Friday, May 01, 2015

Aelita & The Heart of a Dog

"Touch my lips with your lips, the same way they do on Earth" commands Aelita,  Queen of Mars.

The early years of Soviet Russia witnessed bold experimentation in the arts. In particular, Science-fiction was hugely popular during the 1920's in Russia,  especially the novels of H.G.Wells, whose short stories often describe an advanced society shaped by scientific progress. Speculation upon scientific discovery and themes found in H.G Well's novels, inspired Russian novelists such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Aleksei Tolstoy and Alexander Belyaev to discuss the moral implications of scientific discoveries, both real and imaginary to a fast changing Russian society. Science-fiction also found expression in Russia in the newly emerging art form of mass entertainment, the cinema. 


First screened in 1924, Aelita was one of the earliest of all science-fiction films. It tells of Los, a engineer living in Moscow who dreams of Aelita, the Queen of Mars. He builds a spaceship to take him to her, and they fall in love. However, Los soon finds himself involved in a proletarian uprising to establish a Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Los's imaginary trip to Mars concludes with the engineer consigning the manuscript of his literary fantasy to the fire, solemnly uttering the Communist Party sentiment, 'We have more serious work to do'.

Intended as ideologically correct mass entertainment which could compete both in Russia and abroad with Hollywood, while also being art-house cinema of a quality equal to German Expressionist films such as Fritz Lang's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the film critic Ben Sonnenberg wrote of Aelita-

"It has interplanetary travel, romance, murder, theft and fraud, a comic detective, thoughts about mankind's future in space (also comic) and political comment. Its scenes here on Earth are, well, earthbound: the acting is naturalistic. Its Mars, by contrast, is out of this world". 

The strength of Aelita as a film rests upon three solid foundations, a well-written script, its overall direction, and the originality of its set, decor and costumes.

Directed by Yakov Protaznov (1881-1945) the ‘King of Russian silent film’ Protaznov had already directed over 80 feature films between 1911 to 1918 when he was persuaded to return to Russia from France and Germany where he was developing a new career. Protaznov's skills as a film director successfully linked Russia's hitherto isolated film-industry with important trends in contemporary world cinema. Aelita's influence can be seen in films such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and later in the American Flash Gordon serial (1936).

The most original feature to modern viewers of Aelita are its Martian-style sets and costumes which were coordinated in the distinctive avant-garde style of Russian Constructivism by the Franco-Russian designer, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949).

The producers of Aelita struggled to acquire scarce resources such as 70,000 feet of negative film, aluminium and celluloid to build Mars and one of the most impressive cast and crew ever assembled in the 1920's for a film. The opening night of Aelita was unprecedented in Russian film. The theatre facade was decorated with 'giant figures of Aelita and Tuskub,the princess and King of Mars, surrounded by illuminated columns and geometric shapes approximating to the films 'Martian' decor and illuminated with flashing lights'.

The huge success of Aelita was propelled by factors such as the re-publication of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations which proposed that spaceflight was a real possibility. Tsiolkovsky's speculations sparked newspaper stories in 1924, the year of Aelita's release, about rockets and spaceships that would be carrying people into space. 

There was inevitably an ideological backlash to the success of Aelita. Criticized for its excessive budget and attacked for its Western-style escapism, commercialism and ideological compromise; with the emergence of another style and direction to Soviet cinema, notable from Sergei Eisenstein (1989-1948) Aelita was swiftly dropped from distribution and circulation. 

Today Aelita is regarded as a film of international significance. Its not rocket science to realize that its contribution to popular interest in space travel helped to plant the seeds of Russia's early dominance in the space race. The first generation of Soviet space engineers, Sergei Korolev (1907-66) and Valentin Glushko (1908-89) for example, were inspired not only by Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations, but also by science-fiction such as Aelita. The rocket engineer Vladimir Chelomei (1914-84) even named his proposed mission to send people to Mars Aelita, after watching the film as a 10 year old boy.

The script of Aelita was based upon a story written by Aleksei Tolstoy (1883-1945) upon his feted return to Russia in 1923. Tolstoy, like several other Russian authors, was inspired in his writing Aelita from reading the science-fiction of H.G.Wells.


