Victor Pelevin: anatomist of the new Russia

March 2000 / New York Times Magazine

Returning to Moscow from a stay in a Buddhist monastery in South Korea, the Russian novelist Victor Pelevin received an unexpected telephone call from a priest. Why, the patriarch wanted to know, had Pelevin-unlike the great Solzhenitsyn and the even greater Tolstoy-neglected his Christianity? “I told him I hadn’t neglected my Christianity,” Pelevin says. “I grew up in an atheist country-I never had any belief in the first place. He was unconvinced. He told me that because I was a writer and popular with the young, I had a responsibility to set an example. I was polite to the old man but his expectations of me were ridiculous. I’m a writer. I have a responsibility to no one.”

Almost anywhere else, this remark would seem like a harmless expression of artistic self-assertion. But no country is more haunted by the spirit of its dead writers than Russia; even today, writers occupy an emblematic position in a society rendered radically unstable by the bandit capitalism of the post-Soviet period. Like Russian history, the country’s literary legacy is always being tugged in different directions. No writer, at present, is being tugged in more directions than Victor Pelevin, 38, a laconic, shaven-headed semi-recluse with a fashionable interest in Zen meditation and an attachment to dark glasses.

Even in a society where pulp fiction has never been more popular and where literary fiction is now seldom read by more than a tiny elite, Pelevin has emerged as that unusual thing: a genuinely popular serious writer. His most committed readers-who post his novels on the internet, and swap his books at nightclubs as if they were samizdat-are the disaffected young, who must see something of the surrealism of their own post-Soviet lives reflected in the mirror of his cool, glazed, ironic prose. “Pelevin has become a kind of spokesman for our generation,” says Katya Loktova, a 19-year-old student at Moscow State University. “He’s the only writer who seems to be writing about the way we live today, with all its problems, absurdities and heartaches.” Pelevin smiles when I ask him about his young readers. “You know,” he says, “they ask me the strangest questions. Mr Pelevin, they say, have you ever made love while on Ecstasy? Other writers are asked what they think about Yeltsin, or Nato’s intervention in Yugoslavia-but I’m asked about sex and Ecstasy.”

Such enthusiasm is translating into hard sales. Generation P, Pelevin’s new novel about the adventures of a young advertising copywriter adrift in a corrupt Moscow, was a summer success in Russia, selling more than 200,000 copies (in April, Faber & Faber will publish it as Babylon). The book tracks the adventures of Babylen Tartarsky, a young sceptical intellectual who in the last years of the Soviet period establishes a quiet (if circumscribed) life for himself as a translator. But then, Tartarsky jokes, the Soviets “decided to renew and improve the USSR. It improved so much that it ceased to exist.” Tartarsky eventually becomes a kopiraiter and spends his days devising Russian versions of western slogans: “Gucci for Men: Be a European”; “Nike: Do it Better, Motherfucker.”

The title is an arch reference to America’s jaded Generation X, but what does the P mean? “It could mean any one of three things,” Pelevin says. “It could stand for Pepsi, or Pelevin, or pizdets, or all three of these at once.” Pizdets is the most brutal of Russian expletives: it loosely means “absolute catastrophe” and has something of the offensiveness of the word “cunt.” Pelevin’s generation of liberal freedoms and designer excesses is also the generation of criminality, corruption and despair. “I feel disgusted by everything about my country,” he says. “In Soviet times you could escape from the evil of the state by withdrawing into the private spaces of your head; but now the evil seems to diffuse everywhere. We are all tainted by it.”

The popularity of Generation P followed on from Chapaev i pustota (Chapaev and Emptiness, 1997), which sold more than 250,000 copies and was published in Britain as The Clay Machine-Gun (Faber). To sell so many books is a cultural feat, especially in a country where a publishing industry, in any recognisable western sense, scarcely exists, and where the readership for serious fiction has all but disappeared in the past ten years. Most literary novels are still published in “thick journals” such as Novy Mir and Znamya, which recall in style, if not in content, the great literary periodicals of the 19th century in which Tolstoy and many of the great dead authors first appeared. These journals enjoyed a popularity during the euphoria of high perestroika, when people were eager to read material long hidden under the blankets of censorship. Collective sales rose to more than 1m, but have since fallen to 30,000. The urge to be serious, it seems, collapsed with the Wall.

