20 years under Putin: a timeline

The latest Oscar-nominated drama from Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan has provoked heated discussion in Russia. Critics quickly labeled the movie as Russophobic, politically biased, and antireligious. According to Olga Melnikova, despite its ambiguities, Leviathan accurately reflects many realities of modern Russia.


Leviathan is modern interpretation of the Book of Job set in today’s Russia. Photo: filmz.ru


Let me be frank: Like many Russians, I watched a pirated copy of Leviathan on the Internet. And, like many Russians, I did not like Leviathan, especially compared to other movies from Zvyagintsev. It was sickening to watch thuggish officials, puppet judges, and cynical priests on the rampage. The main character is portrayed as a simpleminded fool who can only sigh and complain while his life is being torn apart. After watching such a movie, one feels like drinking vodka.

However, Leviathan’s sickening artistic reality reflects life in today’s Russia rather accurately. None of the characters in the drama seem to be able to tell right from wrong. Modern Russia demonstrates the same erosion of people’s moral compass. Could it be that perpetual suffering is the essence of the national idea and the eternal riddle of the Russian soul? However, I am afraid that it might be Zvyagintsev himself who will suffer most from Leviathan.

When it became known that the movie had been nominated for an Academy Award, I tuned into a news program on Channel One. Two hours after the Oscar nominees were announced, the country’s main TV channel had not once mentioned Zvyagintsev. Instead, I learned that the Russian biathlon team had won third place in the International Biathlon Union Biathlon World Cup Men’s Relay. Why was the network so silent on Leviathan? Was it because the Kremlin had not yet had time to instruct news anchors on how to “appropriately” cover this piece of news? Or was it because Russians do not consider a nomination for one of the most distinguished awards in the film industry to be anything special?

The next day, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky made the following statement: “Movies that not only focus on criticism of the current authorities but openly spit on them (which, by the way, shows disrespect toward the taxpayers’ choices), filled with a sense of despair and hopelessness over our existence, should not be financed with taxpayers’ money.”

It is worth mentioning that former Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev helped with the financing of Zvyagintsev’s movie. Under the current minister, however, there has clearly been a change in vision. “I hope that, in the future, Andrei Zvyagintsev, a very talented person, will use the Culture Ministry’s support to make a movie lacking this existential despair. A movie that will make one want to get up, get out on the street, and do something good, right, without delays—right here and right now,” Medinsky said. In other words, a director will only get financial support and the right to shoot a movie in Russia if he or she is willing to obey the government’s orders. And finally, according to Medinsky, “the view of the Russian Orthodox Church, as it is portrayed in the movie, is an exaggeration. This is beyond all limits. I was very strongly displeased by that.”

Leviathan’s sickening artistic reality reflects life in today’s Russia rather accurately. None of the characters in the drama seem to be able to tell right from wrong. Modern Russia demonstrates the same erosion of people’s moral compass.

Orthodox activists and officials picked up the signal from above right away. “Leviathan is evil, and there is no place for evil in the cinema,” declared Kirill Frolov, head of the Association of Orthodox Experts. Murmansk governor Marina Kovtun suggested preventing the movie from being released to the public. All movie theaters in the Murmansk region have been verbally advised against showing Leviathan. How did Kovtun explain her recommendation? The governor did not like how people living in the north of the country were portrayed in the movie. Tatyana Trubilina, the head of the local administration in Teriberka, the village where much of Leviathan was shot, also called for it not to be shown in Russian movie theaters. She probably did not like the shots of neglected buildings or wrecked longboats thrown into the sea. Maybe there are no such things in the village of Teriberka; maybe they were brought there by the shooting crew. The same crew must have also stripped the remnants of paint off the Khrushchev-era apartment blocks and removed the asphalt from the roads. Here, it is worth remembering the words of Russian fable writer Ivan Krylov, that you should not blame the looking glass if your face is awry.

While official passions were running high, as ill luck would have it, real life threw us a story that was even more gruesome than that told by Leviathan. On January 16, in Kirovsk, where part of the movie was shot, an elderly businessman named Ivan Ankushev, after having lost hope of ever obtaining justice, shot to death the city’s mayor, Ilya Kelmanzon, and Deputy for Housing and Communal Services Sergei Maksimov, who was also the shadow “owner” of Kirovsk. After this, the businessman committed suicide. In his suicide note Ankushev wrote: “There is no hope of a fair trial. My trade turnover did not exceed 25 million rubles a year. The administration owed me 4 million rubles. You destroyed me.”

Would you like to know what the public reaction to this tragedy was? Apparently, the public believed that Zvyagintsev had engineered the whole affair in order to promote his movie...

However, there is another way to look at the realities described in Leviathan. One comment that accompanied an odious article on the film published on Kommersant’s website is worth mentioning here. “Stop beating your head against the wall,” the author of the comment addressed that part of the public offended by the movie. “Take, for instance, the American TV series True Detective or the American movie Dallas Buyers Club. The main characters of this TV series, who are both policemen, are alcoholics...A sect of religious killers is operating in the region, the main pastor of which is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The local sheriff is corrupt and condones the sect’s activity. The wife of one of the main characters cheats on him. The protagonist is a maniac and engages in incest. [There are multiple] shots of Louisiana with abandoned sheds and low rivers...What opinion of American society can one form after watching these movies? One can form no opinion whatsoever!”

The Facebook newsfeed takes a less measured tone, however, warning: "If Zvyagintsev gets an Oscar, he will have to choose between The Return and Banishment"—the titles of his two movies.