Top Ten Animals in Russian Literature

As I have suggested previously, animals have a significant place in Russian literature, and I think this is quite unusual, probably reflecting the greater proximity of Russia literature to its folklore roots than is the case with other literary cultures. Although obviously children’s stories in English (as in other languages), are full of animal characters, it’s hard to think of comparably prominent animals in English literature for adults – there are pets and such like, but they tend to be either incidental or purely symbolic, rather than actually having an active role in the story. One might suggest that Animal Farm – although some would also classify that as children’s literature – is the exception that proves the rule, but perhaps Orwell’s novel tells us something about animals and Russian literature as well, given that it’s an allegory of the revolution.

10. The Lion in Zamiatin’s The Lion (1935). The lion works as an extra at the ballet theatre, but when he gets dead drunk and threatens to ruin an important production, Petya Zerebyakin, the theatre fireman, valiantly steps into the breach, despite looking more like a bear. Worth reading for the penultimate paragraph alone. Russian | English

9. The dog in Turgenev’s The Dog (1866). One of Turgenev’s prose poems, this is a meditation on life, death and fidelity. Told as a story of the workings of the supernatural in real life, it actually features three dogs – the ghost that visits the narrator Porfiry Kapitonych, Tresor, the setter who becomes his faithful companion, and the rabid dog that attacks the one and kills the other. Many of Turgenev’s best stories contain elements of the supernatural and folk beliefs, and I often wonder why he is more famous for his novels, many of which I find rather bland and uninteresting in comparison. Russian | English

8. The monkey in Zoshchenko’s Adventures of a Monkey (1945). Zoshchenko’s little story of a marmoset who escapes from the zoo during the war after a bomb falls and struggles to cope with Soviet reality got the author into serious trouble, ending his position as the acceptable face of Soviet satire. The monkey – as the end of the story confirms – is intrinsically more sensible and civilized than most of the Soviet citizens she encounters, and as she attempts to find food and shelter, the refrain ‘Well, she’s a monkey, she doesn’t understand what’s going on’ serves to remind us that we shouldn’t either. Russian

7. The crocodile in Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile (1865). Okay, so doesn’t really do anything except sit like a log in the Passazh arcade and swallow the protagonist, Ivan Matveich, but you have to admit that once it has swallowed him, the image of a crocodile expounding on political economy is just brilliant. Plus, I’m a Dostoevskoved, so he has to be in here somewhere, but he doesn’t really do animals. Other animals, such as the apparently resurrected dog from The Brothers Karamazov, or the dream of the horse in Crime and Punishment, are incidental, not central – and anyway there are far more interesting dogs and horses to include in this list. So the crocodile it is. Russian | English

6. Tamara in Shalamov’s The Bitch Tamara (1959). There are a number of animal stories in Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, but I think The Bitch Tamara is special. It’s a story about ethics and memory, and the dog who is brought into the work camp by one of the prisoners and gives birth to a litter is the repository of both. She awakens both fellowship and altruism in the prisoners – they want to tell her about their tribulations, they give her food, and build a kennel for her and her pups – and her death is followed by one of the few instances of natural justice in Shalamov’s world. Russian

5. Misha the bear in Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1929-31). Opinion differs as to whether Misha is a real or a metaphorical bear, but this exemplary proletarian with singed fur from working in the smithy and an infallible nose for sniffing out the kulaks who have oppressed him in the past is one of Platonov’s most memorable creations, epitomizing the surreal nature of Platonov’s fiction and of the Soviet experiment. Russian

4. Giu in Grossman’s The Road (1961-2). Giu is an Italian mule who, after a hard life under the sun in his homeland, is transferred to Stalingrad to face the cold and the horrors of battle before ending up in Russian hands. The war is encapsulated through the experience of this most philosophical of creatures and his final discovery of love, and the story makes a startling contribution to the long-standing theme of Hamletism in Russian literature. Russian | English

3. Fidele and Medzhi in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman (1835). St Petersburg is clearly home to a better class of dog than anywhere else, as these two not only talk, but write letters to each other. Although the narrator Popryshchin discerns some unevenness in the style, and gets annoyed with Medzhi’s trivial preoccupations, he does acknowledge that the canine correspondent uses correct punctuation and spelling, and makes allusions to German literature. Russian | English

2. Begemot in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1928-40). In the battle between a massive satanic cat whose name means’ Hippo’, and the result of an operation to transplant human testicles and pituitary gland onto a dog, Bulgakov’s cat wins – not least because Begemot is a crack shot, whereas Sharikov in Heart of a Dog, is pretty useless as a dog-man (although in his initial doggy form he teaches himself to read and has a good deal more charm). But he cannot compete with Begemot, who talks, walks on his hind legs, pays his fare on the tram, and eats with a knife and fork. What’s not to like? Russian | English

1. Misha Penguin in Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin (1996) and Penguin Lost (1997). Unlike many of the animals on this list, Misha doesn’t speak, in fact he doesn’t do anything special, but his fish-eating, plip-ploping around and splashing in water turn into the most remarkable expression of an animal’s soul in any language, and he becomes the serious, existential centre of all the black humour and absurdity that surrounds him. He is just unforgettable, a creation of genius.

And that’s it, except that I should probably defend my decision to exclude Tolstoy from the list. He is, of course, famous for his depiction of animals, but I think his best descriptions, such as the horse race, when Vronsky’s mount Frou-Frou breaks her back, and the hunting scene told from the point of view of Levin’s dog, in Anna Karenina, are incidental. I’m afraid I find Kholstomer (Russian | English), his 1886 story of an old piebald horse, told from the horse’s point of view, rather sentimental.

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4 Comments

  1. Philip Hines

     /  April 1, 2011

    Slightly beg to differ on the marginal presence of animals in Tolstoy, being immediately reminded of The Bear Hunt, which remains for me just about the most terrifying account of what it might feel like to be a bear’s dinner. Shades of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Tolstoy claimed to have had the beast in question stuffed, but gave up hunting 20 years later.

  2. You’re probably right. I have to admit to a deep sense of ambivalence when it comes to Tolstoy. It’s not that I dislike him completely, or dismiss him – there are parts of his works that I think are extraordinary and I truly love – but aside from the repellant aspects, I am put off by the hectoring tone and insistence on spelling his message out. Some may view this as a sign of his insecurity as a writer or his uncertainty about whether he is conveying his ideas, but it seems to me to indicate a low opinion of the reader, who apparently can’t be trusted to make up his or her own mind about anything.

  3. Philip Hines

     /  April 8, 2011

    The later Tolstoy certainly strikes me the same way – the recent BBC TV docs explained how troubled he was, and I think Troyat’s biography (I read it a very long time ago) did something similar. Rereading War and Peace in Anthony Briggs’s translation, however, reminded me of the other, extraordinary Tolstoy ( this was after I’d switched on Radio 3 one night, and heard a passage from it read aloud which was quite wonderful, without recognising it). The scene in Anna Karenina where Levin is out in the hay meadows with his scythe is a locus classicus, too. Not sure if I should reread Resurrection, though; suspect it might be infuriating. Incidentally, the new Petersburg mapping project looks very exciting. Looking forward to following it as it evolves.

  4. I’m not sure the problem was entirely limited to Tolstoy’s later works, though it is worse there. But I agree about Resurrection – I find it quite unbearable. And yes, he was a very troubled man…
    Cheers for the comment about Petersburg as well – it’s early days, and it’s very different to anything I’ve ever done before. I’m really excited about it.

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