One of the problems for the Russian writer is that, as Igor Shaitanov, professor of comparative literature at Moscow State University, puts it, “freedom has overwhelmed us.” When people were writing against the system and there was the underground, intellectuals had a rallying point of opposition; a dream of freedom to nurture. Today, writers are stumbling around in the shadowy spaces where culture used to be, seeking the ghost traces of a lost readership. As in the west, the influence of glossy magazines is all-pervasive, and this in a country whose people were once steeped in the Russian canon (perhaps because they were prevented from reading anything else). Even today, it is not unusual to meet middle-aged, working-class Russians who are able to talk fluently about Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and above all Pushkin (but not, significantly, Dostoevsky, whose urban extremism and Orthodox mysticism were deemed subversive and hence banned in schools). But no other literary figure unifies the Russians like Pushkin. During his bicentennial celebration last summer there was a frenzy in the air; shopkeepers were even fined for failing to display Pushkiniana in their windows. It’s hard to imagine this happening anywhere else, and shows a lingering commitment to the literature of the past.

The collapse of the state-supported literary culture and the rise of a mass market for popular fiction is epitomised by the story of Alexey Birger. A gentle, pale, warily crouched man, Birger has, for more than a decade, been working on a huge, sprawling, historical novel-an attempt, like Gogol, to build a palace of “colossal dimensions” in which the “untold riches of the Russian soul” would be revealed. He also translates Auden and TS Eliot. Because he earns very little from his translations and is unlikely to receive an advance for his novel-if indeed he ever finds a publisher-Birger writes formulaic detective novels, sometimes taking less than two weeks to complete one. These books sell; one is being filmed. “There has been a complete collapse of cultural confidence in Russia,” Birger says. “If people read at all they read cheap airport thrillers or generic crime novels. Still, I’m happy to play the game if it means that I can continue with my translations.”

Even at the more rarefied literary end, the dominant mood is retrospective, not experimental; nostalgic, not speculative. It is a time for literary archivists. Long-hidden manuscripts are being discovered, such as the work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, who published nothing in his lifetime; translations of great books from other cultures are proliferating; and a reassessment of the Russian 20th-century canon has begun, stressing its continuity: the great poets (Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak); the dissidents (Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov); the émigrés (Nabokov, Brodsky, Makine); the war writers (Grossman, Bykov); the Stalin-fanciers (Gorky); and the rediscovered (Platonov, Mariengof, Krzhizhanovsky). Despite communism, it is argued, there was no interruption in the literary process.

But what about now? “Our fiction is in great disgrace at the moment,” says Natasha Perova, co-editor of the English-language journal Glas, which introduces new Russian writing to international readers. “Hardly anyone is doing anything new.” There is, she complains, no Gogol or Dostoevsky to document the country’s current extremity, no chronicler of the new Russia.

Certainly it is literature of the past which is winning the prizes. Someone Else’s Letters by Alexander Morozov, the 1998 winner of the Russian Booker prize, was actually written in the late 1960s and shares the preoccupations of a period now derided as the “great stagnation.” That the novel eventually found its public place is testament to Morozov’s stoical determination: in 1968 his work was twice set in type in Novy Mir, only to be ripped out after KGB intervention. The 1997 Booker winner, The Cage, by 71-year-old Anatoli Azolsky, also had a thwarted gestation. Set even further back, in the era of Stalinist tyranny, the narrative tells of a dissident scientist attempting to forge an autonomous identity and a sense of inner freedom in a time of terrible repression; it was, as Pelevin coolly notes, another novel “feeding on Stalin’s corpse.” Writers such as Azolsky exist in a kind of cultural vacuum-oppressed as much by what has been, by painful memories of the old grey monolithic Soviet world of secrecy and fear, than by what is happening around them. And writers such as Azolsky, and indeed Morozov, continue to pull out long-neglected manuscripts from dusty drawers, manuscripts written without any expectation of being published, when Russians wrote simply “to the table,” as the saying goes, but which now have nothing but the musty appeal of an old newspaper. Period curiosities, at best. Small wonder, then, that Victor Pelevin has emerged as such an exciting, galvanising figure.

but spend any time in Moscow and you soon discover that no other writer polarises opinion like Pelevin. To the critic Andrei Nemzer, he is an “infantile writer producing books for an infantile society.” To Igor Shaitanov, he is a “phoney” whose fiction has a “dangerous emptiness.” Yet Natasha Perova, who discovered him, calls Pelevin “the voice of a generation, who is taking the Russian novel in new directions… his achievement is real: he has captured the inertia and confusion of several generations of people. That is why he is an idol, which is unusual for such a cerebral writer.”

