Freedom and the Reality of Others in Chapaev and the Void

Julia Vaingurt


Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 62, no.3 (Fall 2018), pp. 466–482


A recognizable symbol of the disorienting and heady 1990s, Chapaev I Pustota provoked a whirlwind of critical responses. However, via different routes many critics arrived at a similar end point: they accused the novel of advocating solipsism and radical disengagement.  Individuality and agency appear to be incompatible with the existence of the collective that consists of other human beings and with the existence of the body that binds one to others.  It is seemingly this epiphany that drives the protagonist, Petr Pustota, to seek freedom in withdrawal from physical reality and being with others.  This paper aims to argue that while the protagonist’s search for authentic being and self-definition leads him to disregard the meaning others impose on his life, the novel recognizes the ethical problem of reducing the reality of others.   Furthermore, the novel attempts to find a possibility of transcending master-slave dialectics and conceptualizing a relationship that does not imply the obliteration of the specificity of the self or the singularity of the other.  To argue this point, the paper will demonstrate that the novel hinges on dialogue as its central device (including the essential, if obscured, allusion to the Kant-Schopenhauer debate on morality); that Petr Pustota authors himself as a subject in interlocution with a variety of discourses and in relation to other characters; and, finally, that the text practices ethical reasoning by prioritizing, in subtle ways, the protagonist’s self-definition.

Adducing the inseparable link between the insight of emptiness and ethical action in the concept of the awakening, bodhicitta, in Buddhism, the paper will argue that the novel is preoccupied with the relationship with others and with their potential role in the achievement of authentic being and enlightenment. The structure of the novel points to the rescuing presence of another consciousness, and the necessity of incorporating one’s essential relatedness with others into the core of one’s spiritual life. As the title of the novel points out, there are two contending takes on the movement toward truth; the conjunction “and” between Chapaev and Pustota suggests that they are in a relationship of complementarity (rather than equivalency). Chapaev is Pustota’s mentor, but the ultimate form of the process of Pustota’s education is dialogic. Pustota is not a fully compliant student; his questions point to the supplementarity of Pustota’s understanding to Chapaev’s vision of emptiness. In the end Pustota’s recognition of the other is more sustaining, as I hope to demonstrate, than the penultimate drowning in Chapaev’s conditional river of absolute love. I conclude that Pelevin’s recipe for the transformations of the 1990s is not a solipsistic retreat but rather a careful negotiation of the borders of the self and the other, for which operation the realm of aesthetics conditions an ideal space.


Свобода и действительность Других в ‘Чапаеве и Пустоте’

Юлия Вайнгурт

Ссылаясь на заложенную в буддистском понятии “пробужденного сознания” (бодхичитта) неразрывную связь между озарениями, которые сулит абсолютная пустота, и этическим поведением, данная статья утверждает, что роман «Чапаев и Пустота» озабочен отношением между субъектом  и другими, а также потенциальной ролью последних в достижении просветления и подлинного бытия.  Mысль о другом приносит, в конечном итоге, более глубинную актуализацию себя, чем то опустошение, которое дарует утопленнику чапаевская Условная Река Абсолютной Любви. Статья демонстрирует, что рецепт, предложенный Пелевиным для преобразований 1990х, – это не побег в солипсизм, а вдумчивое согласование границ между Я и другим, причем эстетическая сфера предоставляет идеальное пространство для данной операции.


Julia Vaingurt is Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic and Baltic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and Arts in Russia of the 1920s (Northwestern University Press, 2013). Her current project is a monograph on the poetics of weakness in late Soviet prose.