Bridges to Babylen: Generation P as a Cyberpunk Satire of Russian Consumerism in the 1990s

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Babylen on the hunt for psychedelic drugs

“We’re waiting for changes,” Victor Tsoy, arguably the biggest rock star of the Soviet Union, exclaimed in the late 1980s. They would come only a few years later. The 1990s were a decade of transformations on both sides of the formerly bipolar world order, and the cultural climate was largely represented by their teens and twens. While the West had its ‘Generation X’, divided into many subcultures and generally disillusioned with life, as displayed by the alternative rock and grunge music of the era, the former Soviet Union had its own post-communist bunch of kids.

Generation P, the third book by Russian novelist Victor Pelevin which has now been adapted to film by Russian-born director Victor Ginzburg, is the story of one of such youngsters, Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev). A graduate of literary studies and poet, he first jobs in a kiosk during the chaotic early Yeltsin era, only to find his true vocation – creating advertisements for Western products tailored to Russian consumers. Yet his steep ascent in the world of copywriting leaves him curiously unfulfilled. He looks for meaning in a culture that has become solely defined by materialism and hedonism.

Aided by Mesopotamian religious practices, alcohol, cocaine, hallucinogenic drugs, television, a Ouija board, and the spirit of Che Guevara, Babylen embarks on a quest to find out what drives his compatriots. On his journey climbing the hierarchy in one of the country’s top advertising agencies, he learns about some truths. One of them is that politics and the ‘real’ news events on television broadcasts are merely digital fabrications. Eventually, Babylen becomes an electronic image, an illusion himself.

Named after the youngsters’ fascination with Pepsi upon its introduction in the Soviet Union, Generation P is a wild ride, kinetic from start to finish. Since the book does not have a real plot, the same is true of the cinematic adaptation, naturally. The world in Ginzburg’s film seems to radically change every other minute as it moves from drawing a convincing picture of the post-Soviet years to a drug trip before finally becoming a science-fiction movie. In a way, Generation P is pure hypertext-turned-into-film. It employs stylistic devices like special effects and voiceover to create a fascinating chaos that may be overwhelming to many viewers, especially those not versed in Russian or used to eccentric independent filmmaking. One minute it recalls the image of nature Andrei Tarkovsky creates in Stalker, the next it is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

If you are not familiar with Pelevin’s iconoclastic sociological satire, you never know where the ride is going to take you next. What is dream and what is reality? Or rather, is there actually any reality at all? It takes a lot of effort to follow everything that happens on the screen. However, if you do, Generation P is a rewarding experience and a prime example of why Russian cinema should break away from the Hollywood commercialism that has infected it in recent years. The movie may not draw major audiences the way blockbusters do, but that probably was not Ginzburg’s point anyway.

Pelevin’s book is available in English as Homo Zapiens in Andrew Bromfield’s translation by Penguin in the US. The same version was published under the title Babylon by Faber and Faber in the UK.