Leviathans: Russian and American

There Will be Spoilers

The 2014 Russian film Leviathan1 opens with a series of gray, foreboding landscape shots along the ocean, culminating in a wide angle shot of a house near a bridge on the edge of a body of water. This is the family home of Dima, who has a teenage son and young wife. At the climax of the film, the camera retreats to this identical angle showing the same landscape, except replacing that house in the foreground is a new Orthodox church—its bells ringing out—and parking lot.

The story that fills in these bookend shots depicts a Russia of corruption (among the powerful) and despair (among working people.) Dima is a simple working man who ends up as a modern, Russian Job of sorts, minus the faith and virtue, suffering a series of undeserved misfortunes in his life. While it was Satan that God permitted to test Job's faith, it seems that Russia itself is the Leviathan torturing Dima.

Early on we see vodka-soaked corrupt cops using their position to force Dima into doing free labor for them. Shortly after this, we see corrupt city officials conspiring in backrooms to take his house and land from him without fair compensation. And we see one of these officials, the local mayor (who has a framed picture of Putin hanging prominently in his office), colluding with a corrupt bishop, who assures him that "all power comes from God." Including, presumably, the power to bring ruin on an innocent man.

This multi-tiered corruption is most elegantly depicted in a sequence, vaguely reminiscent of the opening scene of Ikiru, where the legal system appears as a Kafkaesque labyrinth, as valid complaints are filed against officials abusing their powers, but then deferred and the victims harassed and jailed. Further attempts by a lawyer to get a hearing from a judge are not possible, as no one is at the court. And ultimately the only successful defense that can be mounted comes via blackmailing.

Afflicted by the woes of this recondite system, the proles escape for a day trip to a camping spot in the hills to drink vodka and shoot guns, with framed pictures of Lenin and other Soviets in tow for target practice. "Got any more current ones?" "It's too early for the current ones; let them ripen on the wall for a bit." The implication is clear: new government, same as the old government.

None of the prole characters attend church or pray, only drink. And if they mention God at all, or make the sign of the cross, it's only in moments of severe distress. On one of their dashboards, an icon triptych appears adjacent to a triptych of nude pics. A wise local priest calls out this faithless hypocrisy. Having recently experienced a tragedy and turning to the vodka bottle for consolation, Dima runs into this priest at the market and asks: "Well, where's your merciful God Almighty?" The priest responds: "Mine is with me. As for yours, I wouldn't know. Whom do you pray to?" While this may be intended to show a priest who is unfeeling toward the troubles of ordinary people, it instead profoundly speaks truth about what really ails them: their own sins. To reject God, yet complain against him in times of tragedy nonetheless, is vile hypocrisy on Dima's part, and at least as wicked as anything the powerful inflict upon him.

The film undercuts the wisdom of this simple priest by suggesting that the people who do pray, who do go to confession, who do attend services, who live faithfully, are all actually vile hypocrites and corrupt oppressors.

At one point, though, Dima does find himself in a church—or rather the ruins of a church—a remnant of the Soviet era that he grew up in and now a spot where the young hoodlums of the area gather to smoke and drink. Drunk and depressed, Dima goes there looking for his son. When the other boys tell him he's already left, Dima stays to drink a while and looks up into the dome of the desecrated church, the camera cutting to his first-person vantage. This shot is repeated in the final scene of the film when the mayor's young son looks up into the dome of a newly constructed church, while his father whispers to him that "God sees everything." Simultaneously, the bishop gives what on its face seems to be a sincere homily about love and the necessity of a devotion to the Truth, who is Christ. The reveal that this homily is being given in a church newly built atop the bulldozed land of an innocent man whose life was destroyed by the bishop and the mayor crystallizes the message of the film: whether building churches or destroying them, Russia remains the same Leviathan chewing up and swallowing its hapless victims.

This thesis should sound familiar. The Russia portrayed in the film is the same one which occupies the imaginations of our liberal and neocon elites, presently in a static frenzied state over villainous Russia and her diabolical schemes.

