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Prominent Russians: Viktor Pelevin

Born 22 November, 1962
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The Russian post-modernist fiction writer Viktor Pelevin has been mystifying the broad public for so long, that even his most dedicated fans wondered for a time if such a fantastical individual could even exist.

Still, Pelevin is real, along with his multi-layered postmodernist texts that fuse together elements of pop culture and esoteric philosophies. Some critics compare his prose to the New Sincerity and New Realism literary movements.

Family and School Years

Viktor Pelevin was born on November 22, 1962 in Moscow. At the age of six, just like any Soviet child he entered school, in his case, a language school in the center of Moscow. The school that young Viktor attended was considered at the time to be one of the best educational establishments in the capital – the children of several famous and important people attended.  Among Pelevin’s famous schoolmates were Anton Tabakov, the son of Russian well-known actor Oleg Tabakov, Misha Efremov, the son of Oleg Efremov - a Soviet/Russian actor and Moscow Art Theater director, Stalin’s grand-nephew Sergey Alilluev, and the sons of the USSR Interior Minister Vasily Trushin among others.

Viktor’s mother was an assistant to the principle in her son’s school and taught the upperclassmen English. His father worked as a professor in the senior division of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University.

Pelevin’s classmates recalled he was a tiny, thin boy and always cut his hair short. He seemed to like funny caps and used to wear an alyaska coat – a very fashionable outer garment at the time that had a big fluffy hood. He possessed an exuberant imagination and was spinning yarns all the time. But while these tales were wonderfully elegant and absolutely incredible, the young Pelevin managed to intertwine his tall tales with actual events, a trait that would drive his friends and parents crazy at times.  

University and higher education

In the summer of 1979, Pelevin finished school and successfully passed the entrance exams at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, one of the largest and leading technical universities in the world in the field of power engineering and electronics. Five years later in 1985, Pelevin graduated from the university with honors. The following April, he was hired as an engineer in the electric transport department. 

In March of 1987, Pelevin successfully passed his examinations and applied for the PhD program at the same university. There, Viktor started working on the electric drive induction motors of the city’s trolleybuses. And though the young man was devoted to his work and dedicated quite a lot of time to it, he decided against defending his thesis.

Pelevin finally understood he was not going to dedicate his life to engineering, as he took a vivid interest in literature and writing. This immersion quite logically led him to decide to attend the Moscow Maksim Gorky Literature Institute in the summer of 1988, although he only wished to be a part-time student as he understood he would have to earn his living as well.

Just like any other applicant, Pelevin had to take several exams. Viktor passed practically all the exams and received the highest mark, except for his major and the professional interlocution exams where he got the second highest mark.  As a result, Pelevin got into the seminar group of the well-known writer Mikhail Lobanov.

In 1990, when filling in the performance records of his students, Lobanov wrote about Pelevin, “The short stories written by Viktor Pelevin present the authenticity of everyday observations that sometimes may seem exaggerated. His latest work is an attempt to create a surreal short story about the process of dying. For the time being it is still the author’s quest for himself; he lacks the true inner spiritual experience”.

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Pelevin’s personal folder, kept in the deanery of the institute, contained one of his explanatory letters accounting for the fact he had failed to hand in an assignment on time. In it, Viktor stated the following, “I failed to hand in the work on time – and I am deeply sorry about it - because I was busy preparing manuscripts for printing.”

The letter, however cheeky and ironic as it might have sounded, was indeed true. Pelevin was not just “preparing manuscripts for printing”, but he was actually publishing them in Science and Religion magazine. In December of 1989, his first short story Sorcerer Ignat and The People was published, and in January 1990 it was followed by another one, Rune Fortunetelling.

Early literary works

Immediately after entering the Literature Institute, Viktor found a job as a staff correspondent at Face to Face magazine, where he worked for the next year. Pelevin didn’t only manage to combine his studies with his work in the magazine, but from time to time he even received one-time offers from other Moscow newspapers and magazines. At the end of the 1980’s, his first short stories were published in Chemistry and Life magazine, as well as included in a few collections of science-fiction stories. In 1991 his first collection of short stories entitled “The Blue Lantern and Other Stories” was published, but was hardly noticed in literary circles.

