“Once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun, and chose Pepsi” (1).
So begins Victor Pelevin’s 1999 novel Generation P, published in the US as Homo Zapiens, the story of a young Muscovite by the unlikely name of Babylen Tatarsky who comes of age in the early 1990’s at the dawn of the tumultuous Yeltsin administration. The original title—short for “Generation Pepsi”—is not simply an arbitrary choice of consumerist symbol. Pepsi-Cola holds a much greater symbolic significance for the citizens of the former USSR: in 1972 Pepsi became the first foreign product sanctioned for sale in the Soviet Union. As such, the soft drink representsthe (perhaps misguided) attempts of the old regime to usher in Western products through deals made by the Communist elites—as Pelevin writes: “Children of the Soviet seventies chose Pepsi in precisely the same way their parents chose Brezhnev” (1). Generation P, of which our hero Tatarsky is a member, were brought up in a nation of absolute truths: there can only be one Party; there can only be one Pepsi. Yet, somehow, just as their feet were beginning to hit the ground, the tentacles of Perestroika (or “Pepsi-stroika” as some critics dubbed it) were creeping, undermining the world Tatarsky thought he knew. We learn that the protagonist, inspired by a small volume of Boris Pasternak poems, decided to abandon his technical training in favor of the Literary Institute, looking forward to a long future of poetry translations in the languages of all the various Soviet satellites. However, just as Tatarsky was about to graduate, Pelevin writes, “quite unobtrusively, an event of fundamental significance for his future occurred. The USSR, which they’d begun to renovate and improve at about the time when Tatarsky decided to change his profession, improved so much that it ceased to exist” (3).
What came next, the author assures us, was a very different sort of Russia. We first encounter Tatarsky working in a roadside kiosk selling cheap booze and cigarettes. His training is now useless, as the dissolution of the USSR has dissolved the demand for literary translations, but soon he stumbles upon a new venue for his talents: advertising. An old friend approaches him with an offer: “This is a very special time,” he says, “There’s never been a time like it and there never will be again. It’s a gold-rush, just like the Klondyke. In another two years everything’ll be all sewn up, but right now there’s a real chance to get in on the ground floor straight off the street” (8). What the man is talking about is the first-mover advantage—be the first advertising firm in an emerging market and you can dominate, forge connections, and block out competition. In the cowboy-capitalist world of transition-era Russia, however, the business environment can be a very dangerous and confusing place: “Most of the time it goes like this: a guy borrows money on credit to rent an office and buy a Jeep Cherokee and eight crates of Smirnoff. When the Smirnoff runs out, it turns out the Jeep’s wrecked, the office is awash with puke and the loan is due for repayment. So he borrows money again—three times more than before. He uses it to pay back the first loan, buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee and sixteen crates of Absolut vodka. When the Absolut…” (9). This cycle continues, Tatarsky’s friend informs him, until either the mafia-backed banks kill the guy or, if he’s in the mafia himself, he declares bankruptcy, lays low for a bit, and in a little while starts up all over again. In such an economic landscape, where law enforcement is lax and organized crime is ubiquitous, one must uncover alternative methods of obtaining security—both monetary and physical. Tatarsky’s friend assures him that “in an absolutely free market by definition there must be services provided by the limiters of absolute freedom”—the man gestures to the enormous armed bodyguard sitting next to him—“Wee Vova here happens to be one of those limiters. In other words, he’s our protection” (135).
It is in the midst of this great socioeconomic upheaval that Tatarsky has his epiphany: “One day, after smoking some especially good grass, he uncovered by pure chance the basic economic law of post-socialist society: initial accumulation of capital is also final” (18). Soon, all of his former romantic notions of poetry and literature have gone out the window. Tatarsky has seen his opportunity—to seize as much capital as possible—and he throws himself headfirst into the world of copywriting. Furthermore, nearly all the rest of Tatarsky’s brilliant and mysterious ideas for advertisements throughout the rest of the novel come to him under the influence of various psychedelic and/or stimulant drugs. He becomes obsessed with ancient Mesopotamian imagery—packs of Parliament cigarettes atop Babylonian ziggurats, the M&M’s logo carved in cuneiform on basalt columns—and eventually begins communicating, by way of Ouija board, with the spirit of Che Guevara (whose t-shirt he has just recently purchased). Che explains to Tatarsky, at great length, his theory of advertising in the modern age, according to which human beings have been hypnotized into “collective non-existence” by the power of television and the urge to satisfy their consumerist desires (80). And thus, the Communist struggle is over precisely because “the individual for whose freedom it was once possible to fight disappears completely from the field of view”—a conclusion which delights the young copywriter to no end (91).
