Judging Emptiness: Reflections on the Post-Soviet Aesthetics and Ethics of Viktor Pelevin’s Čapaev i Pustota

The paper examines Viktor Pelevin’s bestselling novel Chapaev i Pustota (1996) in the context of its reception by the post-Soviet critical establishment. Russian critics’ symptomatic labelling of the novel as escapist suggests the need to focus on the ethical implications of the author’s quasi-Buddhist engagement with emptiness. The paper argues that the ethics of the novel cannot be distilled either from its protagonist’s aesthetic quest or from the fable of Zen enlightenment he eventually undergoes. Pelevin’s novel set “in absolute emptiness” targets the presentability of the absolute while affirming pustota as the blissful true nature of any existence. Therefore, the remarkable positive programme of this text (including all attendant ethical consequences) should not be thought of separately from Pelevin’s postmodern critique of representation.