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Decoding Leviathan

Decoding Leviathan

Monday, February 23, 2015

When I asked my father, a Russian Jew who left St. Petersburg in 1989 due to anti-Semitism, what he thought of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, he said the following:

“I hated it,” he spat out in his usual curt, vitriolic way. And, then, after a thoughtful pause, he added with uncharacteristic softness, “It reminded me of things that I try very hard to forget.”

It’s a sentiment that rings true for many Russians. Based on the biblical story of Job, Leviathan is about a man named Nikolai whose entire life is tragically destroyed when the mayor of his isolated fishing town in Northern Russia decides to demolish his home in order to set up a church for the local priest. It is the story of being a very small fish in a very large, autocratic pond, the story of being swallowed whole by the leviathan [per Merrian-Webster: 1 Bible a sea monster, variously thought of as a reptile or a whale 2 anything huge or very powerful] that is the corrupt Russian government, and it is a story that Russians know all too well.

When I come across articles about the reluctance in Russia to see the movie, there are always allusions to it being because Russians don’t want to “open their eyes” and “see the truth.” As a Russian-American who left Russia as a child and has lived there several times as an adult, I would argue that the opposite is, in fact, true. Russians know the truth too well. They avoid watching the film for the same reason that they drink: they want to forget it.

It would be understatement to say that Russia’s problems are vast and deeply rooted, but the issues that people allude to in the West – the impingement on personal freedom, the food sanctions, the ban on “homosexual propaganda” – are not what oppress people on a daily basis, and they are not, in my opinion, what frighten Russians most about the film.

What brought me into the acutest states of despair when I lived in Russia was the overall atmosphere of complete and utter hopelessness. Growing up in New York, I was accustomed to feeling like, whatever the issue at hand, there was always something I could do, some sort of call to action I could muster. But Russia was governed by a saying my mother repeated over and over to me as a child, one that was evoked for everything from a denial for a visa to a papercut: “That’s life.” (Это жизнь.)

We were all just tiny fish in an unceasing whirlpool, and there was never anything anyone could do about it. What’s terrifying about Leviathan isn’t the crumbling buildings or the casual adultery or the rampant drinking. What’s terrifying is that it’s the story of a man who is punished for doing something to change his unjust situation; its painfully realistic ethical conclusion is that things would have been infinitely better for Kolya if he had done nothing at all.

And yet the film is by far not, as virtually every mainstream critic has presumed, “anti-Russian.” As someone who loves Russia immensely despite its many flaws, I watched the movie resolutely prepared to intensely dislike it. The film was fresh from winning the Golden Globes for its supposed “Putin-bashing.” I fully believed it would shamelessly pander to an American public eager to see a film that demonized Putin and made the country seem like a hellish landscape of unsalvageable bleakness, a place so f—d up that the only solution, in appropriately biblical terms, would be to wash it away and start over.

But that was not at all the case. One of the most redeeming qualities of the movie is that it isn’t a send-up to Putin at all. In fact, his name is conspicuously absent from the film (his only presence is in a portrait in the mayor’s office, which Zvyagintsev outrightly said was a realistic detail as opposed to a political statement). The movie is an exploration of corruption in general and, in many ways could have taken place in other countries suffering from the same problems, which lends it a valuable philosophical universality.

But, as a movie that is set in Russia, it also highlights what all Russians know and what I have been trying to convey to my American friends for years: the problem with Russia is not Putin (and when he is finally gone, someone just as bad or even worse will probably take his place, a fact that is beautifully emphasized in the scene in which Kolya’s friend flips through portraits of former Soviet leaders, symbolizing that one just naturally follows the other without distinction), the problem is the system of institutionalized corruption that is so closely interwoven with the nation’s arteries that it seems impossible to ever excise.

America is a fortunate place because it was founded. Russia, like many other countries, simply happened. America was built on a series of contracts, on a foundation of ideals. In Russia, a blood-soaked ruler took over, told everyone how to live, which no one really questioned, and it’s pretty much been downhill from there. In America, each president is viewed as having a distinct personality and set of beliefs and values. In Russia, the popular opinion is that anyone who goes into politics does it to grab power, not to “do good,” so it’s all one and the same.

And yet, even though it so accurately captures the country’s tragic, darkly funny day-to-day despair, the way it weaves together its pale, shabby beauty is what makes me balk at all the reviews saying that it is, as the Boston Globe recently put it, “a magnificent defilement,” a film that espouses complete and utter contempt for contemporary Russian life.

I don’t even mean the widely acclaimed sweeping shots of cinematographic brilliance, like the whale carcass resting upon a desolate ocean shore. I mean the tiny moments, like when Kolya’s wife walks down the dusty road in the early morning light, the bus rumbling as it winds unsteadily from side to side in its aura of exhaust fumes. Or when his friends are making shashlik in the wilderness, pop music blasting from open cars, the women’s hands wet from marinating meat, the bonfire crackling in the pristine silence of the lake’s enclave.

The movie is made with so much poignant love that it seems to obviously be a heartfelt ode, if not tearful plea, to Russia, loving it with the same sort of tragic, angry love that Kolya’s son feels toward his alcoholic father. And the part that really destroyed me was when Kolya’s friend asked him to promise to stop drinking so much, pouring him another generous helping of vodka in the same breath. The comic juxtaposition reminded me of another favorite Russian saying, “It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.” (Всё было бы смешно, если бы не было так грустно) Because that’s the truth about Russia: it makes you laugh and, at the same time, it breaks your heart. Like the wife of an alcoholic husband, you know it will never change, and yet, beyond all reason, you can’t help but desperately hope for better.


Diana Bruk is a Russian-American writer who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and raised in New York City. Her essays and short stories on Russian-American cultures have appeared in Salon, The NY Times, The Paris Review, Guernica, and many other magazines.