Eighteen years after its publication, the novel Buddha’s Little Finger (Чапаев и Пустота) written by Victor Pelevin remains important and fresh.There is a reason why Russia is such a mysterious country for the rest of the world. The never-ending chain of historical cataclysms moulded the country into the symbolic barrel with gunpowder that can explode any moment.
Russians are used to abrupt changes in their life and that’s why there’s fatalism in our mentality and a lot of patience. People value periods of quiet life and are very reluctant to rebel and fight for changes. Yet, we like doing things very fast, in haste, to cut corners, to achieve our goals quickly – because life is short and may not give you a second chance.
At the same time, Russians are skilful at deception and double play, everyone distrusts the government or their neighbour. In paradox to that, Russian people are very naive, many buy into fairy-tales the Kremlin feeds them via media. Eastern Orthodox christianity is in a wild mix with paganism and superstition here. Pseudoscience and mystical doctrines are thriving in Russia.
Individuality is only valued in Russia when it goes together with wealth and power. It’s a land where social Darwinism is reality. Many of us are aggressive and blunt, yet, at the same time, everyone has heard of Russian hospitality and generosity. Russian tourists often spend fortunes abroad, they like showing their money, they burn bright and live now, because they know they can lose everything in a moment.
Russians seem to live in two parallel realities. They grumble about expensive life, decay of the country’s infrastructure, corrupt government and Western conspiracies that plan to destroy their Motherland, yet, at the same time, we believe that Russia is a God-chosen country, the world centre of spiritual Renaissance, where the smartest, kindest and most beautiful people live.
I believe the best way to grasp the mentality of modern Russian people is to read Russian books, especially the ones written by Victor Pelevin who is number one Russian author who explores Russian history, politics and society in his post-modernist works.
Buddha’s Little Finger is Pelevin’s most celebrated novel, a manifest of Russian Buddhism, I’d even say Zen-Buddhism. By saying zen I mean that Pelevin’s heroes are already enlightened, but either forgotten about it or on their way to realise their enlightenment. Zen or not Zen, in the country with the communist past where atheism was norm, the Buddhist worldview is an alternative for those who couldn’t convert back to traditional Christianity.
Petr Pustota (Peter the Void) is the main protagonist in Buddha’s Little Finger. We meet him in an enlightened state: he’s at the madhouse receiving treatment for his mental illness. His other personality believes that he lives during the times of Civil War in Russia, in 1919, where he’s been spiritually guided by the Red Army commander, Vasily Chapaev, and fallen in love with a beautiful machine gun operator and Chapaev’s deputy, Anka.
Petr’s new treatment is designed as a collective hallucination between him and his inmates at the asylum. He learns about Simply Maria, a guy whose other personality is a girl from a Mexican soap opera, and her adventure with a Terminator, a bizarre story symbolising an “alchemical” marriage between Russia and the West. Stories of other inmates are equally depressing, especially if we interpret them as scenarios of Russia’s future fate.
Petr’s doctor claims his patient’s mind healed. When Anka wipes out all existence with her clay machine guy – Petr grasps the idea of Void. We all exist in this Void and are made of it, and we don’t know why, since we can’t know something that is the Void, Nothingness. This is me interpreting, however imprecisely, Petr’s realisation of his enlightenment.
This novel is a mental exercise, a clever way to pull readers out of the tight clasp of material culture, to make us think big questions. It is also a clever political satire on contemporary Russian history and the way Russian history repeats itself: the wild times of Civil War are likened to post-communism era of 1990s. And since it repeats itself, we may as well take it philosophically. No borders between dreams and reality, sanity and madness, past and present, there is only the Void.
update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.