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The Russian Empire in Pelevin’s Mirror

In a return to form, Viktor Pelevin’s new novel features a metaphysical hero much like, and unlike, a certain famous Russian writer.

by Ostap Karmodi 29 March 2010

t, by Viktor Pelevin. Moscow, Eksmo, 2009. 384 pages.


In 1934, a new motion picture hit the Soviet screens. Chapayev was based on the real-life story of Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev, a Red Army commander and a legendary hero of the Russian Civil War.


The movie was an instant success. Crowds stormed cinemas all over the country, and Stalin himself lauded Chapayev as the best Russian film of all time. The tyrant was probably right – leaders and regimes have changed, but the film is still hugely popular after all these years. It's more than just popular; it's a myth. One-liners from the movie became proverbs, and its main characters, Commander Chapayev, his aide Petka, and Anka, a young female machine-gunner, live on in countless jokes and stories.


It would be crazy to compete with the myth, but some years ago the young science fiction writer Viktor Pelevin took the risk.


Pelevin already had a reputation as a promising author. His early short novels Omon Ra and The Prince of Central Planning earned him a kind of cult following. But everybody expected more of him. And he delivered.


In 1996, with Chapayev and Void, he turned the story and the characters of the movie inside out. The Civil War setting remains much the same, and Chapayev is still a Red Cavalry commander. But while the film portrays him as an illiterate swashbuckler, in the book he becomes an illustrious mystic and visionary. Petka, a sly folksy type in the movie, is a refined symbolist poet. And their fight for the liberation of the working people becomes a quest for Zen-style spiritual liberation.




Viktor PelevinPelevin
The novel was an instant success. It worked on every level. It had charismatic characters, an enthralling plot, an original philosophical undertone, and, last but not least, it was a perfect parable of the Russian social and political situation of the time. Pelevin expressed the essence of  the mid-1990s so perfectly that the book’s good bits became quotables just like the most memorable lines of the original movie. Pelevin awoke to find himself the most prominent Russian writer – a title he still keeps. Just as Chapayev and Void (Buddha's Little Finger in the United States; Clay Machine Gun in the United Kingdom) is still the best-known Russian novel since the end of the Soviet Union.


But then came the inevitable slide. Even though each new Pelevin featured in the best-seller lists and was praised by critics, each left readers a bit disappointed. The cunning social comments and catchy one-liners were still there, and in the art of expressing the zeitgeist of modern Russia, Pelevin had no peers. But the books didn't have the heft of real novels – they felt more like collections of witticisms and jokes (though very good ones) seasoned with Zen-inspired philosophy and connected with a dispensable story. By 2006, when the fifth post-Chapayev novel, Empire V, appeared, the grumbling had grown quite audible.


Whatever the reason, after Empire V Pelevin took a time-out. In the following three years he published only a small collection of stories that most reviewers met with a shrug: “Well, it's still Pelevin, but ...”


Then, late last year, when everyone had grown tired of waiting, a new Pelevin hit the bookshops. His new novel, t, made a splash. Almost everyone agreed that it marked a huge step for Pelevin. But here the agreement ended. Half of the critics scolded it as a step back, the other half praised it as a step forward.


The book is definitely different. Sure, there are a couple of his trademark jokey insights, like the one that sees all of contemporary Russian politics as a clash between what he calls the Two Towers – the liberal and hawkish factions of the FSB security service. But the stinging descriptions of contemporary Russia that readers came to expect from his earlier books are all but gone. The main plot of the book develops not here and now, but a hundred years ago in an imaginary world resembling imperial Russia gone crazy.




The second major difference concerns the plot. t actually has one, unlike several of Pelevin’s previous novels: a good old plot with adventures and suspense, not a prop made up to connect jokes. And the novel has a protagonist. I would have written “real protagonist,” except that Pelevin the Buddhist always makes the point that there's nothing real in this world and everything – his characters, his readers, and himself – is nothing more than games of a mind that doesn't even exist. Nevertheless, he’s a solid, complicated character. And what a protagonist he is.


His name is Count T, a nobleman famous for his empathy for ordinary people. The count lives in Yasnaya Polyana, wears a long beard, and implores the gentry to live a simpler life. No, he isn’t Leo Tolstoy. Unlike Count Tolstoy, Count T is not a writer. He's a protector of the poor, but his version of “nonresistance to evil by force” is a martial art of which he is the master – a technique that allows killing adversaries without even touching them.


Count T has many enemies. Foremost is Ariel, a demiurge claiming that he created T and all the world he lives in and can thus change his destiny on a whim (questions of free will and the perception of reality underlie all of Pelevin’s writing).


