Last reviewed: June 2017
Russian novelist and short-story writer.
November 22, 1962
Moscow, Soviet Union (now Moscow, Russia)
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Victor Pelevin emerged as an unconventional and irreverent voice among Russia’s new generation of writers. Drawing on sources as disparate as Russian folk culture, Soviet-era propaganda, classical Russian literature, and Buddhist philosophy, Pelevin has chronicled the schizophrenic nature of post-Soviet life, an era in which the promise of global dominion under Communism has been replaced by an empty and savage capitalism. The characters in Pelevin’s stories and novels are cut off from their past and uncertain of their future, calling into question the very nature of their individual and collective identities.
Pelevin was born on November 22, 1962, in Moscow in the Soviet Union. After his graduation from the Moscow Institute of Power and Engineering, he turned his attention to writing. His earliest stories, collected in English translation in The Blue Lantern, and Other Stories (1996), were widely acclaimed in Russia and earned Pelevin the Russian Little Booker Prize in 1993. Like Pelevin’s later works, the stories in The Blue Lantern combine elements of the surreal and the absurd. In the title story, “Sinij fonar” in Russian, a group of young boys in a camp dormitory meditate on their mortality by telling stories that blur the distinction between life and death. In “Vesti iz Nepala” (“News from Nepal”) Lyubochka and her fellow workers at a Soviet factory slowly discover during the course of what seems like an ordinary work shift that each has been killed in a variety of accidents, natural disasters, and murders. “Zatvornik i Shestipalyy” (“Hermit and Six-Toes”), one of Pelevin’s best-known stories, relates a philosophical dialogue between two chickens who eventually escape a grisly end by flying out of the coop in which they are imprisoned.
In the novella Zheltaia strela (1993; The Yellow Arrow, 1994) Pelevin offers a compelling parable of Russian society. The Yellow Arrow is a train that has no end and no beginning, makes no stops, and moves inexorably toward a ruined bridge. With the assistance of his contemplative friend, Khan, the protagonist, Andrei, awakes from the torpor that afflicts his fellow passengers, who do not realize that they are passengers on a train, and begins to plan his escape.
In his first novel, Omon Ra (1992; English translation, 1994), Pelevin satirizes the Soviet space program and, more broadly, the Soviet rhetoric of world dominion in his depiction of a young man’s startling experiences as a fledgling cosmonaut. The idealistic Omon hopes to distinguish himself as a hero of the Soviet space program. His dreams are soon dashed, however, when his commander assigns him to a suicide mission to the moon in a lunar vehicle operated by pedal power. Ultimately, the space program proves to be an elaborate hoax perpetuated to foster the myth of Soviet superiority.
The eight stories in Pelevin’s second collection of translated fiction, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, and Other Stories (1998), continue to explore the themes of self-perception and national identity raised consistently by Pelevin in his earlier works. In the title story (“Problema vervolka v sredney polose”), a young hitchhiker from Moscow, Sasha, stumbles upon a community of werewolves in the country and soon becomes initiated into the group. In “Spi” (“Sleep”), a university student learns to function in class while sleeping, only to discover later that he cannot distinguish reality from dreams. Pelevin depicts a woman bathroom attendant’s epiphany and its consequent effect on Russian society in “Devjatyj son Vera Pavlovna” (“Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream”), which begins with the line, “Perestroika erupted into the public lavatory on Tverskoy Boulevard from several directions at once.”
A common theme in Pelevin’s fiction involves the cultural displacement that followed the collapse of Communism. Soviet citizens were indoctrinated for decades with the infallibility of the Soviet Union. The people of the post-Soviet era were left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of its collapse, as influences from Eastern and Western democracies vied for supremacy in the fledgling Russian marketplace. In Zhizn’ nasekomykh (1993; The Life of Insects, 1996), his second novel, Pelevin opens his story with a conversation among three businessmen, one of whom is visiting from the United States, who soon reveal themselves to be mosquitoes meeting to conduct market research and feast on hemoglobin and glucose. Throughout the novel, Pelevin’s characters morph in Kafkaesque fashion from human to insect and back again in a humorous and biting satire of contemporary Russian life.
Combining elements of Russian history and folklore, American pop culture, and the little finger of an obscure Buddha, Pelevin created a compelling and surreal portrait of Russia in his third novel, Chapaev i pustota (1996; The Clay Machine-Gun, 1998), published in the United States under the title Buddha’s Little Finger. Pyotr Voyd, a struggling poet trying to avoid arrest during the Bolshevik Revolution for publishing an antirevolutionary poem, wakes in the novel’s opening chapter to discover that he is, in fact, a patient in a late twentieth-century psychiatric asylum in Moscow. Over the course of the novel, Pyotr begins to piece together portions of his life in contemporary and revolutionary times as he moves abruptly between the past and the present. During the revolution, Pyotr serves as a subordinate to Chapaev, a Soviet folk hero and a general in the Red Army whom Pelevin transforms into a Buddhist sage. In the present, Pyotr undergoes drug therapy and group counseling to heal what his doctor describes as a psychic collapse.
In his fourth novel, Generation “P” (1999; Babylon, 2000), published in the United States as Homo Zapiens, Pelevin exposes the shallowness and materialism of post-Soviet Russia’s business climate, where advertising copywriters and pornographers rule the literary and corporate world. Babylen Tatarsky had hoped to distinguish himself as a poet. Swayed by the promise of unlimited wealth, however, Tatarsky takes a job with an old friend as a copywriter. Pelevin’s unusual cast of characters includes the ghost of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, whom Tatarsky channels through a Ouija board and who delivers a lengthy and passionate monologue on advertising and corporate culture.
In 2003 Pelevin released Dialektika perechodnogo perioda iz niotkyda v nikuda (Dialectics of the transition period from nowhere to nowhere), better known as DPP(NN), which contains the author's fifth novel, Chisla (Numbers), as well as the poem “Elegiya 2” (Elegy 2) and six short stories, some of which feature characters from Chisla. This was followed by the novels Sviashchennaia kniga oborotnia (2004; The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, 2008), Shlem uzhasa: Kreatiff o Tesee i Minotavre (2005; The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, 2005), Ampir “V” (2006; Empire V: The Prince of Hamlet, 2016); the novella Zal poiushchikh kariatid (2008; The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, 2011); and the novel T (2009). Subsequently Pelevin began releasing one novel per year—S.N.U.F.F.: Utøpija (S.N.U.F.F., 2015) in 2012, Batman Apollo in 2013, Lyubov’ k trem Tsukerbrinam (Love for the three Zuckerbrins) in 2014, Smotritel’ (Caretaker) in 2015, and Lampa Mafusaila, ili Kraĭniaia bitva chekistov s masonami (The lamp of Methuselah; or, The ultimate battle of the Chekists with the masons) in 2016—along with occasional collections of short stories and essays.
Victor Pelevin’s works have resonated among a new generation of Russian readers, including those who experienced the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s and the subsequent rootlessness of Russian society as local and external forces struggled to fill the cultural gap. Pelevin has also found an eager audience outside Russia. Pelevin is widely considered a leading figure among contemporary Russian writers, and his works have been translated into at least sixteen languages and have received considerable critical acclaim in Great Britain and the United States.