Pelevin’s Chapaev.

I’ve just finished Victor Pelevin’s 1996 novel Чапаев и Пустота, whose title is (like so many) hard to translate. It looks like it means “Chapaev and Emptiness” (or, if you prefer, “Chapaev and the Void”), but it turns out (quite a ways into the novel) that Пустота [Pustota] is the surname of the viewpoint character, whose full name is thus Pyotr Pustota. Andrew Bromfield translates his name (rather awkwardly) as Voyd (why not Void, if you’re going to go in that direction?), but he renders the title as Buddha’s Little Finger in the US edition and The Clay Machine Gun in the UK. (Those are both references to the same annihilation-producing entity that appears towards the end of the book.) If you want a summary of the novel, which shuttles back and forth between Civil War Russia (it opens in Moscow in 1918) and a psychiatric hospital in the mid-1990s, see the poorly written Wikipedia article (which is oddly titled Chapayev and Void, a title under which the book exists nowhere else). In the Civil War parts, Pyotr becomes Petya, commissar to a very unusual Vasily Chapaev, who in addition to being a Bolshevik commander is an all-knowing Buddhist who tries to share his enlightenment with Pyotr, while in the 1990s the lead psychiatrist Timur Timurovich tries to cure him; both have him write down his “dreams” in detail, and the point of the novel is that neither existence is real — the whole idea of “reality” is demolished, and you achieve enlightenment by realizing that you are no one, you exist nowhere, and the world doesn’t exist. This whole farrago of pop Buddhism didn’t interest me in the least (its natural home is in dorm rooms with some beer and/or pot), and frankly I was thinking of giving up on the novel, but by that point I was three-quarters of the way through and figured I might as well plug away at it; I was rewarded by some excellent Chapaev jokes in the final chapter. Basically, it’s the same story as Hermit and Six-Toes (LH) and Omon Ra (LH), except that instead of the hero seeing the truth of and escaping from a Broiler Combine or the Soviet space program, he escapes from both a psychiatric hospital and the shackles of “reality.” But it’s much longer than either of those — too long, I’d say. Lots of people like it, of course, but I know two people who bailed out on it early.

Mind you, Pelevin is always worth reading, despite the longueurs and silliness. I liked this image from the first paragraph of the novel proper (there’s a preface by an Urgan Dzhambon Tulku VII):

The same old women were perched motionless on the benches; above them, beyond the black latticework of the branches, there was the same grey sky, like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God.

На скамейках сидели те же неподвижные старухи; вверху, над черной сеткой ветвей, серело то же небо, похожее на ветхий, до земли провисший под тяжестью спящего Бога матрас.

(The translation is Bromfield’s, and I discovered that you can read most of the first chapter here.) On the next page I thought “пулеметную р-р” [machine-gun r-r] was great, and later on I loved Ебанишада (Upanishad, with the start replaced by еб- ‘fuck’). If cultural references are your thing, there are scads of them: philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Swedenborg, Schopenhauer), musicians (Boris Grebenshchikov, Leonard Cohen), movies (Seven Samurai, Pulp Fiction), and of course writers (Dostoevsky, Hamsun, Bunin, Nabokov, Pushkin in statue form, and Bryusov and A. Tolstoy, among others, in person). I’ll finish with a linguistic puzzle from late in the book; there’s a wonderful story that includes this passage:

He said that the Romanian language has a similar idiom — haz baragaz, or something of the kind — I forget the exact pronunciation, but the words literally mean “underground laughter”.

Он сказал, что в румынском языке есть похожая идиома – «хаз барагаз» или что-то в этом роде. Не помню точно, какзвучит. Означают эти словабуквально «подземный смех».

Now, there is a Romanian haz ‘humor; fun; wit,’ but what is “baragaz”? Fortunately, a Romanian has investigated this very question and decided it’s a distortion of the phrase haz de necaz ‘humor from sorrow/trouble/misfortune.’ Again I am thankful for the wide reach of the internet.


  1. I never read it, but I think it was the first book that made him widely popular here. Before that I knew him, but only because I saw a short story (classified as science fiction) in Знание — сила (“Knowlege is Power”. or was it Химия и жизнь “Chemistry and Life”?). In the Winter Ecological School (J1M once mentioned its summer version, by the same team) I saw adults performing or staging or playing in it (I do not know how to call it: it was improvized) with children in the night.

