By Jim Curtis
Viktor Pelevin (b. 1962) is arguably the key figure for anyone who wants to understand post-Stalinist, post-Soviet Russian culture, particularly with regard to its Russia-American connection. Pelevin recommends himself to our attention at this turning point in Russian history and Russian culture because he reminds us of what was, and what may come again when Russia emerges phoenix-like from the ashes of the war in Ukraine. Pelevin’s engagement with America and with American popular culture makes sense as a key aspect of what now seems like a Golden Age of Russian culture. We can now identify that beginning and the end of this period, which lasted 31 years, from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2022. This period—let us call it simply the post-Soviet era—was one that combined cosmopolitanism with great creativity in all the arts. We can treat Pelevin as a case study in a period of Russian culture that forms the unacknowledged background to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. But first we need to understand who Pelevin is and what he represents.
It is easier for critics to say what Pelevin is not than what he is, and he himself has the same problem. He said in an interview with the Manchester Guardian, “I never was a hero.”i Among other things, he means by this that he does not belong to the great tradition of the Russian classics—writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky who were “the hope of Russia,” as the writer Boris Trigorin is called in Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull.
One can partially explain (all explanations of s writer as complex as Pelevin are partial) his anti-heroic attitude, his need to distance himself from his awe-inspiring predecessors, by two key facts about his life: He is the first great Russian writer who has ever been both an advertising copywriter and a Buddhist. His professional engagement with capitalism and his spiritual engagement with Buddhism make him a distinctly post-Soviet artist.
However, Pelevin does have one characteristic that connects him to the tradition of Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, among others: He is deeply engaged with Russian history, and deeply concerned with finding his place in it. However, since this is Pelevin, he expresses this engagement in a sardonic, postmodern way. He once commented in an interview that, “The history of Russia is simply the history of fashion.” This is a clever way of saying plus ça change, plus la même chose. Pelevin’s point, that historical change in Russia really means a change of clothing, rather than a change of governmental structures, now seems especially relevant as Putin attempts to revive Soviet imperialism.
Pelevin’s writing style has elements of surrealism and black humor. This is understandable, since he has professed great admiration for The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s sardonic masterpiece that he began in 1928 and worked on for years. Just as that book does not lend itself to ready summary and analysis, Pelevin’s work doesn’t, either. Here it must suffice to give a general characterization of the two novels that made his name in the crucial transition decade of the nineties.
Pelevin brings his engagement with Russian history—and for him that means Soviet history—together with Buddhism in his 1996 novel Chapayev and Emptiness. Vasily Chapayev (1887-1919) was a hero of the Russian civil war, to whom Dmitry Furmanov devoted a novel that became a Soviet classic in 1921. In turn, the brothers Sergey and Georgy Vasilyev made that novel the basis of their film Chapayev, which came out in 1934, and which became one of the few genuinely popular Soviet films. Thus, Pelevin uses Chapayev—both the man and the movie—to make the point that at this late date Russian history tends to merge with Soviet propaganda about Russian history.
Chapayev—the man, the movie, and his fame as a case study in the ubiquity of Soviet propaganda—are opposed in the title of the novel to “emptiness,” a term that has a specific meaning in Buddhism. A major purpose of Buddhist religious practices such as meditation is to empty the mind of accumulated thoughts and impressions; doing so makes it possible to achieve higher states of consciousness. Thus, in Buddhism emptiness is a highly desirable state and is opposed to samsara, the unstable cycle of existence in which one life of suffering follows another, and from which Buddhist practice promises to liberate practitioners. Clearly, then, Pelevin is treating Chapayev and the obsessive militarism of the Soviet government as a version of samsara. The simplistic opposition of “Russia and the West” has never seemed more inadequate.
Pelevin followed up Chapayev and Emptiness with a masterpiece that speaks eloquently, if ironically, to its time. Babylon, the title given to the English translation loses the punch and cleverness of the Russian title, Generation P. The practice of defining one’s self as a member of a particular generation has a distinct history, and deserves detailed investigation. Here, however, it can be said that after 1917, Russian intellectuals began to think of themselves as belonging to specific generations as a way of opposing the Soviet version of history, which concentrated all meaning in the centralization of power. Thus, Joseph Brodsky, born a generation earlier than Pelevin in 1940, describes himself as belonging to a particular generation in his Nobel Lecture.i
In his audacious way, Pelevin realized that the advent of MacDonald’s in Russia, and all that it implied, meant that his generation was caught in the abrupt, disorienting changeover from a situation in which America was presented as the enemy to one in which America was the source of all things exciting and wonderful, like hamburgers and blue jeans and soft drinks. Hence, given his cultural acuity, Pelevin sensed the Russian relevance of the Pepsi-Cola advertising campaign that featured the slogan “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation!” Pelevin’s generation did feel that it was coming alive after the stagnation of the Brezhnev years; for some members of his generation, this process of coming alive reached a high point when Paul McCartney gave concerts in both Moscow and St.Petersburg in 2003. Only ten years previously, Russians hardly dared to dream of seeing him perform live in Russia.
