In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Victor Pelevin (pehl-YAY-vihn) 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the schizophrenic nature of post-Soviet life, an era during which the promise of global dominion under Communism has been replaced by an empty and savage capitalism.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 The Blue Lantern, and Other Stories, 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, 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 “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. “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 The Yellow Arrow, Pelevin offers a compelling parable of Russian society. The Yellow Arrow is a train with no end and no beginning, which makes no stops, and which 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, Pelevin satirized 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 short fiction, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, and Other Stories, continue to explore the themes of self-perception and national identity raised consistently by Pelevin in his earlier works. In the title story, a young hitchhiker from Moscow, Sasha, stumbles upon a community of werewolves in the country and soon becomes initiated into the group. In “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 “Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream.” “Perestroika erupted into the public lavatory on Tverskoy Boulevard from several directions at once,” Pelevin writes in the opening line of the story.
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...
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