We are eating a lunch of fried potato cakes and cucumber in the sitting room of her cramped flat in a sombre Brezhnev-era highrise in the northern Moscow suburbs. To reach her apartment you take a crowded mini-bus with busted shocks which bumps along the rutted highways at terrifying speed. On arrival, you take a dark, rancid-smelling lift up to the tenth floor and then pass along a narrow corridor. Wires from broken light fittings hang down from the ceiling like vines. It’s a curiously hostile environment in which to find such a cultured, elegant woman; but Perova, who was sacked from the Progress publishing house in the early 1970s for supporting Solzhenitsyn, is again struggling to survive. Since the financial crisis of 17th August 1998, the average wage for the ordinary Russian has fallen to an estimated $55 a month. “You only have to walk around central Moscow,” Perova says, “to realise what a cruel city this is. When critics say that they don’t like Pelevin, what they mean, I think, is that they don’t like the picture he paints-they don’t like the reflection they see of themselves.” Pelevin’s Russia is certainly a country suspended uneasily between the corrupt certainty of the changelessness of the old order, and the corrupt uncertainties of the present.

The disjunction between those who think Pelevin is a fraud and those who see him as the chronicler of the new Russia was dramatised strikingly when his third novel, Chapaev and Emptiness, was excluded from the 1997 Russian Booker shortlist. Igor Shaitanov, chairman of the judges that year, defended his jury’s unpopular decision by likening the novel-a hallucinatory recasting of the life of Vasily Chapaev, a mythical Bolshevik hero-to a computer virus. “It’s just too dangerous to support or transmit this kind of cultural image,” Shaitanov said. “Works like this act like a cultural virus-they destroy the cultural memory.”

In Russia there are few more resonant names than Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev, who was killed in the civil war following the 1917 revolution. Not much is known about the actual Chapaev, yet he floated free of his historical moorings to become celebrated in a Soviet realist novel, Chapaev (1923), by Dimitry Furmanov, and in a 1934 film of the same name. He is also the subject of a series of national in-jokes. The mythical Chapaev embodies the archetypal Soviet man, the “field commander” distinguishing himself in battle and in the cause of the revolution.

Pelevin’s Chapaev is nothing like this. For a start, he exists entirely in the imagination of Void, the inmate of a contemporary Moscow psychiatric hospital, who re-imagines Chapaev as a kind of Zen Buddhist master who delivers long, hallucinatory monologues on the illusory nature of surrounding reality. The narrative has an anarchic formlessness; the reader moves fluidly in and out of the minds of Void and the other inmates. The novel is long, opaque, intermittently unfathomable, but you receive a sense of how Pelevin ironically attempts to reconfigure and parody the myths of the Soviet past, just as in his debut novel, Omon Ra, he reduced the heroic age of Soviet space exploration to the status of black farce.

When I met Igor Shaitanov in Moscow, in an expensive French-style patisserie, he remained trenchantly opposed to Pelevin and his fiction. “My students say to me, professor, why do you speak so badly of Pelevin? Well, I tell them I’ve never thought much of literature that’s saturated in the idiom of the street. Pelevin is an example of a mind deprived of its linguistic roots-all those colloquial witticisms he uses, they’re very bad. He’s attractive to the young because they think that this is what literature should be like; it should be ironic and exist entirely in quotation marks. People in the west like him because they think his work represents Russian society. Let me tell them that it doesn’t. Pelevin is a phoney.”

Pelevin is unconcerned when I mention Shaitanov’s comments. He has heard it all before-and anyway, he holds critics in low regard, once describing them, to the British critic Sally Laird, as “incredibly stupid, mean, venomous.” He scorns, too, what he calls the “literary process”-by which he means the looking-glass world of academics, career novelists, reviewers and journalists, who gather at Moscow parties and events to gossip and scheme.

