Thoughts about Zviagintsev’s “Leviathan”

The last film that we watched in my Russian film class was Andrey Zviagintsev’s Leviathan. In the introductory presentation to the film, I talked about the Biblical stories that are heavily referenced in the film: the story of the primordial evil sea monster Leviathan; the story of Job, whose faith is tested through a series of misfortunes; and the story of Naboth, whose vineyard was wanted, and ultimately expropriated, by the king. We also talked about Thomas Hobbes’ book of the same title. Since we didn’t have enough time after the film to discuss it, as we did with other films, I was asked by my students to write up some thoughts on visual elements and questions I wanted them to think about. So here it is.

As with two other films we’ve seen, Cranes Are Flying and Autumn Marathon, Leviathan starts and ends with the same visual imagery: the view of the location of Kolya’s house, with the Barents Sea and the mountains at the background. The broad vistas and the accompanying music by the American composer Philip Glass help elevate the story of one “little man”, Kolya, to the level of an epic saga about individuals and the state, akin to Thomas Hobbes book. In this, the film follows in the footsteps of such greats of the Russian literature as Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev.

Kolya’s house (photo: Wikipedia)

In the opening scene we see Kolya’s house and the associated outbuildings taking a proud spot in the visual center of the film’s frames, just as it was the emotional focal point of Kolya’s life, his anchor in the rough seas of life. In the closing scene we see the same location, framed by the sea and the mountains, but now a newly built church takes up the exact spot where Kolya’s house used to be. No longer a man’s home, it is now a house of God. Or is it?

It is perhaps no surprise that the Russian Orthodox Church officials came out with a sharp critique of the film: the Church establishment is depicted in a very negative light. At the end of the priest, we the viewers become spectators of a church service where the bishop talks at length about “truth” and “faith”, but a viewer is left with an impression that there is little truth or faith involved in the operations of the Church. To be fair, Zviagintsev also shows a different type of Orthodox priest: instead of preaching, he acts to help the poor, delivering bread to them. To me, this juxtaposition of Kolya’s house and the church built where the house used to be begs the question of whether the Church now fulfills its original mission of spiritual guidance and support for its parishioners—or is it simply an arm of the State, like another tentacle of Hobbesian Leviathan. (Although Leviathan is often imagined as a huge whale, some accounts present it as a giant octopus, which to me is scarier than a fairly benign whale.)

The departure of the Church from its mission is further alluded to in a parallel between the plot and dialogue of the film and the Biblical story of Naboth. In the Bible, the king is so overtaken by his desire to have Naboth’s vineyard that he is unable to eat, sleep or enjoy life. His wife, Queen Jezebel urges him: “Are you king or aren’t you? Go and take it!” (In this, she reminds me of Lady Macbeth.) In the film, the role of “Queen Jezebel” is played by the bishop: he urges the corrupt mayor to wield power (and violence, if necessary) to enforce his desires by all means necessary. Worldly affairs, he says, are the domain of secular authorities, and it is up to the mayor to hold the reigns of power “on the territory entrusted to him”. Thus, the bishop gives the mayor the ultimate justification for his corrupt ways (“All power is from God”) and an absolution for all sins (perhaps even murder!). The earthly rulers and establishment of the Church are thus shown to have divided up the world but ruling their respective domains with equal cruelty and disregard for the bodies and souls of those ruled. (As I watched this film, I was struck by the cognate titles for the earthly and divine rulers: the mayor refers to himself as vlast’ “authority” and addresses the bishop as vladyka “your holiness”—in Russian, the two words share the same root. I’d never thought of that before.) The marriage of the earthly and divine rulers, their merger into a single terrifying whole, is further underscored by such minute details as the portrait of Putin in the mayor’s office and the bust of Jesus in the bishop’s office (which the camera focuses on): has Putin been deified through a “cult of personality”, not unlike that of Stalin? or has Jesus been reduced to an administrator deciding property disputes, punishing and promoting people in accordance to principles that are far removed from Biblical morality of “Thou shalt not…”?