Science and religion

It was not by chance that Pelevin’s stories were first published in Science and Religion magazine. Viktor appeared at the magazine’s editorial office with the help of Eduard Gevorkyan, a then famous sci-fi writer who was an insider at the publishing house of the magazine. The staff remembered he even praised Pelevin, saying he would go a long way in literature – a thing very few writers had the courage to say, overcoming their jealousy for such a young and talented future rival.

Pelevin loved coming to the editorial office and used to stay there well past midnight chatting with the staff and playing chess with Gevorkyan. At the time, the magazine, just like the whole country, was going through a period of great change – instead of articles on scientific atheism, more and more mystical stories were starting to emerge.

It was at the magazine that Pelevin would meet one of his greatest future friends.  Valentina Pazilova was in charge of the “mystical and esoterics” section of the magazine, and it was her idea to ask the “magician and sorcerer” Vitaly Arhamovich (who was quite a celebrity in metaphysical circles at the time) to write for the magazine. Vitaly gladly accepted the offer.

One day Pazilova was talking about the “sorcerer” with Gevorkyan. Pelevin heard the name and was immensely surprised the man was writing for the magazine as well. As Pazilova later recalled, “…upon hearing the name, Viktor gave a start and asked if Arhamovich had joined the staff. When he got an affirmative answer, he smiled and said the man was his true teacher”.

Pelevin spent a great amount of time with Arhamovich, and the two men drank a lot together. Once they got so drunk they started nailing all of Arhamovich’s books to the walls in his apartment. It should be mentioned that Arhamovich was an intelligent man who owned quite a number of books.

Arhamovich had a reputation for being a bit eccentric, and in the early 1990’s he once wasted half of his salary buying a moose leg in order to sleep with it. Pelevin loved the idea, just like he liked any of the ideas that came to the head of his so-called teacher. When Arhamovich suddenly died in October 1995, Pelevin cried and cried for days shouting Arhamovich’s name at the top of his voice.

Mysticism and Mythology

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In late April 1991 Pelevin flunked out of the Gorky Institute. The reason provided sounded strange to say the least – “isolation from the institute”. It was almost impossible to figure out what the institute authorities meant by “isolation”, since as early as 1990 the young Pelevin was almost physically connected with the institute where a small publishing house called “Day” rented several rooms and hired Viktor as an editor to their prose department. The “Day” publishing house was founded by Pelevin’s fellow student, Albert Egazarov. Albert raised money to open up the publishing house by selling computers, and Pelevin was happy to join in. The publishing house would eventually be renamed “Raven” and then later “Myth.” Under the latter name it continues to publish serious books like the Third Reich Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Symbols, Signs, and Emblems” and Theoretical and Practical Magic to this day.

Character and Everyday Life

Pelevin’s acquaintances sometimes don’t speak well of him and his character. They recall he has always enjoined creating conflicts and has been arrested by the police more than once. However, in spite of this Pelevin always somehow managed to land on his feet, while his friends had occasional problems with law-enforcement agencies.

Pelevin’s literary acquaintances claim that he is a brilliant karate expert. One well-known literary critic Viktoria Shohina recalls how Pelevin once started demonstrating karate movements in the department of culture in the hall of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. A tiny matchbox was placed on top of the head of one of the critics, and Pelevin waved his leg above the slender lady’s head. And though he wanted to make everyone believe he was a born karate fighter, he kept missing as he was afraid to hurt the lady. Finally he managed to knock down the matchbox some fifteen minutes later.

Literature Matters

Обложка книги Омон Ра Omon Ra cover

In 1991, upon the recommendation of celebrated Russian prose writer Mikhail Umnov, Pelevin was hired by “Znamya”, a serious magazine. Viktor was appointed head of the sci-fi department, and though he was truly a success, he didn’t seem to want the position. The magazine employees believed he was absolutely marvelous and could at least be as successful as the Strugatsky brothers, but Pelevin seemed to want much more than that. So he took one of his first short novels, Omon Ra, and went straight to the Znamya prose editor.