While the film is a liberal depiction of Russia from the inside and it contains a greater degree of authenticity than the caricatures drawn by paranoid American liberals, it does present a similar outlook: Russia as perpetually corrupt and evil, whether in its Tsarist, Soviet or revived Christian incarnations. The public face of the Deep State knows this thesis well:

Drago was an emblem of Soviet Russia during the latter stages of the Cold War and is prima facie in continuity with the Russia of today, in the mind of our spook friend. The crumbling of the Soviet Union is, apparently, of no significance for U.S.-Russian relations. Strange that such a colossal, earth-shifting event should have so little effect on the outlook of our elites. It's also ironic that at the end of Rocky IV, Rocky gives the "we can both change!" speech, signifying what was supposed to be a shift to a post-Cold War mindset.

But the neocons/neolibs are newly committed to the vision of Russia as the land of the Eternal Bolshevik; the land of Leviathan. This is not a commitment borne of sincerity, mind you, but political opportunism. Conspiracy mongering over Russia is a last ditch effort to wrest power back from Trump and his ascendant New Right. More insidious than this base opportunism, however, is just how badly this portrayal slurs Russia and other lands rising out of the ashes of Communism.

The central thesis of the film, shared by American liberals at present, is that Russia remains forever Russia: corrupt, dreary, a land of sadness and despair.2 But this is to see with worldly eyes. There is all the difference in the world between destroying and building churches, between an underground, persecuted faithful and an open and flourishing one, between crucifying priests and ordaining them, between bread lines and communion lines. To assert that there is some deep affinity between the Soviet project and Russia today (or the Russia of the more distant past) begs the question.

Slavophile sentiment also holds that there is a peculiar nature of the Russian soul that is essentially fixed. There appears to be a Left-Right convergence on this point, at least when looked at superficially: Russia is unchanging. But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn points out, this spiritual Russian character was abrogated by the Bolsheviks, rather than being accurately represented by them.

You must understand. The leading Bolsheviks who took over Russia were not Russians. They hated Russians. They hated Christians. Driven by ethnic hatred they tortured and slaughtered millions of Russians without a shred of human remorse. The October Revolution was not what you call in America the "Russian Revolution." It was an invasion and conquest over the Russian people. More of my countrymen suffered horrific crimes at their bloodstained hands than any people or nation ever suffered in the entirety of human history.

These critics of contemporary Russia are right about the permanence of this Russian character but don't realize that it is that same Russian soul and Russian people—noble, pious, resilient in suffering—which the Commies persecuted, drove underground, mass murdered, and attempted to exterminate, but which survived nevertheless and have begun to be revived. They mistake the incidental anomaly for the essence and then project it into Russia's present and its past, where the 'horrors' of Tsarism or Putinism are just another manifestation of the same thing. This is an attempt by leftists to soothe their own conscience and tell themselves comforting tales that murderous Marxist revolutionaries may have been bad, but at least they weren't uniquely so.

But what was incidental and anomalous for Russia, and an attack on both the character and the lives of its people is less so for America. As Ryszard Legutko meticulously demonstrates in his The Demon in Democracy, the affinities and similarities between communism and liberal democracy are many and profound. With the latter being more fundamental to America than the former is to Russia. Whereas the bitterness of Soviet Communism was fully imbibed by Russia, and subsequently vomited up, America is still susceptible to that same spirit under the guise of liberal democracy. If American liberals see in the Leviathan of Russia something essential and worth reviling, it's pure projection. A suspicious and critical eye which they're too frightened to turn on themselves. And if they ever did happen to catch a stray glimpse in a mirror, they are likely to discover—to their shock and befuddlement—that their dreaded Leviathan actually lies within.

  1. This film won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and was nominated for the Oscar in the same category. Why it was so critically acclaimed by liberal Hollywood will become evident by the end of the piece. Why it was made with funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture I leave to the reader to decipher.

  2. Of course, this is not to deny that nominal faith, poor living conditions and despair among ordinary people, and governmental corruption are absent from Russian life today. Certainly all of that exists. The issue is making these into the central, defining characteristics of Russian character and life.