Putin’s portrait on the wall of the mayor’s office caught my attention for yet another reason as well: it is shown to hang directly above the mayor’s head, where it is not likely to be seen often by the mayor himself. It is placed there for the benefit of those who enter the office to plead their case with the mayor (like Kolya’s lawyer friend does) or to take orders (as the prosecutor and the mayor’s two underlings do). The vertical line formed by the portrait and the mayor’s own head underneath it is a great visual representation of the “power vertical”, a concept that is crucial to understanding the Russian “Leviathan” (in Thomas Hobbes’ sense, that is the state). The entire state apparatus is aligned vertically, with Putin as the culminating point on top (and before that, Soviet and post-Soviet rulers, and even earlier, the Tsars). There is no horizontal organization of “checks and balances”, alternative sources of power, a real separation of powers, a civil society, or (as we see in the film) the separation of church and state. This vertical structure prevents the Russian state from being, as Thomas Hobbes envisaged it, a necessary evil required to protect individuals from arbitrary cruelty of other individuals and to arbitrate conflicting interests of different individuals. Instead, the state itself is the evil that individuals need to be protected from, if only there was any entity, besides blind fate, that could protect them.

Another episode with portraits, those of past rulers, emphasizes another characteristic feature of the Russian state throughout its history: every “change of the guard” is a mini-revolution. There is no clear set of rules on how one ruler, be it president, General Secretary, or Tsar, is to be replaced by the next one. Whatever rules are written down in the law can be set aside or manipulated by the rulers as they see fit. The same was true during the Soviet period, as can be seen by the changing titles of those who were the recognized rulers. (For example, Stalin was the formal head of state only from May 1941 to his death in March 1953; before that, he was “merely” the head of the Communist Party.) Even under the Tsars, the rules changed several times, nor did they lay out what is supposed to happen in all possible situations. (The uncertainty about the succession after Nicholas II’s eventual death is said to have contributed to the revolutionary events of 1917.) After a ruler is dead or replaced (with more or less violence), they are not seen as respected leaders who have done their best for the country, but as either a weak jester or an cruel strongman. In either case, it does not seem ridiculous to use a former ruler’s portrait as a target for shooting practice.

One final note concerns the visual imagery that caught my eye in the context of another film we watched in this class. Towards the end of the film, when Kolya’s house is being destroyed by backhoes and excavators, it is cleverly shown from within the house, which makes it look to the viewer as if one’s own house is being destroyed. The image of a former home, part of whose external structure has been broken down, reminded me of the scene from Cranes Are Flying, where Veronica runs up the steps of their building to find their apartment (and her parents in it!) gone forever. In both films, the partial destruction powerfully underscores that what used to be “home and hearth” is no more. But in Cranes Are Flying, it is an external entity, an enemy state (Nazi Germany) that causes the destruction with such impersonal means as bombs and artillery shells shot from afar. In Leviathan, it is not some foreign enemy but the Russian state itself that destroys all that was near and dear to Kolya and his family, by using far more personal and close-up machinery for the destruction. (The family too is ultimately destroyed, through the betrayal of Kolya’s wife and the adoption of his son, once Kolya himself is sent to prison.) I don’t know whether this allusion to a scene in an earlier film was Zviagintsev’s intention, a subconscious reference to a film that he doubtlessly had seen, or a pure accident—but in either case, to me this parallel poses a question of whether today’s Putin-ruled “Leviathan” of a country is what “our grandfathers have fought for”.


“The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep”, by David Satter

This past weekend I’ve been reading an excellent book by David Satter, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep, a real page-turner which reads as a mix of investigative journalism and a whodunit (buy it on Amazon). Satter sheds a compelling light on disturbing yet persuasive evidence that Putin’s “dunit”: he and his circle are implicated in a series of crimes, including the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk in 1999, the Nord-Ost theater siege in 2002, the Beslan school siege in 2004, and murders of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and scores of others who challenged Putin’s regime. (Satter himself, it must be added, has been expelled from Russia due to his investigative activities and writings.) In the conclusion (p. 172), Satter notes that although the evidence is circumstantial, its totality “presents a picture of guilt so convincing that were it presented against an individual in a criminal case, the verdict would be obvious and incontrovertible”. The only reason why “the Putin regime never faced a court of law [is] because it controlled the judicial process and was in a position to seize and then hide or destroy the evidence”. It is, therefore, a cautionary tale (as if the world needed another one!) about the dangers of an autocratic dictatorship and a “power vertical”.