  2. I liked the mattress metaphor. It actually makes me see the mattress.

  3. Yes, it’s great and unexpected.

  4. I assume you did not mention that (alongside with two other military men SS-Standartenführer von Stierlitz and poruchik Rzhevski) the pair Vasilij Ivanovich [Chapaev] and Pet’ka are characters of Russian jokes not because you do not know, but for some reason. Anyway, it won’t harm:

    Petka is a soldier. Vasilij Ivanovich is his wise commanding officer.
    Anka-pulemjotchitsa (Anny the Machinegunneress?) is the third character.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Hat’s link mentions the jokes but has no jokes.
    Has some Chapaev jokes under “Archetypes”

  6. I assume you did not mention that (alongside with two other military men SS-Standartenführer von Stierlitz and poruchik Rzhevski) the pair Vasilij Ivanovich [Chapaev] and Pet’ka are characters of Russian jokes

    But I did, as PP says. I figured anyone interested could google and get examples. The haz baragaz was more striking and unusual, so I mentioned that.

  7. In preparation for the Pelevin, I read Furmanov’s novel and rewatched the famous movie, both of which were fun and helped me catch references. But of course I knew Chapaev jokes long before any of them.

  8. To make you happy, here’s my favorite joke from the novel: Chapaev and Petka are swimming across the Ural, and Chapaev is clutching an attaché case in his teeth. Petka shouts to him “Vasily Ivanovich, drop the case or you’ll drown!” But Chapaev says “No way, Petka, I can’t — it’s got the staff maps in it.” They barely make it to the other side, and Petka says “OK, Vasily Ivanovich, show me those maps we almost drowned for.” Chapaev opens the case and Petka sees it’s full of potatoes. “Vasily Ivanovich, what kind of maps are those?” Chapaev takes out two potatoes and says “Look, Petka — this is us, and this is the Whites.”

  9. Unrelated, but on the topic of Russian slang.

    Пользователи рунета услышали слово «чапалах» и принялись использовать его в своих публикациях, из контекста понимая его значение. Из какого языка позаимствовали термин, что он значит и как превратился в популярный мем «Чапалах со скоростью света», разобралась авторка Medialeaks.
    Что за слово «чапалах»

    В начале 2021 года в Сети начало быстро распространяться слово «чапалах». Пользователи соцсетей позаимствовали термин из армянского языка, с которого он переводится как «пощёчина». В русском языке слово быстро стало популярным жаргонизмом, который активно используется уже год и нескоро выйдет из обихода.

    Слово приобрело особенную популярность в твиттере, где пользователи соцсети применяли его в качестве шуточной угрозы и заменяли нецензурную лексику.

    Don’t know about Armenian. Sounds perfectly Turkic (and onomatopoeic) to me, which it is:

    Ruscha ru

    1 пятерня; ладонь;
    2 перен. пощёчина, оплеуха, затрещина; шлепок; ◆ bir shapaloq urmoq дать пощёчину; ◆ shapaloq yemoq получить пощёчину; ◆ teskari shapaloq qoʻymoq ударить тыльной стороной руки;
    3 ломоть, ломтик; ◆ bir shapaloq goʻsht ломтик мяса;
    4 перен. величиной с ладонь, большой, крупный; ◆ shapaloq barg большой (крупный) лист (напр. винограда).


    сущ.; разг.
    1) пощёчина, оплеу́ха

    чапалак бирү — дать пощёчину
    2) самоде́льная хлопу́шка для мух; см. тж. шапалак
    3) перен. уда́р, потрясе́ние, несча́стье

  10. That’s great! For non-Russophones, about a year ago the Russian internet picked up a mysterious word “chapalakh” and started using it as a jokey threat and substitute for profanity without knowing where it was from or what it originally meant; it turns out it’s a Turkic word meaning ‘slap in the face.’

  11. I can’t — it’s got the staff maps in it
    I didn’t know that version. In the one I know, Chapaev finally lets go of the case and shouts пусть генеральный штаб играет в кости “Let the general staff play dice”,
    (The punchline works in Russian (and in German), where karty / Karten mean both “maps” and “(playing) cards”.)

  12. The Armenian word չափալախ čʿapʿalax mentioned as the proximate source in the article on Russian word is here in the Wiktionary, where the many dialectal variants of this word are listed. You can follow the link in the etymology there to Turkish şaplak for more. Mahmud al-Kashgari in his 11th century dictionary of the Turkic dialects included the onomatopoeic expressions şab şab for the sound of slapping as well as smacking while eating, and çab çab for the cracking of a whip and smacking while eating.