The English author H.G.Wells (1866-1946) is often credited as being 'the father of science-fiction'. Because his novels are written in a clear, unsophisticated style, with few unproblematic nuances of meaning in translation, (unlike authors contemporary to him, the writings of D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, for example),  Wells's short stories and the novels The Time Machine (1895)  The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898), were hugely popular with Russian readers as exciting adventure stories which involve discussion upon future scientific and technological progress. They subsequently influenced several early Soviet Russian science-fiction writers.  

H.G. Wells's novels became first available in  Russian translation as early as the 1890's and became even more popular after the 1917 Revolution. He visited Russia several times, both before and after the 1917 Revolution and during the era of Stalin. A great admirer of Russian culture, upon his first visit to Moscow in 1914, he attended a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull with Olga Knipper and Stanislavsky in leading roles, declaring the play to be a revelation to him and that even if he had not known the drama he would have understood everything just by watching the wonderful acting.

Through his friendship with Maxim Gorky, H.G.Wells was introduced to, and discussed political matters with some of the highest-ranking Communist Party officials, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Well's high reputation among some Party members was such that Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People's Commissar of Education, responsible for culture and education, in an introduction to a new six volume edition of H.G. Wells's writings in 1930, declared him to be, 'one of the best psychologists in contemporary literature'. And to this day H.G.Wells novels are listed on the Russian State education reading list.

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of H.G. Wells admirers was Mikhail Bulgakov (1888-1940) who published his novella The Fatal Eggs (Роковые яйца) in 1924. Also known as The Red Ray (Луч жизни) Bulgakov's story tells of an eccentric zoologist who accidentally discovers a ray which accelerates the growth. One influential source behind Bulgakov's short story was H. G. Wells's The Food of the Gods (1904) in which two scientists also discover a way to accelerate growth. Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs even references The Food of the Gods in a conversation held between the zoologist Persikov and his assistant Ivanov who declares-

Do you understand, Vladir Ipatych,” he continued excitedly, “H.G.Wells’s heroes are nothing compared to you... and I thought that was all make-believe.. Remember his Food for the Gods !”
"Ah, that’s a novel, " Perisov replied.
"Yes, of course, but it’s famous!"
"I've forgotten it, "Persikov said. "I remember reading it, but I've forgotten it".

Bulgakov's short story The Fatal Eggs concludes in the death of a horde of giant snakes from cold weather, not dissimilar to the death of the aliens in Well's The War of the Worlds. One interpretation of Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs is that, like the 1917 revolution, scientific experiments can set into motion events which become increasingly uncontrollable. In late 1924, Bulgakov wrote in his diary of his short story - 'Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? ... I'm afraid that I might be hauled off ... for all these heroic feats.' Bulgakov's fear of being admonished by Soviet officialdom were realized following the ban upon his subsequent novella, The Heart of a Dog (1925).

Inspired from a reading of H.G.Well's, The Island of Doctor Moreau in which Doctor Moreau, an eminent, but discredited scientist, creates human-like beings from animals through vivisection; the novel debates a number of philosophical themes, including pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature. In a new Russian translation of The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1930, Mikhail Zavadovsky, a biologist and specialist in mental processes enthusiastically exclaimed of H.G. Well's portrayal of the human mind and its capacities-

'The central idea of this novel is that human will and knowledge will achieve this goal when, with a scalpel in his hand, man will be able to change and reorganize living organisms'.

H.G.Wells himself in an essay entitled The Limits of Individual Plasticity (1895), expressed a firm belief that the events depicted in The Island of Doctor Moreau are entirely possible if vivisection experiments were ever tested outside the confines of science fiction.

Heart of a Dog

Ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) Science fiction has been closely linked to tales of medical horror. Mikhail Bulgakov, a qualified doctor, in his novella The Heart of a Dog (Собачье сердце,1925) tells of the genius Professor Preobrazhensky (preobraz being a word-play upon the Slavic word for transformation) who, one winter's day, entices a stray dog to his home in order to conduct a hideous experiment. Operating upon the dog, Preobrazhensky implants the pituitary gland and testes of an unknown person into the dog Sharik.

Although Professor Preobrazhensky warns his devoted assistant Bormethal against trying to create a genius artificially  .. 'what if the the dog had been given the pituitary gland of a great man, a Spinoza, instead of a criminal, alcoholic itinerant balalaika player?' he asks, nevertheless he proceeds with his experiment, with both grotesque and comic consequences.

