Russian literary culture is in disarray but it can still have a good row about its most fashionable writerby Jason Cowley / March 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2000 issue of Prospect 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 a…