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 Soviet existence. 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 the object he criticizes. This is especially true when it is done without irony or satire 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 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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