“Homo Zapiens” by Victor Pelevin

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The journey of Tartarsky throughout Homo Zapiens is that of self-discovery. Although there is the use of psychotropic drugs and communion with spirits throughout the novel, it is better seen as an inner reflection existing within the mind of a fictional copywriter in post-Soviet Russia, rather than a hallucinatory experience. Moreover, the novel projects the complicated idea of capitalist ideas in a pseudo-capitalist society, albeit in sometimes drug induced rants and encounters with the dead. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tartarsky struggles to understand his place in a new society as a “creator”. As he climbs the ladder of success in the advertisement business, his journey conveys harsh realities about target audiences and commerce that exists in a grey area between legitimacy and black market. Perhaps this novel embodies the notion that Russian advertisers in the post-Soviet Union manipulated the audience more than the product when attempting a sale. In a capitalist society, one often attempts to market the idea that their product conveys. The Russian system presented by this novel suggests advertisers are selling faux-capitalism under the veiled illusion of choice. Much like the Soviet system under the Communist Party, predetermined worth determines the value of an item rather than tangible features of an object. The state ultimately sets a price and they convince people they need the item, even though there is little choice.

First, I must state that while there is little choice during this time period, there is certainly more than Russia had experienced in the past. Pelevin frequently references the influx of foreign goods being sold in the country. However, a limit still existed, and a scarcity of goods remained. A choice between two or three types of items is not a free market economy, yet advertisers were using the methods of a capitalist system to sell limited goods. This creates an unusual paradox when discussing who sets the prices. Tartarsky is told that oligarchs set national policy and therefore decide what products to sell.1 This is a method that was still in line with a state-run economy with a mere change in leadership. The mentality of an anti-Western state is still very prominent during this time period as well. It is easy to sell anti-market ideas, according to Morkovin when he imparts his words of wisdom onto Tartarsky.2 Central entities even control the political atmosphere, giving the illusion of free choice. They create politicians through advertisements with a need to destroy the existing economy to elect younger politicians of a new generation.3

The hypocrisy inherent in this system becomes even more abundantly clear as vendors market and brand rebellion, like the Che Guevara/Rage Against the Machine shirt.4 Similar to the Communist Party of the past, perpetual revolution seemed to be a staple of this society. Advertisers used this to their advantage with ads like the “Uncola”, which was attractive to Russians because of its anti-liberal and anti-democratic implications.5 The Russian people had merely become slaves to advertisement instead of dictatorship. It was almost impossible to remove the slave mentality out of Russians without damaging what it meant to be Russian.6 American advertisement functioned in much the same way during this time, with basic needs and desires being the equal. The influx of Western goods meant that vendors needed to adapt cultural references to sell products to Russian citizens though, not just language.7 Still, there was a fundamental difference in the two societies and importing goods did not mean that Russian advertisers should sacrifice Russian revolutionary ideas. It was important to “drown the Russian bourgeoisie in a flood of images.”8 This reflects on the paradox of trying to incorporate western material goods in Russia while being careful not to absorb ideology along with them.

Another problem presented in the novel is that of predetermined values, or a fixed price economy, rather than a free market approach. Many items in the novel had very little worth but vendors sold them with the predication that they are valuable, like the plastic disc promoted to Tartarsky.9 People often judged the level of someone’s importance based extensively on their outward appearance and materialistic possessions. People would spend their last penny to dress in clothes that reflected a higher status.10 The monetary value of items, more so than the items tangible worth, was often the yardstick for measuring an object’s true value. Upper class often identified the lower class of society by their knowledge of expensive items.11 Many in the Russian society after the collapse of the Soviet Union seem to race for a pile of imaginary gold. According to Pelevin, Russians were “searching for a black cat in a dark room that never existed.”12 There is some logic to this approach of monetary values though, and Tartarsky learns the nature of such a complex and chaotic system through different encounters. When discussing astronauts in Russia compared to the United States, it is said that they spend the same amounts of fuel, to fly the same distance, to arrive at different amounts of money.13 In almost all societies, ideas are sometimes worth more than tangible items, so how much does one think it should be worth to fly to space? The answer rests almost solely on ideological and political motives. Scarcity of items or the perceived values were not the only issues at hand, though.

With Communists, there were shortages of food items, but in the 1990s it became machine time scarcity.14 Oligarchs and those who hold the levers of power give the illusion of choice in a society with no free selection or mass variety of goods. The novel tackles the concept of “monetaristic minimalism” in Russia. Vendors did not store art pieces in the at the galleries and auctions, so people bought them based on their implied worth.15 As discussed previously, tangible features were irrelevant when determining worth. In a strange paradox, the worth of an item determined its worth. Adapting capitalist ideas of advertisement to a society that had no truly free market proved to be a complex endeavor. Oligarchs took the place of Russian aristocrats and Communist Party leaders. This left the revolutionary mindset to stay alive in non-construct ideas only, like Che Guevara shirts, while sellers ultimately fixed prices in the economy. The material fire of society burned while copywriters forced people to look at the fire that consumed them. Televisions and supermarkets replaced crematories, but the role remained the same.16 From the perspective of this novel, Russia existed in a complexity of contradictory ideas. How does one market anti-capitalist ideas through a capitalist medium like directed advertisement? If the example set forth in Homo Zapiens is of any use, you sell the same message regardless of the product. In the end, the citizen is the manipulated product while the sold goods are of limited variety in price and option.

  1. Victor Pelevin, Homo Zapiens (London: Penguin, 2002), 174-175.
  2. Ibid., 193.
  3. Ibid., 213.
  4. Ibid., 72.
  5. Ibid., 22.
  6. Ibid., 36.
  7. Ibid., 20.
  8. Ibid., 107.
  9. Ibid., 73.
  10. Ibid., 83.
  11. Ibid., 151.
  12. Ibid., 88.
  13. Ibid., 100.
  14. Ibid., 183.
  15. Ibid., 232.
  16. Ibid., 119-120.

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