Pelevin himself never reviews books, reads very few of his peers and cites as influences Mikhail Bulgakov, whose The Master and Margarita, with its combination of political satire, fabulism and fantastic flights of fancy, seems the prototypical Pelevin novel; Kafka, another writer prone to metamorphic fantasies; and, unfashionably, Herman Hesse and Robert M Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

“I want no part of any literary world,” Pelevin tells me. “I’m simply not interested. The only thing that matters to me is trying to produce something that’s true to my vision and that people want to read.” In his own country, at least, Pelevin never gives interviews, refuses to be photographed or to appear on television or radio. Very few people even know what he looks like. What he desires most-or so he claims-is to be ignored, to be left alone in peace to write and dream. “Part of the attraction of Buddhism for me is that it enables me to empty my head of all the junk of modern living,” he says. “I really hate all the attention. It stops me getting on with my work. I can only begin writing again once I know that people have forgotten about me.”

Pelevin’s withdrawal from celebrity culture has only heightened his allure. Who is this reclusive Buddhist in the dark glasses who writes such strange, penetrating novels? Is he for real? Russian Vogue was so eager to secure an interview with him last summer that a senior editor invited him for lunch and then secretly recorded their entire conversation. She only confessed her subterfuge at the end of their lunch. “By then,” Pelevin says, “I was too drunk to care.”

Pelevin and I are chatting in a sushi bar on the old Arbat, the main tourist drag of the city. After a late summer heatwave, during which temperatures climbed into the low nineties, the bitter cold has returned. The extremity of the weather finds an echo in the extremity of daily life in the city itself: there is war again in the Caucasus and unease on the streets following a terrorist bombing campaign. Moscow seems to be passing inexorably through its Weimar phase-an intoxicating, dangerous place, where taxes and wages go mostly unpaid, where there is hyperinflation and anti-Semitism, where voracious prostitutes, their lips swelled by collagen injections, patrol the corridors of the international hotels, and where everyone’s second job-if indeed they have one-is taxi driving.

Pelevin remains exhilarated and repelled by this anarchy. Last September, he packed up again, first spending two months in Germany before returning to South Korea, where he planned “to avoid the millennium hype” by spending the winter months deep in meditation among Buddhist monks. “When I’m away in Korea, spending all day meditating, everything in the world seems to disappear into silence,” he says. “I stop smoking, I’m disciplined and I can concentrate on what’s important. Living in Russia drains you if you’re an intelligent person. We have no civil society and people have no protection from corrupt rule. Ordinary people are much worse off than they were under communism; you cannot survive on your pension or money from the state.” Pelevin himself is fortunate: he now earns around $50,000 a year from his writings, making him wealthy by typical Russian standards and allowing him to escape the country for months at a time.

Unusually for a Russian writer, he did not grow up surrounded by writers, intellectuals and dissidents. His parents were part of the Soviet nomenclature: his father was a military officer, his mother an economist from the Russian enclave of the former Soviet central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. He has spoken of the long summers of his boyhood, spent on a Moscow army base. “I really loved the place. It was like a big playground full of soldiers, a great place to excite the imagination.”

Memories from this period informed his lyrical first novel, Oman Ra (1992). As a child, Oman Ra is fascinated by flight and deep space, and dreams of becoming a cosmonaut, a heroic Soviet man in the model of Uri Gagarin. In his late teens, he enrols as a cadet at the Zaraisk flying school and begins a gruelling training programme. His aptitude and diligence impress the authorities and soon he is selected to be the sole pilot on a one-way, supposedly “unmanned,” mission to the dark side of the moon. Oman Ra realises that such a journey would mean certain death-his death. But he has no choice, and he sets off for the moon; only to discover, at the end of the novel, that he never really left the ground, that the entire Soviet space programme is a fake, part of a larger ideological conspiracy, the meaning of which will always remain somehow inexplicable, like the origins of the universe. Pelevin’s satire, written in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism and scornful of the mock-heroic bombast of the past, has all the swaggering hauteur of a young man’s debut.

Pelevin studied engineering at the Moscow Institute of Aviation. He did not begin writing fiction until his mid-20s, and even then he was slow to find a readership. After college he worked as a journalist, as a copywriter in advertising, and later as an interpreter (echoes of Generation P). He wrote stories in stolen moments. That Oman Ra was published at all owed everything to the acuity of Natasha Perova, who read Pelevin’s first published story, The Blue Lantern, in an obscure journal called The Humanitarian Foundation, and was excited to see more. “I asked if he had written anything else,” she told me. “When we met up he handed me the manuscript of Oman Ra. I could see immediately that he was a born writer, with his own voice and style.”

