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Victor Pelevin: Поколение «П» (UK: Babylon; US: Homo zapiens)

This is another of Pelevin’s in-your-face post-modernist satires, this time focussing on or, at least, starting with the advertising and public relations industry before moving on to Russian politics as a whole. Let’s start with the title. The Russian title is Generation P. The P stands for Pepsi as, apparently, drinking Pepsi was a sort of rebellion in the latter stages of the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Pelevin says, that generation chose Pepsi as their parents chose Brezhnev. The hero of this book is called Babylen (sic) Tatarsky, Babylen coming from a combination of Baby Yar (referring to Yevtushenko’s poem) and Lenin but, of course, it gets changed to Babylon and Baby/Babe, so that he himself changed his name to Vladimir or Vova. Zapiens comes from television zapping, though, as explained in Chapter 7, it is a bit more complicated than that.

Babylen is a member of the Pepsi generation. He fancies himself as a poet. However, when the Soviet Union falls, he tries to pretend that nothing happened, nothing changed. But things started changing. For example, the clothing that has been normal in the Soviet Union now looked ridiculous. He didn’t write any more poems after that: with the collapse of Soviet power they had simply lost their meaning and value. However, externally it had not changed too much, except perhaps that there were more paupers on the streets, but everything in his surroundings – the houses, the trees, the benches on the streets – had somehow suddenly grown old and decrepit. Indeed, it was like being in Germany in 1946 if the Nazis, despite their defeat, had remained in power as that is what seemed to have happened in Russia. Getting a job is not easy but he manages to find a job in a trading kiosk, with a rather threatening boss. One day, a former fellow student sees him in the kiosk and takes him away.

Morkovin, the former fellow student, explains to Babylen about the new economics. Now is the time to get in on the ground floor before things really take off. All sorts of people are borrowing money, which they often fritter away but, before they do, they need to sell or, at least, be seen to be selling the product they borrowed the money for. For that they need advertising. And for advertising they need the specialist companies who use literate people like Babylen to write the scripts. Copywriting is the key. Babylen is hired and is set to write a script for a company, along with other copywriters. He writes a totally bizarre scenario: The Tower of Babel rose and fell, the Nile flooded, Rome burned, ferocious Huns galloped in no particular direction across the steppes – and in the background the hands of an immense, transparent clock spun round. The executive submits the other scenarios. All are rejected by the client. Reluctantly, she submits Babylen’s. The client loves it.

After reading Positioning: A Battle for your Mind, which becomes his bible, Babylen realises the basic economic law of post-socialist society: initial accumulation of capital is also final. At this point, Babylen goes on to greater success, continually hired by different people. One of his employers realises that the future is going to involve developing concepts for US companies wishing to market in Russia, as they will have to adopt a peculiarly Russian strategy and not a US one. As this has not yet happened Babylen is given the task of developing pre-emptive advertising campaigns, such as Parliament cigarettes and Sprite, each one more outrageous. He makes predictions: In the very near future we must expect most of the essential branches of industry to come to a total standstill, the collapse of the financial system and serious social upheavals, which will all inevitably end in the establishment of a military dictatorship.

Of course, as this is Pelevin, it is not going to be so simple. He sidetracks into the history and myths of Babylon (sic), the history of parliamentarianism in Russia (the only thing the word was good for was advertising Parliament, cigarettes), drugs, and more drugs, the secret of advertising (linking any product to money), Homo Zapiens, black public relations and, inevitably, that all the oligarchs, Members of Parliament and even George W Bush are all merely animated figures and not real.

As usual, it is all wonderful fun, way over the top and totally damning of Russia and its people. The only product Russia exports, he comments, is the Kalashnikov though after reading this book, we could add satire to the list.

First published 1999 by Vagrius
First published 2001 in English by Viking/Faber & Faber