  13. Reminds me of pepelats.

  14. Shabu-shabu (Japanese: しゃぶしゃぶ, romanized: shabushabu) is a Japanese nabemono hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water and served with dipping sauces. The term is onomatopoeic, derived from the sound – “swish swish” – emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. The food is cooked piece by piece by the diner at the table. Shabu-shabu is considered to be more savory and less sweet than sukiyaki.

  15. The Earl of Hell’s Waistcoat reminded me of this (absolutely non-PC):

  16. “Reminds me of pepelats. – as I was googling for the word in Armenian I found a comment in Armenian whose author also was reminded of Kin-dza-dza terms by Russian “чапалах”.

  17. There is a paper “Вопросы изучения русских говоров в закавказье” by С. Б. Тошьян (1963) in Lietuvos TSR aukštųjų mokyklų mokslo darbai: Kalbotyra volume VIII (kalbotyra “linguistics”) about Russian dialects of Transcaucasia. It mentions the word, with a reference to “Некоторые особенности языка русских военных поселян Тифлисской губернии” (1911). Sadly НЭБ insists on installing their application for reading “copyrighted content” which I am not going to do other than in a virtual machine (which I am too lazy to install), so I can’t check it. A modern book by Тошьян (“Russian dialectal speech in Armenia” 2004) mentions it on page 20. Both works.

  18. Great find!

  19. David Marjanović says

    How did Armenian borrow [ʃ] as [tʃʰ]?

  20. In Israeli slang, chapkha is a friendly slap on the back of the head. Apparently it comes from Iraqi Arabic, and I don’t know beyond that.

    The word also got transmogrified (with help from Yiddish) into sapikhes, which is a slap/sweep against the grain on the short hairs on back of the head, after a fresh haircut; this is something every schoolboy had (and has?) to endure. It’s one of those language-unique words.

  21. Reddit:

    [Hebrew] “ספיחס [Sapikhes]” – a greeting to someone who got a new haircut, usually followed by a slap on the back of the head

    When you see someone who got a new haircut and you want to acknowledge it, you say Sapihes (the kh is pronounced like a Spanish J). This is usually followed by the person who got a haircut saying “thanks!”.

    There’s also a children’s version of it when you see someone who got a haircut, you have to shout “no rules or mitzvahs!” and then everyone gets to give him a slap on the back of the head for each birthday he had. The person who got the haircut can shout “with rules or mitzvahs!” to counter that.

    Damn, kids are dumb.

  22. Two of the comments to the above:


    In Spain kids will also slap a peer who shows up with a freshly cut hair. They can utter ¡estreno! while doing so, which means “debut” or the act of wearing something for first time. They also utter it to the sight of brand new shoes as they proceed to trample on them. Little psychos.


    Na’iman نعيماً in Arabic.

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    re sh>ch
    Maybe the phoneme in the word borrowed (aleady borrowed into Middle Armenian) was not English sh as in shirt but zh as in measure or j as in jungle, so ch was (felt to be) the best approximation. You just have to find the right dialect/accent or intermediary language.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Maybe the phoneme in the word borrowed (aleady borrowed into Middle Armenian) was not English sh as in shirt but zh as in measure or j as in jungle

    But Armenian has all of these. (And more. It’s spent a lot of time hanging out around the Caucasus.)

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    The letter for j in Eastern Armenian is pronounced as aspirated ch in Western Armenian and the letter for unaspirated ch in Eastern Armenian is pronounced as j in Western Armenian. Do you know the reason for this? Do you have a source for the phoneme inventory of Middle Armenian? To me it even seems possible that a j word borrowed as j in one dialect was heard and “corrected” to ch in another dialect.

  26. LH, how anyone is supposed to understand the joke you quoted (maps out of potatoes) if they didn’t see the movie? For anyone still waiting, Chapaev has drowned while swimming across Ural river. He also (in the movie) explained his tactics using potatoes.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Do you know the reason for this?

    Part of the reason may be that the voiced ones aren’t simply modally voiced in some dialects, but more breathy-like, enabling odd chain shifts without crossing over. Or something.

    Do you have a source for the phoneme inventory of Middle Armenian?

    Wikipedia for Classical Armenian…

    To me it even seems possible that a j word borrowed as j in one dialect was heard and “corrected” to ch in another dialect.

    Oh, definitely. But that doesn’t help when we’re starting from a Turkish ş, i.e. voiceless fricative [ ʃ ]…

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose I thought one could go from Turkish sh to Middle Armenian ch via an intermediary with sound C for sh, Middle Armenian then replaces C with ch. Here C would be j. But now since Armenian (and presumably also Middle) has j, you need sh > j(Intermediary) > j(D1)
    > ch (D2) where D1 and D2 are dialects. I agree this is stupid or at least much less likely than if C= ch, i.e., sh > ch (Intermediary).

