Speech and Physique of “The New Soviet Man” As Portrayed in “Heart of a Dog” and in Agitprop Posters

The gradual and horrifically strange mutation of the titular canine of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Heart of a Dog into a ‘New Soviet Man’ provides an ideological counterpoint to the instantaneous and handsomely familiar appearance of that same model citizen in the pre-war USSR’s visual propaganda. Through the lens of social science fiction, Bulgakov could be said to argue that whatever changes, progressive or regressive, that the Communist regime might impart upon the minds and bodies of the Russian people, they shall arrive slowly and fitfully, and might very well be accompanied by unmanageable violence. This stands in contrast to the official narrative of Soviet agitprop, which called for a rapid and thoroughly controlled transformation of society. This narrative is particularly exemplified by tersely-worded campaigns promoting literacy, and by depictions of Russian workers who are physically and morally exalted to the point of hero-worship.

Two aspects of the Soviet citizenry that were most crucial to propagating and supporting the communist way of life were given particular attention in visual propaganda throughout the first decade of Stalinism: their impressionable voices and their laboring bodies. From the vantage point of 1925, as the ideology of these poster campaigns began to spread, Bulgakov can be seen as the creator of a prophetic satire on this mounting cultural climate. The brief life of Sharikov the dog-man may not correspond to an exact allegory for the actions of a man of his time, for his attitudes are not nearly as archetypical as those of the consummate bourgeois Preobrazhensky or the eager socialist Shvonder. The scheming, loafing, cat-chasing and rabble-rousing that he engages in for most of the book is largely apolitical. But the way that Polygraf Polygrafovitch’s form and features develop is undoubtedly reflective of the way that a ‘New Soviet Man/Woman’ would be popularly depicted in state-published texts and visual art.

In the course of the novel, Bulgakov creates a dark mirror to the idealized Stalinist subject’s improved linguistic and physical prowess with his depiction of Sharikov’s vulgar morphing language and his evolution into a part-mongrel, part-criminal body. The plot of the novel is driven forward primarily by Sharikov’s moment-to-moment transitions in behavior from dogginess to human-ness. The surgery that initiates Sharik’s metamorphosis into Sharikov sets up a tone of unpredictability that continues with each sudden acquisition of Russian phrases and human features by the mismatched creature. In chapter four, during the narration of the surgery, Professor Philip Philippovitch notes that the dog has “died five times already” in his assistant’s hands, only to be revived with infusions of adrenaline. This cycle continues in the next chapter’s medical case study with alternating prognoses of rejuvenation and deterioration (54, 57). The dog’s physical constitution only stabilizes once he exhibits his first sign of partial humanity, a conspicuously syllabic bark (57). From then on, the medical narrative proceeds roughly alternating from one journal entry to the next with either a focus on the dog’s surreal physical humanization (“lengthening of bones,” through “tail dropped off,” until “body structure – entirely human,” 58-65) or on his spouting of increasingly coherent, but nonetheless bewildering phrases (“tsurt-shif,” through “saloon,” until “leave me alone, louse!” and “Hey, little apple,” 58-62). The erratic flow of events and necromantic air in this account tonally cement the ‘wrongness’ of the grateful dog’s transfiguration into a party-slogan-spouting, churlish bum.

The disquiet induced by the weird mode of this story, wherein grotesque transformative acts reveal the incongruous nature of a literal ‘new man’ in Soviet Russia invites the reader to compare the nature of Sharikov’s ingrained Soviet attitudes with those they might be have learned or observed. The transformation scene draws up a distinct parallel between Sharikov’s ‘birth’ and the popular creation of the ‘New Soviet Man/Woman’: there is a dual emphasis on language and physicality in the construction of both the positive poster archetype and the negative literary character. Within archives of propaganda posters printed between 1920 and 1932, one can find that a conspicuous number of those that emphasize common citizens over party leaders showcase the common people’s new enthusiasm for literacy (Figs. A, B, and C) and/or their larger-than-life physical vigor (Figs. A, C, D, E, F, and H). These graphic representations of the country’s most optimistic-looking new subjects identify the Stalinist Russian definition of ideal people as those who strive continually toward physical and linguistic improvement. Similarly, Sharikov is inaugurated as a ‘real man’ in NEP Russia by his growth to a new stature and by his adoption of verbal skills, however incongruous they might appear.

The crucial difference between Bulgakov’s and the poster artists’ interpretation of a conforming Soviet persona, beyond the different senses of whether this social transformation is good for its subject’s fellow men, is with regard to the pace at which such a (r)evolutionary character is expected to develop. A hallmark of agitprop posters is a written command to proceed very quickly and without pause to achieve some state-directed objective, whether that be something as immediately achievable as joining a labor group (Fig. H) or as distantly aspirational as learning to read (Fig. B) or providing for oneself an escape from impoverished sufferings (Fig G). Following the extreme example of Alexei Stakhanov, who in the course of a single work shift in 1935 was said to have transformed himself into the model coal miner, the implication is that a true Soviet citizen should be able to meet the party’s demands for new morals, skills, and goals within a moment’s notice (Fig. I).

In contrast, we see the tortured journey of Polygraf Polygrafovitch from street creature to sanitation official and back again, a journey that we see progress in fits and starts as he loses fur and gains proletarian habits scene-by-scene. This story off-handedly suggests that the reality of the Soviet Republics’ new demands for upward mobility from all of its citizens was more likely to be fraught with upsets than the narratives of Stakhanovism and rapid re-education could allow. In this way, Bulgakov’s novel pokes holes in the official narrative of redefined individual morals and success, revealing a deeper truth about how society tended to (mis)function in the NEP zeitgeist through an absurd and grotesquely parodic extension of the new national character.

Works Cited

Bulgakov, Mikhail, and Mirra Ginsburg. Heart of a Dog. New York: Grove, 1968. Print. Figures A. “You’re helping to eradicate illiteracy?” 1925. B. “Woman, learn to read and write!” 1923. C. “Literacy is the road to communism,” 1920. D. “Spartakiad Games,” 1928 E. “What the October Revolution gave to the female worker and peasant,” 1920 F. “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman,” 1988 (Stamp depicts 1937 statue). G. “Want It? Join,” 1921 H. “Shock workers of the factories and collective farms! Join the rows of the VKP!” 1932 I. “Outstanding miner of Donbass Alexei Grigorievich Stakhanov improved on his own record and in 6 hours of work using a Soviet drill he produced 175 tonnes of coal!” 1935 Newman, Dina. “Alexei Stakhanov: The USSR’s Superstar Miner.” BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. Volochenko, Dimitri. “Posters of Soviet Propaganda: 1920-1941.” Imgur. 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. “Agitprop.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. “New Soviet Man.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. “Likbez.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.