As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear to Tatarsky that some sort of essential factor is missing from modern life. He is nostalgic for the pre-transition times when a new pair of athletic trainers, brought in from abroad by a distant relative, could mark the starting point of a whole new chapter in one’s life. Pelevin writes, “The happiness that could be extracted from such an acquisition was boundless. Nowadays, to earn the right to the same amount you had to buy at least a jeep, maybe even a house… ‘The inflation of happiness,’ he jotted down hastily: ‘having to pay more money for the same amount’” (70). In the new Russia, full of choices for consumers, terminal happiness is impossible—the individual “Homo Zapiens,” as Che calls them, are possessed by an impulse to constantly consume, to constantly outdo their neighbors. Conspicuous consumption grows strong in the Russian consciousness. Tatarsky explains his fellow ad executives’ overzealous appetite for cocaine as a desire to appear wealthy, profligate, and “très chic” to their colleagues: “People weren’t sniffing cocaine, they were sniffing money, and the rolled-up hundred-dollar bill required by the unwritten order of ritual was actually more important than the powder itself” (54). Thus, even the copywriters themselves—the true manufacturers of Russian culture—have bought into the essential myth of their profession, which Tatarsky’s old friend Gireiev explains to him as follows: “The main purpose of advertising is to show people other people who’ve managed to find happiness in the possession of material objects. But in reality people suffering from that delusion don’t exist anywhere except in the ads” (126).
Nevertheless, Tatarsky soon finds himself climbing quckly up the corporate latter, successful beyond his wildest dreams or ambitions, increasingly unphased by the instances of assassination, bribery, and extortion that he witnesses along the way. As he moves closer and closer to the heartof the Russian power structure, he makes some startling realizations about who—or what—is really driving the economic transformation. There is a mysterious quasi-government agency called the Institute of Apiculture—another word for beekeeping—that seems to be the source of all the nations big political and economic decisions. It isn’t until Tatarsky finally penetrates their ranks, however, that he finally realizes what it is they do: in short, they make advertisements.
Pelevin, one of Russia’s most popular contemporary novelists, writes with the spiritual urgency of Dostoevsky and the sardonic wisdom of Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut. Like the novel’s hero, he is concerned with the absence at the heart of modern Russia. Tatarsky enters a Moscow taxi and asks the driver how he would describe the “Russian idea.” The man ignores the question, regaling him instead with a series of banal army stories, but as Tatarsky is getting out of the car the driver says to him: “As for that idea of yours, I’ll tell you straight: fuck only knows. All I want is the chance to earn enough to keep me in petrol and booze. Yeltsin-Schmeltsin—what do I care, so long as they don’t go smashing my face against a table?” (140). Though the author attacks the vapidity and corruption of modern Russia’s inchoate form of capitalism, he makes it clear throughout that he has little love for the old regime as well. The point being made is that, though all the rules of the game have changed, the new system is just as backward as the old. One of Tatarsky’s copywriter friends tells him, “I used to work in ideology, as it happens. At Komsomol Central Committee level. All my friends are bankers now; I’m the only one… I tell you, I didn’t have to reconstruct myself at all. It used to be: ‘The individual is nothing, the collective is everything,’ and now it’s: ‘Image is nothing, thirst is everything.’ Agitprop’s immortal. It’s only the words that change” (106).
Our protagonist’s journey eventually leads him to a series of increasingly absurd situations amongst the Moscow elite: secret societies who worship digitized goddesses, clandestine meetings in underground caverns, ancient pagan rituals and sacrificial murder. It is only near the end of the novel that Tatarsky realizes the great tragedy that has befallen him: somewhere along the way, he has lost his soul—and the soul of Russia too, if it ever had one. In the midst of his final hallucinogenic experience, he encounters the voice of a goddess who implores him, “Once, my love, all of us were free—why did you have to create this terrible, ugly world?” Tatarsky responds, “Was it I who created it?” (227). At the end of the novel, this ultimate question remains: if the polticians are beholden to big business, and big business is beholden to politics in a great circle of bribery and violence, then who is really calling the shots in contemporary Russia? The answer, our hero discovers, is perhaps better left unsaid. “Don’t go looking for symbolic significance in everything, Babe”—a colleague advises him—“you might regret it when you find it” (244).
Pelevin, Victor. Homo Zapiens. Trans. Andrew Bromfield. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
- Featured image from the book’s wikipedia page.
- Picture of Pelevin taken from http://updateslive.blogspot.com/2011/05/victor-pelevin.html.
Kyle Kysela is a native of Cleveland, Ohio currently studying law and economics at the University of Chicago Law School.