  29. Does not it reflect variation within Turkic (either phonological or within this word)?
    Uzbek has sh-….
    P.S. Oops, sorry. For some reason I though we are discussing Turkic ch>Arm. sh and not vice versa:)

  30. No mention of Pelevin’s “Chapayev” is complete without Inner Mongolia.

    According to Chapayev, invisible Inner Mongolia exists inside every human being…

  31. David Marjanović says

    Get in touch with your inner Mongolia!

  32. Does Chapay[ev] has to do to chap mentioned in Kashgari’s dictionary?

  33. Unbegaun derives it from чапать.

  34. чапать

    По наиболее распространённой версии, происхождение фамилии Чапаев (Чепаев) произошло от слова чепь, чепай (цепляй), часто повторяемого подрабатывавшим на разгрузке сплавляемого по Волге леса дедом Степаном и ставшего в итоге его прозвищем.

    Васи́лий Ива́нович Чапа́ев

  35. There seems to be no contradiction there.

  36. My inner Mongolia resembles my private Idaho.

  37. @LH, juha, then expressive Russian chap- (parallel to Russian цап!) is either related or not to expressive Turkic chap-🙁
    In Russian such froms do sound somewhat expressive.
    чапчу́нька? влад. брезгливый, разборчивый, прихотливый на пищу.

  38. The letter for j in Eastern Armenian is pronounced as aspirated ch in Western Armenian and the letter for unaspirated ch in Eastern Armenian is pronounced as j in Western Armenian. Do you know the reason for this?

    This link will start a download of the pdf of first chapter of Bert Vaux’s dissertation on Armenian phonology. The discussion of the development of the Classical Armenian system of stops and affricates into the modern dialects begins in the middle of page 3 (Perhaps the most famous and least understood aspect of Armenian phonology is…). I hope it provide enough of a grasp of the topic to make further research easier if you decide you want to know more about the topic.

  39. Does not it reflect variation within Turkic… within this word… ?

    That was my thinking in my original comment. Or that the change was due to onomatopoeic influence. But also note the following similar change in some other languages of the same linguistic area:

    Persian شوربا šōrbā “soup” (شور šōrbā “salty” + -bā “stew, soup, simmered dish”) > Turkish çorba (but Azeri şorba)

    Middle Persian šubān “shepherd” (Iranian *fşu-pāna- vel sim., “livestock-protector”) > Persian شوان šuwān, شبان šubān, چوبان çōbān (borrowed back from Turkic?) > Turkish, Azeri çoban (cf. Kurdish şivân).

    Persian شغال šaġāl “jackal” (cf. Vedic śṛgālá- “jackal”) > Turkish çakal, Azeri çaqqal.

    Arabic شمع šamʿ, šamaʿ “wax, torch” > Turkish çam “pine” (but Azeri şam)

    Nişanyan in his Turkish etymological dictionary, Nişanyan Sözlük: Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojisi (2018), p. 155, s.v. çiriş “glue, paste”, cites an Armenian form չրեշ čreš. This has an appearance of a variant of the usual շրեշ šreš “foxtail lily, eremurus (plant of genus Eremurus, used to produce glue and bookbinding paste)”, but I haven’t been able to find this variant elsewhere, in the Armenian dialect dictionaries (that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist…); in any case, Persian سریش sirīš “glue, paste” (cf. Avestan ham-sriš- “to put together”, Sanskrit śliṣ- “to cling, stick”) > Turkish çiriş “glue, paste” (presumably via an assimilated *şiriş; cf. Armenian šreš “eremurus”).

    Usually Persian š > Turkish ş (Persian شلغم šalġam “turnip” > Turkish şalgam, etc.). There may also be Persian č > Turkish ş, perhaps as in Persian چلته čilta “thick doubled coat for soldiers” (literally, “forty folds”) > Turkish şilte “ticking, mattress”.

  40. чіпати is again one of those words that became standard in Ukrainian (meaning “touch” and a multitude of extended senses), but remained dialectal/regional/slangy (цапать) in Russian. Chapaev wasn’t a Cossack, but I still think this is more likely source of his name than straight Russian slang чапать (walk slowly and reluctantly)

  41. This link will start a download of the pdf of first chapter of Bert Vaux’s dissertation

    That doesn’t appear to be working outside of Chrome. If you are interested, go to this page on

    Underneath Bert’s name, there should be “2748 Views, 67 Pages, 3 Files”. Click on “3 files” and then click on “OUP1.pdf”. I think you have to be logged in with an account to see this properly. (Accounts are free and can be created in 20 seconds with valid email.)