The Blue Lantern is a magical evocation of childhood wonder: a group of boys on a summer camp spend the night wondering if their lives are only a dream and the world around them, to which they have grown accustomed since babyhood, a chimera. Perhaps they are dead; perhaps they never lived at all. As with much of Pelevin’s early fiction-for example, The Yellow Arrow, about a group of passengers trapped on a runaway train-the story ends on a note of transcendence, with one of the boys lost in a kind of rapture as he peers at the blue lantern burning outside his window, his consciousness teetering on the edge of dissolution, on the very edge of silence.

Pelevin’s longing to find moments of repose and reflection such as these may have inspired his interest in Zen Buddhism. Even while in Moscow he spends many hours each week in deep meditation, and he has experimented with drugs to intensify his imaginative conceits. His early fiction, in particular, often seems to follow the trajectory of a drug trip: luminous, allusive, hallucinatory-and utterly illogical. Although drugs no longer play a significant part in his life, he has not abandoned them completely. When, for example, I rang him to say I’d arrived in Moscow, he said: “Good, I’ll take you to Gorky Park to smoke some excellent hash.” In the event we ended up wandering Moscow, at first searching without luck for his favourite Cuban cigars, and then dropping in at several bars, during which time Pelevin steadily drank me to a bewildered standstill. By mid-evening I was ready for bed and he was revving up for a big night.

Yet Pelevin still lives with his aged mother. She leaves him in peace, he says, and “because I know where she is I don’t have to worry about her.” Pelevin has a longtime girlfriend, Nina, who works in advertising and wants to marry him. But he is stalled by indecision. “Do you think I should get married?” he asks me, glancing at my wedding ring.

“Well, if you love Nina, why not?” I say.

“It’s not such a good idea bringing up children in a country like Russia, and, anyway, I’m preparing to go away for the rest of the year.”

“What does Nina think about that?”

“She thinks I’m an arsehole.”

how serious, then, is Victor Pelevin? Having spent some time with him in Moscow and London there is something genuine, I think, in his retreat from fashionable society. At the same time, he seems to have worked hard at the aura of intrigue surrounding him. A Buddhist ascetic who enjoys the excesses of modern life, the drugs and alcohol, the computer games and consumer frenzies; a semi-recluse who despises the Russian media yet welcomes the attention of foreign journalists; a writer who is rooted in the world yet imaginatively estranged from it; an author of artful quasi-philosophical satires who claims that his fiction has “no underlying ideas behind it: they just come out of an absolute void.” All these careful contradictions have made Pelevin the most gossiped about, if not admired, writer in Russia. “He very much enjoys all the attention,” Perova says.

Like countless writers before him, Pelevin provides his own record of Russia’s inconceivable history. He does so as a leading member of a generation which is old enough to remember the Soviet period but which came to maturity during the febrile optimism of perestroika, and whose best work has been done during the slow slide to disillusionment under Yeltsin. A sense of stasis, of a nation peering into a void, pervades his fiction. Oman Ra, Chapaev, Babylen Tartarsky, all embark on journeys for which there never seems to be any point of arrival. Demystification leads to a greater mystification.

If his books are about anything, they are about willed alienation and the inward freedom of prayer and meditation. “To survive in the old Soviet times and to an extent even today, many people lived in this state of inner exile,” he says, “particularly if they didn’t want to be dissidents and go to prison. They took jobs as, say, janitors… they acted in the world, but it was a pretence. They really lived in a world inside their own heads.”

Pelevin’s journey appears scarcely to have begun. The writing life stretches before him like a turbulent ocean of discovery. Like Gogol, whom he sometimes recalls, he is enraptured by the fantastic nature of Russian reality. Unlike his fellow novelists, he would never be content to feed on Stalin’s corpse, so rich is the fiction potential of the society in which he finds himself. That is, unless he decides to follow the path of Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov and Brodsky into becoming a writer in exile. “My dream,” he says, “is always to be on the move. If I had enough money, that’s how I would live. I would leave Russia and simply keep travelling, never settling anywhere for long. I hate being connected to one place; it blisters the mind.”

So will he leave Russia for a life of self-savouring romantic wandering? My feeling is that he won’t. Russia, he knows, is both the inspiration for and engine of his fiction; it is his tarnished muse. In permanent exile, you suspect, Pelevin would wither into aimlessness as a writer. No: better to stay, to engage with what is happening in the culture around him, to continue holding up a mirror to a sick society, even if he sometimes dislikes what he sees in the cracked mirror of his own prose.