But Ariel exists outside T's everyday world. Inside it, his main opponents are representatives of the state and church in the Russian Empire. T is trying to reach a place called Optina Pustyn. In the real world this is an Orthodox monastery and place of pilgrimage where Dostoyevsky, among others, stayed. The Count Tolstoy of our world is said to have gone there on the eve of his death. In T's world it's not even clear what Optina Pustyn is. T just knows that he has to get there. The government and the church’s agents, on the other side, are trying to prevent him by any means.


Having perhaps taken to heart the accusations that he could no longer produce an intriguing plot, in this novel Pelevin has proved that he still can. He does it tongue-in-cheek, though, putting in a disclaimer that all the action scenes were in fact written at speed by a hired “master of thrills” – an unsubtle jab at Boris Akunin, author of fast-paced historical thrillers. Pelevin himself is a master of thrills second to none. If he didn't play the imitation game the book would be much better. Still, the story, though not on par with his Chapayev book, is much more enjoyable than its predecessors.


The decision to return to action writing probably dictated the setting. It's not a coincidence that the two most thrilling Pelevin novels are set against a historical background and feature quasi-historical characters. Russia today produces no giants; outstanding characters just get stuck in omnipresent corruption and lies like flies in a web. Most of Pelevin's novels are set in modern Russia, and their main characters are always unsavory social climbers, except for one – and she is a 1,000-year-old fox spirit.




But although his new novel is set in imperial Russia, Pelevin has never written anything that wasn’t about the present day, and this one is no exception.


It's popular to compare today's Russia with the Soviet Union. There are some similarities indeed: total censorship on the TV, dependence on oil and gas exports, the authorities' readiness to blame every misfortune on internal or external enemies. Yet Russia now is hugely different from the Soviet Union in many ways. Unlike in the USSR, independent mass media exist, although they are few and far between. Unlike in the USSR, participants in anti-government demonstrations are arrested for 24 hours, not sent to Siberia for 10 years. Unlike in the USSR, there's private property, the supermarkets are full of food, and people can go abroad without the humiliating and almost impossible-to-obtain “exit permit” of Soviet times. Look closely and you can see that the better comparison is between modern Russia and the same Russian Empire where Pelevin has set his new book.


Just as in the old empire, Russian Orthodoxy is omnipresent and has de facto, if not de jure, become the official ideology. Fundamentals of Orthodox culture are taught in schools, and the Russian Winter Olympic team withstood a long prayer held by the patriarch himself in the main Russian cathedral (not that it helped the athletes much  in the end).


Another striking similarity is the economic system, which is closer to feudalism than to capitalism. It's based not on the concept of real unalienable private property, but on something resembling medieval fiefs – a property that is given by a sovereign to a loyal vassal that at any moment can be reclaimed and given to somebody else. The Yukos affair demonstrated this perfectly.


Also characteristic of both Russias, the judiciary and the legislature, independent in theory, are completely subordinated to the ruler.


It was impossible to imagine, after all the years of Soviet totalitarian rule, that Russian revolutionaries of a hundred years ago would once again evoke so much sympathy among the intelligentsia and youngsters. They do now.


This tendency has already been noticed by some commentators. But, as always happens with Russian tendencies, it took Pelevin to express it with such crystal clarity. For those who can't get the similarities himself, Pelevin has left thinly veiled hints. For instance, in the novel Russia is ruled by a two-headed emperor – an obvious wink to the Medvedev-Putin “tandemocracy.”


Pelevin is renowned for his ability to foresee tendencies about to emerge. It's worked this time as well. As though to round out the transformation of the new Russia into a facsimile of the empire, two token events occurred about a month after the book was published.


First, a Russian court declared that the slogan “Down with monarchy and succession!” stuck on a wall constituted a call to overthrow the current government.


Second, another Russian court declared extremist a religious group’s use of a quotation from by Leo Tolstoy: “I've found that the teaching of the [Russian Orthodox] Church is theoretically guileful and a harmful lie, and practically it's a collection of the most rude superstitions and sorceries that completely suppresses the very core of the Christian teaching.” The court decided that the statement could ignite religious hatred.


In accordance with Article 282 of the Russian penal code, the culprit could be jailed for up to four years. Unfortunately for the court, Count Tolstoy is long dead. But Pelevin's Count T is alive and well.  At the end of the book he meets young Chapayev – a Petersburg student and a member of a coterie of mystics. Chapayev tells T that he's applying to a cavalry school. To a baffled T's question why a young student would do this, Chapayev answers that he has a feeling that the skills taught will become essential in Russia in a very short time. Taking into account Pelevin's aptitude at predicting immediate prospects, it'd be wise to give Chapayev's words some consideration.


Ostap Karmodi is a freelance journalist living in Prague and Moscow.


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