Omon Ra was a re-telling of the history of Soviet cosmonautics in the form of a colossal and sadistic fabrication. In his book, Pelevin proposed that its true mission was to make bloody sacrifices that helped foster the magical state structure. Cadets, for example, had their feet amputated. But the main characters of the book, a young man named Omon and his friend Mitya, got lucky – they were enrolled in the high-end suicide-cosmonauts forces. In the very end of the book, Omon, who is doomed to commit suicide, understands that the reality that surrounded him was simply a nightmare imposed on his imagination.

The short novel was published early in 1992. Later that year it was followed by another one – The Life of Insects.While the manuscript of Omon Ra was being prepared for publication, Pelevin kept calling the Znamya prose editor. He liked to pretend that he was not calling from Moscow, but from the inside of strange stalactite caves surrounded by bats, and begged the editor to reveal if the manuscript was to be published or not.

After Omon Ra was published and appeared in the bookshops of the country, Pelevin rose to fame overnight, as the broad public also seemed to remember one of Pelevin’s books had already appeared a year before. In 1992 The Blue Lantern and Other Stories received the Booker-Open Russia Literary Prize; it was announced the best collection of short stories of the year.

In 1993, his novel The Life of Insects was published, nailing down Pelevin’s fantastic success. This novel lacked the shock value of Omon Ra, but possessed a more complicated structure and, according to some literary critics, the novel was even a kind of periphrasis of Dante’s Inferno.

Обложка книги Chapayev and the Void cover

An attentive reader may find traces of Sufism (which is a distinct sect of Islam, dealing with its inner, mystical dimension), stoicism, and anthroposophy in Pelevin’s work. His highly philosophical novel Chapayev and the Void, published in 1996, was called the first Zen-Buddhist novel in the world.

Pelevin’s favorite topics to which he occasionally returns are the illusory nature of our reality, different worlds, and alternative versions of the Russian history. In his books, Pelevin mentions among other things the secret Kremlin control center located somewhere under the very heart of Moscow and dwells on the alternative reasons that had caused perestroika.

The line between life and death is a gray area in Pelevin’s literary works: some characters suddenly understand they are actually dead, while others have a knack for resuscitating the dead. Another peculiarity of Viktor’s books is the never-ending irony and the mocking attitude towards the stereotypes of Russian classical literature.

Pelevin's prose is usually devoid of dialogue between the author and the reader, either through plot, character development, literary form or narrative language. This corresponds to his philosophy both stated and unstated, that for the most part it is the reader who infuses the text with meaning.

Despite all the above-mentioned peculiarities, it would be a grave mistake to call all Pelevin’s books mystical. More likely, they are a combination of mysticism, philosophical parables, and humorous novelettes.

Drug Use

In practically every book written by Pelevin, the main characters either consume hallucinogenic mushrooms, dope themselves with cocaine, or use drugs in some way.

Viktor uses accurate medical terms to name the drugs. It is obvious that Pelevin has experience with drugs, and the main and probably sole reason for that is his creative work – to expand his senses and world perception as much as possible. Still, he has never tried heroin – he mostly smoked marijuana.  In extreme cases he might let himself eat hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Pelevin As He Is

Today Pelevin is one of the best-known Russian writers abroad. All his books have been translated and their celebrated author has been compared to Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway more than once.

In Russia almost each and every one of his books has won a prestigious literary award, and Viktor has gained great popularity among the broad public, this being the cause for some of the critics’ disfavor.

Pelevin never gives interviews, he is convinced the public and the journalists as the public’s representatives should be primarily interested in the writer’s works and thoughts and not in his everyday life.

Pelevin continues to write, and his books are available at practically every bookshop in this country and abroad, sometimes even being called bestsellers even before they actually hit the market.

Written by Anna Yudina, RT

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