    I hope that works for y’all. Sorry about the complications.

  42. Addendum: If you can’t get the link to Bert’s dissertation chapter to work, there is also a discussion in section 2, p. 13, of this paper by Andrew Garrett, “Adjarian’s Law, the Glottalic Theory, and the Position of Armenian”, Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: Special Session on Indo-European Subgrouping and Internal Relations (1998).

  43. David Marjanović says

    That doesn’t appear to be working outside of Chrome.

    Heh, yeah. Firefox claims to have completed the download without the slightest problem, but the downloaded file has just 110 bytes…

    Accounts are free and can be created in 20 seconds with valid email.

    And then Academia will spam you several times a day until you log in and manually turn off about 20 different types of notifications. Then it’ll spam you less than before.

  44. Found this article analyzing the book. Alleges influences by Carlos Castenada, Bulgakov, Nabokov…
    I tried to paste the relevant section here, but the Cyrillic seems to make the comments disappear.

  45. Persian شوربا šōrbā “soup” (شور šōrbā “salty” + -bā “stew, soup, simmered dish”) > Turkish çorba (but Azeri şorba)


  46. expressive Russian chap- (parallel to Russian цап!) is either related or not to expressive Turkic chap-

    Well, there is чабарга:

    1.1) mow 2) hack, chop (another onomatopoeic verb)
    2.1) gallop, rush/tear along 2) (colloq) run
    3.1) beat (with birchtwigs in the bathhouse) 2) slap (in the face)

  47. Persian شوربا šōrbā “soup”

    Riblja čorba “fish soup” is one of those FYLOSC phrases with expressive (for Russian ear) prosody that I wanted to repeat even though I did not try it. Russian tourists rather borrow it than translate with Russian ukhá “fish soup”: “tasty riblja čorba [in that restaurant]”, and that there is a Yugoslavian rock group Riblja čorba. By expressive prosody I mean, città vecchia, Civitavecchia, and tutti frutti also have this quaility to me (and again: all familiar to me from childhood).
    And the Russian imiatation of the song Tutti Frutti, baba Lyuba:
    byla b baba Lyuba, ona b dala, bla b baba Lyuaba, ona b dala, blab baba Lyuba, onabdala!!!

  48. Даль’s dictionary has somethign unexpected for a speaker of literary Russian.

    A large group of words with chap are related to swinging (a swing on children’s playground), equilibrium, and hanging weights.

    It appears that modern Russian chapat’ (a “funny” word for walking, so usually it is understood as walking in a funny way) must be related – but literary Russian has lost the root and the semantics, so for us it sounds like sound symbolism (cf. xlop ‘clap’ [with hands], shlyop ‘slap’ [including feets in puddles], top ‘stomp’ [and baby talk for walking], tsap “grab”).

    Yet most of Russian cha- / che- words are loans, usually Turkic.

    Does anyone knows Turkic (FInnic, Slavic any) etymology for this?

  49. Found this article analyzing the book.

    Thanks for that — I look forward to reading it once I’ve had breakfast. “Главный русский роман 1990-х”: wow, that’s quite a claim!

  50. Consistent with my observation of children looking for Inner Mongolia in an empty school building in 3 a.m.

  51. People: Pelevin is a person looking for some sort of direction in his life in early ’90’s Russia, who then goes to South Korea to become a Buddhist monk. I like his writings; I think you should keep that in mind.

  52. I don’t think anybody is ignoring that, but the source of the Buddhism is irrelevant to me — I don’t find it interesting, any more than I care about Yeats’s gyres.

  53. Pelevin’s ideas about Zen are equally uninteresting to me also, but I like the way he writes about them. ;/

  54. This Turkish song, sung by this artist from the province of Burdur but in another performance, was on the television just now, and it reminded me of this thread and the topic of the interchange between čʿ and š among the variants of Armenian չափալախ čʿapʿalax. The lyrics mention a storm of çıvgın, a colloquial word for ‘sleet’ (rain and snow blowing together). This word also appears in the form şıvgın all over Anatolia. The dictionary of the Turkish Language Association even puts the main entry at şıvgın. It appears to me to be root-related to çıvmak (with variants cıvmak and çavmak) “to hit and bounce off, change course, shift direction”.

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