Four memorable dogs in Russian literature

There are several memorable dogs in Russian literature, and it’s about time that they get the attention they deserve on this blog! Let’s take a look at four famous examples.

Tolstoy 

Tolstoy’s extraordinary psychological insights apply to dogs as well as humans; take for instance Laska from Anna Karenina. She is an enthusiastic, experienced and dedicated hunting dog. As soon as she notices that her owner Levin is planning to go hunting, she gets all excited with impatience. During the hunt she senses exactly how things are going. If her owner is unlucky, she doesn’t want to show her lack of faith in him and even though she does not believe that he really has shot a snipe, she still pretends to search it (part 6, c10). And although her sense of smell is infinitely better than Levin’s, and she is on the trail of some game, she does follow his orders to go and look somewhere else, just to please him, and thinking to herself “Well, if that’s what he wishes, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself now” (part 6, c12). Who could wish for a better dog?

Chekhov

Chestnut Girl in the story of the same name, that is told completely from the dog’s perspective, is a nervous, dumb and endearing little dog. She lives with a furniture maker who is always drunk and does not look after her very well. One night she loses her owner and is taken home by a clown who has a circus act with animals. Her new owner treats her very well and calls her Auntie. At first she is very confused, especially by her new housemates; a cat and a goose. But she soon forgets all about her old home. One evening the clown takes her along to perform in his act, and it just so happens that the furniture maker is in the audience. He recognises her, calls her and in an act of panic and confusion she jumps off the stage and runs back to her old life. “And you, Chestnut Girl, you’m like a joiner ‘longside a cabinet-maker…” says the furniture maker on the way home.

Bulgakov

Bulgakov gave us Sharik (A Dog’s Heart). A common street dog with a common name. He too is found outside in the cold one day and taken home. In this case by a very prestigious doctor, who thanks to his prestigious clients still lives in relative luxury after the Russian revolution. Sharik has no trouble at all adjusting to his new life, although he does have something against the doctor’s stuffed owl. But… the doctor uses him in a medical experiment. He implants the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal in the dog. Slowly but surely Sharik changes into a man, or rather a scoundrel, and soon the doctor’s orderly household is turned completely upside-down, not to mention flooded with water. Sharik becomes Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, has all kinds of pretensions and turns against the doctor.

Turgenjev

In the story The Dog the narrator’s life is also disturbed by a sinister dog. One night the narrator clearly hears a dog rummaging around in his bedroom. But when he lights the candle no dog can be found. This goes on for six weeks; as soon as he blows out the candle, the dog sounds can be heard. He is advised to consult a ‘seer,’ who tells him to buy a puppy at the market and keep it with him at all times. The sounds should stop and the dog will be useful to him in another way too. The narrator does as instructed, and the nightly sounds stop. The puppy grows into a big dog and one day when visiting a neighbour, the narrator is attacked by a large, monstrous and rabid dog. The narrator is saved by his dog Tresor and the monster dog disappears. Later the monster dog reappears and attacks the narrator again, and again Tresor saves him, but this time Tresor does not survive. 

A dog’s life

Four completely different dogs, each memorable in its own right. For Turgenev and Tolstoy the dog was something between a human and an animal. Laska is not only a good hunting dog, she also understands Levin better than he understands himself and she is always there for him when he needs her, whether out hunting or when he comes home a bit depressed. The Dog is one of Turgenev’s ghost stories, following the pattern of a traditional fairy tale. Turgenev was not superstitious and did not believe in ghosts, but he did have a fascination for such things. Dogs feature in many of Turgenev’s works, the most memorable being Mumu. Chestnut Girl may not be very smart, but she makes up for that with her faithful and endearing nature. She follows the ‘better the devil you know’ principle and happily goes back to her old owner. Sharik is a parody of the New Soviet Man and the illusion that the revolution could change the people.

Gogol fun facts

Sharik’s new name Poligraf Poligrafovich brings to mind the name of the protagonist in The Overcoat, Akaky Akakievich. This repetition of names, although not uncommon (as in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin), has a comical effect when the names used are unusual, as in this case. And speaking of The Overcoat; in the Russian original the narrator in The Dog buys the puppy from an ‘overcoat’, a ‘шинель’, using the word ‘overcoat’ to indicate a person in an overcoat. 

For non-Russian literary dogs I recommend Dave Astor’s blog post on this subject, which is also where I got the idea for this post.

Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments 🐶

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

30 thoughts on “Four memorable dogs in Russian literature

  1. Wonderful change-of-pace post, Elisabeth! Those are absolutely fascinating dogs you mentioned and described so well. Quite diverse, too. (I wish Chestnut Girl had stayed in the clown’s household. 😦 )

    And thank you very much for the mention of my recent canine post! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I can see why these are memorable dogs, Elisabeth. I was especially taken with Laska’s story and how Tolstoy clearly understands how dogs have an innate understanding that humans need to feel superior. It is quite obvious that Laska knows exactly what Levin needs and responds accordingly. I must read Turgenev’s ghost stories! Thank you for an most excellent post. I enjoyed how you added Gogol fun facts.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Delightful blog post, Elisabeth. I had forgotten about Laska and totally unfamiliar with the other stories you mention. Especially looking like a fun read, is Bulgakov’s “A Dog’s Heart.” The way he blends magical realism and satire is excellent. Thanks for these dog tales 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A really fun, clever, and interesting post, Elisabeth. I loved my dogs growing up, as Tolstoy/Levin did his. They are totally different than cats. I would talk to my dogs, often late at night when the house was quiet, and they would sit there looking at me, it seemed happily. There seemed to be communication occurring at some level. Dogs are a lot more intelligent than they sometimes get credit for, and it is a truism that they provide an emotional
    anchor for many people. To repeat: I am
    a dog, not a cat, person. Can there be any doubt that Tolstoy was the former?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Roger! Dogs are special indeed, they can bring a lot of joy into your life, be a best friend and always happy to see you. We had a dog and a cat, and I suppose I’m both a cat and a dog person as a result.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Of course you may! No, unfortunately not all dogs were treated well in Russian literature, Mumu being the least fortunate. And Sharik too, poor dog, he had to suffer a lot! But if the opera version ever comes to place near you, I highly recommend it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The first dog stories I think of are the dark ones from The Brothers Karamazov—the landowner having his hunting dogs tear apart the son of one of his house slaves in front of the boy’s mother (after he hit one of the dogs with a rock), or a different boy feeding a dog a biscuit with a pin in it. But the dogs themselves aren’t as memorable as the ones you chose.

    Liked by 2 people

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