The highly acclaimed Russian political drama, Leviathan, masterfully captures the key facets of Russian life under Putin, but also conveys the universal emotion of deep-ridden hopelessness in an individual’s attempt to override the structures of power. The film’s story about the failed struggle of a car mechanic and fisherman against a corrupt mayor in a small remote Russian town depicts the vapid corruption veiling all levels of governance, the lethal fusion of politics and religion, the stark disconnect between the center and the regions, and the ambiguous role of women, stuck in between the different levels of power.
The plot centers on the fate of a mechanic, Nikolai—an honest strong-willed, passionate character, whose sole demand of the state is to get to keep his property that had been in the family for generations and to go on living his life, loving his beautiful young wife, Lilia, raising his trouble-maker son, and living out the days with peace and dignity. The mayor, Vadim, a notably corrupt character, however, has alternative plans for Nikolai’s future. He wants to force him out of this land, and to use it for his own political motives. Nikolai’s friend, Dima—a slick Moscow lawyer—comes to help, but ends up only escalating the scandal by sparking an affair with Kolia’s wife that eventually ends in Lilia’s suicide, which is used by the state to incarcerate Kolia for 15 years after already taking over his property and shattering all his meaning in life.
While the plot centers on the feud between Kolia and the mayor, the film manages to successfully depict many layers of corruption seeping through the Russian society from the very grassroots to the top. In one of the early scenes, a police chief demands mechanical favors from Kolia. The cop comes to Kolia’s house unannounced and blissfully solves crossword puzzles while Kolia is fixing his car for free. The corruption is also vivid in in the judicial system, with the striking scenes of court sentences being read out by stone-faced women at a staccato speed, symbolizing the artificial role that law plays in Russian society. Listening to both the first verdict refuting Kolia’s appeal of the mayor’s order to take over his land, and the last sentence accusing Kolia of murdering his wife, was anxiety inducing, as it reminded me of other verdicts being recently delivered in a similar manner in Russian courts. The cases of Navalny, Russia’s top opposition figure, but also of Khodorkovsky, come to mind. The corruption is further portrayed in the film as trickling from the top-down. When Nikolai finds out from Dima that the mayor is guilty of many serious crimes, Nikolai is in disbelief about how this can go unpunished. “He is useful to someone at the top,” Dima remarked in response. The phrase ‘power vertical,’ was invoked several times in the film, which signifies the personalistic, top-down mode of governing in the Putin era. Someone has personally appointed the corrupt mayor and is getting something in return for it.
The role of religion is further depicted as a hypocritical force exacerbating and almost facilitating corruption. On the one hand, we see the mayor bribing the chief priest with delicatessen, but on the other, we witness the influence that the priest has on the mayor, as he keeps reassuring him of power being a gift granted from God. When the mayor is visibly scared of Dima’s threats and sees the priest for advice, the priest openly tells him that only by use of force he can intimidate the enemy—the advice that the mayor takes to heart. Those unaware of the religion factor in contemporary Russian politics might find the prominence of this theme as surprising. Even in one of the final scenes, the mayor and his entourage are gathered in the church, in an act of an almost symbolic celebration of victory of power over the ‘enemy’. The emphasis on religion reflects the tightening of the relationship between the Orthodox Church and Russian leadership in recent years, as well as the resurgence of morality and so-called religious values in the official discourse. The spiking popularity of religion in post-Communist Russia is also notable in the film, as the notion of faith is brought up in many scenes, including that between the mayor and Dima and that between Dima and Lilia. In both cases, Dima fends off the question with the same answer: “I am a lawyer, I believe in facts.” The majority of the people, however, are not lawyers like Dima, and are taking in the opium of religion as an escape from reality, just like politicians use it as a hegemonic tool and a point of ‘guidance’ in maintaining their hold on power.
The disconnected relationship between the Muscovites and people residing in the regions is another prominent theme in the film speaking to the contemporary Russian reality. Dima tries to convince Kolia and Lilia to move to Moscow, but Kolia’s attachment to his land and life that he has built in a place that seems so desolate to Dima, is too strong to make the move. He would be entirely uprooted and foreign in the capital. Dima’s determination to help his friend using his Moscow origins as a signature card also fail, as local mayor manages to trick Dima, who naively believed that he succeeded in getting some justice. Dima’s failed attempt to rescue his friend made me think of struggles that Moscow activists face in local battles. When I asked Navalny, at his talk in London in 2010, about whether he is building networks with anti-corruption activists at the local level, his answer was negative. He explained that the obstacles, including the treacherous local-level dynamics are difficult to navigate for local activists. Like Dima in the film, a lot of Russian activists, travel to small towns with good intentions but end up being quickly shut down by the realities on the ground, including the apathy of local residents about challenging power.
Finally, the role of women was curiously portrayed in the film, as Lilia, the main female character, was on the one hand a silent stronghold behind her husband, but on the other a villain, indirectly orchestrating his fall. In all segments of the film she is attached to a fate of another man, either Kolia, or Dima, or even Kolia’s son. Her sole act of independent agency is the spark of the affair with Dima, and later her suicide. Lilia couldn’t convince her husband to give up the hopeless struggle against the mayor, nor could she escape with Dima, or even just leave to lead an independent life. The powerful scenes of her working at the fish factory to me symbolize her acceptance of the bitter fate, as she thoughtlessly performs the functions expected of her, while the spirit escapes her.
This reflection of Leviathan centers on Russian realities, but some of the themes are truly universal. Watching the painful scene of demolition of Kolia’s house, I thought of China and the many tragic stories of people being forced out of their homes for government projects, often linked to corrupt schemes serving personal interests of local officials. The capacity of power to crush the individual to the very core of his being could resonate with any context, which makes the film so painfully appealing to a wide viewership.