There is a claustrophobic feel to Bulgakov's novella. The action rarely leaves the confines of  Preobrazhensky's seven room apartment. His servants obey him without hesitation and he himself represents the old order of Russia, authoritarian and respectful of foreign culture, attending the Bolshoi theatre and forever humming to himself an aria from Verdi's Aida ' On the Banks of the Nile' while conducting his surgical experiments. 

Bulgakov's novella has similarities in its thematic concerns with the European legend of Dr. Faustus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as well as H.G.Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau in its discussion upon the moral integrity of scientific experiments. According to one literary critic the message of The Heart of a Dog is that man must recognize the existence of limits to his powers; that there are realms, divine and natural, where he cannot tread without the danger of creating something blasphemous and unnatural- without carrying out a Satanic act. This idea was antithetical  to Communists, whose entire agenda was based on the notion that God does not exist, that nature was infinitely plastic, and that they could create a new, better man.

Bulgakov's novella displays Gogolian-Chekhovian buffoonery, ridiculing attempts to create a new Soviet superman and Communist party rhetoric such as- 

"Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman."

Because of his sharp, thinly-veiled criticism of Russian communism, Bulgakov's novella was immediately banned by Soviet officials and not officially published until 1987, almost 60 years since it was first penned.

The literary critic James Meek detected in The Heart of a Dog the influence of H.G. Wells, Gogol and Bulgakov's friend and contemporary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) the author of We (1924). Zamyatin's highly-influential science-fiction novella depicts a future dystopia in which those rebelling against totalitarianism are surgically operated upon in order to make them obedient to the State. Zamyatin's novel predates and in all probability influenced the dystopian themed novels of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931) and later in 1949 in George Orwell's 1984. 

Alexander Belyaev

The cross-referencing and shared influences between Russian and British science-fiction writers reached a new zenith in the author Alexander Belyaev (1884-1942). Belyaev also catered to Russian hopes and fears for scientific discovery to dramatically transform lives. His first story, Professor Dowell's Head ((Голова Профессора Доуэля, 1925) concerns itself with a head transplant. Subsequent stories feature a man with transplanted shark-gills, Amphibian Man ( (Человек-Амфибия, 1928) The Air Seller (Продавец воздуха, 1929) in which a gigantic air-machine literally hoovers up all military opposition, and KETs Star (Звезда КЭЦ, 1936) a tribute to the recently deceased Russian scientist,  Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935).

Alexander Belyaev first read H.G. Wells when convalescing from tuberculosis as a young man and eventually met his literary hero in Leningrad in 1934. Like many Russian writers Belyaev lived a short, tragic life, dying from starvation in the Soviet town of Pushkin while it was occupied by the Nazis. (Yevgeny Zamyatin died in poverty of a heart attack in 1937 aged 53, Bulgakov died from an inherited kidney disorder aged 48).

In Belyaev's death one of the greatest examples of a love of literature transcending narrow Nationalist interests occurred. A Nazi officer and four soldiers carried Belyaev's starved body from his home and conducted a burial. The officer spoke a short eulogy at his grave, saying that when he was a boy, he had loved reading the writer's books translated into German.

Today, in a continuing reciprocation between Russian and English science-fiction writers, English readers are indebted to the translator Maria K. the pen name of Maria Igorevna Kuroschepova (b. 1975) for introducing Belyaev's works to a wider audience. 


Wikipedia (Aelita, H.G. Wells, Alexander Belyaev and The Heart of a Dog)

'The Reception of H.G..Wells in Europe', edited by Patrick Parringer and John S. Partington published by Bloomsbury Academic 2013
Chapters 'H.G.Wells in Russian literary Criticism 1890s-1940s' and 'Future Perfect: H.G.Wells and Bolshevik Russia, 1917-32'.

DVD sleeve notes to 1991 Kino International release of Aelita by David Shepard


Top- A still from Aelita
Next - Photograph of H.G. Wells
Next -Photograph of Mikhail Bulgakov circa 1910
Next - A  1988 production in sepia of The Heart of a Dog
Last - A Photograph of Alexander Belyaev