However, the immediate impetus for the title of Pelevin’s novel probably came from the variation of the slogan that Pepsi used in 1997 for Super Bowl XXXI, “Generation Next.” Pelevin was 31 when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and he and many other Russians must surely have felt that their time had come at last, that they were indeed the “next generation.”
If Pelevin juxtaposed Soviet propaganda and Buddhist doctrine Chapayev and Emptiness, in Generation P, he uses multiple, multileveled juxtapositions. The complex design of the cover of the Russian edition indicates as much, beginning with the very name of the novel, which juxtaposes an English word “Generation,” with П, the Cyrillic letter for P. The juxtapositions continue with a cascade of Coca-Cola labels on the left, and a matching cascade of Pepsi labels on the right. Caught in the middle between these two iconic soft drink labels is a famous, equally iconic image of a defiant Che Guevara. However, in Pelevin’s world Che wears a jaunty beret with a Nike swoosh on it. To complete the juxtapositions, the yin-yang symbol is placed at the bottom, like a button that holds the Coca-Cola and Pepsi labels together.
Although this is not the place for a discussion of Generation P that does justice to the novel and to Pelevin, it will be helpful to quote the first sentence, which gives some indication of what Pelevin will do with the juxtapositions of Russia and America: “Once there really lived in Russia a sadness-free young generation which smiled at summer, at the sea, and at the sun—and chose Pepsi.”ii As Pelevin slyly suggests here, the relentless optimism of Soviet propaganda, in which a doomed generation of Russian people thanked Comrade Stalin for their happy childhood met its match in the relentless optimism of American advertising, in which consumer products solve all problems.
Now that the war in Ukraine and all that goes with it has undercut the glittering period when Pelevin and other Russian artists from filmmakers to fashion designers flourished, what are we to make of Pelevin as a representative of his generation? For one thing, Pelevin’s work reminds us that artists are often more prescient than they know. Little did Pelevin realize when he wrote Generation P that he belonged to a cohort of Russian artists whose era of stability, prosperity and freedom would last only for the time span of a generation—31 years.
Thinking about Pelevin and his cohort in this way reminds Western observers that Russian society is very unstable, and that sometimes change occurs traumatically and unexpectedly. This is what happened when war broke out in 2022. Moreover, Russian history moves in cycles that last about century, so the situation of Russian artists now is comparable to that of Russian artists 105 years ago, when the society in which they had grown up was suddenly swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution. As a result, they had to learn to create in a radically different society.
Although the question of how Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine grew out of the cultural era that Pelevin represents is surely a complex one—this is Russia after all—some generalizations can be proposed. Although Putin is not pious—he is a man of breath-taking, seemingly insatiable greed—his actions make sense in terms of Russia’s long monastic history. One can understand the war in Ukraine as an attack not just on liberal values as represented by free elections, but also on institutions that deny monastic values of self-denial.
And the most important, most visible institution that denied monastic values of self-denial just happened to be the institution that served Pepsi, the drink whose symbolic importance in Russia Pelevin codified for us. And that institution was of course McDonald’s restaurants. The opening of the first McDonald’s in Moscow on 31 January, 1990, in effect created a real, historical Generation P in Russia, It was a huge success, and was widely, and correctly, perceived as a repudiation of all that the Soviet Union stood for. And when in May the CEO of McDonald’s announced the hamburger franchise’s permanent departure from Russia, it signaled the end of an era as surely as the invasion of Ukraine.
Cultural eras and political periods come and go more rapidly in Russia than in the West. Pelevin’s era has gone now, and Russia is in a situation comparable to that of 1918, when a civil war whose outcome was very much in doubt was raging. What is not in doubt is that the era that Pelevin, more than any other Russian artist, represented, is over. Still, if a study of Russian culture teaches us anything, it is that Russian artists somehow find the fortitude to create in adverse conditions. We may hope that they will continue to do in this post-post Soviet era.
i See the full text of the lecture, “Litsa neobshchim vyrazheniyem,” in Iosif Brodskii, Maloye sobraniye sochinenii (Sankt-Peterburg: Azbuka, 2017), pp. 813-823.
ii Viktor Pelevin, Generation П. (М., Vagrius, 1999), p. 9.
About the Author
Jim Curtis, PhD, author of “Stalin’s Soviet Monastery. A New Interpretation of Russian Politics,” published by Peter Lang Associates in New York. He obtained his PhD in Russian from Columbia University, and taught Russian at the University of Missouri for 31 years. He is now a Professor Emeritus.