A dog’s bite

Last month I visited an art exhibition entitled ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future’ by a Russian artist, Ilya Kabakov. He emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1988, the year I was born. In the West he became known as the most expensive Russian living artist, after one of his paintings sold at auction in 2008 for $5.8 million. The exhibition is his rare appearance in Moscow, the city where he studied, worked and lived most of his life.


After receiving a dental degree in 2009, I spent a ‘gap year’ taking art classes at Kabakov’s former Moscow studio. It was a lovely time I spent participating in pointless discussions on contemporary art and making several short films that couple of years later were even shown at an art exhibition in London.

A year before that I was fully involved into a research project at my medical university (Russia still does not have dental schools; all the dental education is provided at medical universities) investigating a connection between food allergy and stomatitis in infants. After I collected a massive amount of data and made required calculations, I victoriously told my curator that no correlation had been found. “But we need a correlation to be present,” she answered, “just fake the data, who cares?” That was perhaps the last straw that let 20-years-old me to put off with stomatology (Russian name for dentistry) for a while…

Let’s go back to Kabakov’s new exhibition. What is it about? It starts with a painting Sobakin’ (‘Dog Man’ in Russian) which represents a passport of Mr Sobakin, an ordinary Soviet citizen. But instead of a human’s photo a snout of a dog is staring from the canvas at a viewer. Travelling through exhibition is a journey through Sobakin’s life, full of misery and despair.

Presenting Soviet people as subhumans is not a novel creative gesture: it was first done in 1925 by a Russian writer, Michael Bulgakov, in his novel ‘The Heart of a Dog’ and later in 1945 by George Orwell in his ‘Animal Farm’. But whereas the writers in these novels were using satire, Kabakov’s instrument is just a blunt hatred with which he scrutinizes every unsightly detail of the Soviet daily routine. I am quite troubled by such approach and from here I want to draw some parallels to orthodontics…

Without a doubt, ex-Soviet territories are still of great abundance of Sobakins. My dental and orthodontic education in Moscow have taught me this inconvenient truth. I witnessed people faking research, buying and selling academic titles, spreading misinformation among students and zealously ruining dentition of poor children by starting cases without any diagnostics and documentation. I can go further and tell dozens of detailed stories of harm and abuse. But I can’t stop feeling that by doing so I would fall into the trap of the Kabakov’s new exhibition, the overall message of which can be summed up this way: ‘Look how disgusting my art is, this is because those Sobakins did not let me produce anything of good quality!’

I am afraid that by focusing on drawbacks a person automatically inherits qualities from an object he criticizes. This is especially true when it is done without an irony that might play a role of a buffer. I want to warn young orthodontists from the former Soviet Union against focusing their attention on bad things; otherwise, you will soon find yourself chasing your own tail.

Instead of falling into this miserable behavior I would suggest three productive thigs:

  • Go to US or Europe for a recognisable orthodontic degree (but be aware of fake European dental schools, there are a number of such)
  • Spread evidence-based data as much as you can (Please, don not break the law! There are plenty of open access sources nowadays)
  • Just do good orthodontics yourself. Collect records. Go through a certification in the European Board of Orthodontists. Be the best!

And stop concentrating on scars from Sobakins’ bites. We all have them. But not everyone turns into a werewolf.

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