In this book, as in his earlier book The Age of Delirium, Satter shows a clear understanding of what’s been going on in Russia: it’s not “just like America”, only people there speak Russian, drink vodka, and have bears walk the streets. Russia (in the sense of its ruling regime) operates by different rules entirely. Satter writes (p. xiv):

Understanding Russia is actually very easy, but one must teach oneself to do something that is very hard—to believe the unbelievable. Westerners become confused because they approach Russia with a Western frame of reference, not realizing that Russia is a universe based on a completely different set of values. If a Westerner takes it for granted that the individual has inherent worth and is not just raw material for the deluded schemes of corrupt political leaders, he may not realize that in Russia this outlook is not widely shared. To grasp the reality of Russia, it is necessary to accept that Russian leaders really are capable of blowing up hundreds of their own people to preserve their hold on power. They really are capable of ordering an attack with flamethrowers on a gymnasium full of defenseless parents and children. Once one accepts that the impossible is really possible, the degradation of the Yeltsin years and Vladimir Putin’s rise of power make perfect sense.

Tomorrow, my Russian film class is watching Andrey Zviagintsev’s Leviathan, an equally disturbing view of what the regime that’s capable of waging war on its own people looks like from the perspective of those people.


“For every ten girls there’s only nine guys”: Soviet World War II losses and the resulting sex ratios

Last week, my Russian cinema class watched and discussed Cranes are Flying, a Soviet cinematic masterpiece which focuses on the tragic side of World War II and the physical and emotional wounds it left behind. But the wounds were also demographic, and these wounds have hardly healed even now, 72 years after the war. The estimated 8.7 million military deaths, with significantly more men than women among them, left a huge disparity between the genders: far more women than men in the post-war period. In the 1960s and 70s, a popular Soviet song claimed that “for every ten girls, according to statistics, there’s only nine guys”. That, however, was not the case in real life: according to the 1970 census, for every ten women between ages 30 and 69, there were only 7.4 men in the same age bracket. By 1979, that number was up to 7.84, and the situation was a bit better among the younger generation. But even today Russia has not recovered the sex ratios of the pre-war and pre-1930s Great Terror period. The graph from an article by Nikolay Savchenko in Demoscope shows that the biggest drop in the men-to-women ratio occurred in the 20-year period that encompasses the war, between the 1939 census and that of 1959:

Sex ratio in the Russian Empire/USSR population data: the number of men per 1,000 women, aged 30-69


It is easy to blame the skewed sex ratios on the Nazi occupation: after all, nearly 2 million square km of Soviet territory and 45% of its population have been occupied during the war. But a closer look at the demographic data suggests that this is not the case. Although the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), as well as Belarus and Ukraine, were occupied in their entirety, it is the RSFSR (Russia), most of which was not under Nazi occupation, which showed the lowest sex ratio in the first post-war census of 1959 (chart from Savchenko’s publication, linked to above):

Sex ratios by republic: men per 1,000 women, aged 30-69 (1959 census)


Within Russia, there is no contrast in sex ratios between regions that were under Nazi occupation and those that were not. According to Savchenko, the lowest sex ratios (among those who were in age cohorts subject to mobilization during the war) is found in three of the regions in the Middle Volga: Mari ASSR (507), Chuvashia (517), and Mordovia (521). Next come three Russian oblasts, Ivanovo (528), Kirov (535), and Kostroma (538)—none of which were occupied by the Nazis!

Instead, the enormously skewed sex ratio must be due to the Soviet mobilization and military losses. As suggested by Savchenko, this can be seen from two statistics: (1) differences in sex ratios between age cohorts that were subject to mobilization and those that were not, and (2) differences in sex ratios between different regions of Ukraine and Belarus. Let’s begin by looking at the data concerning the age cohorts: among those born in 1930 (aged 15 in 1945), the sex ratio is 964—pretty much what would be expected in peacetime. The ratio declines as one goes back in birth years: among those born in 1926 (they were subject to mobilization in the last year of the war), the sex ratio is 829, and among those born in 1923 (and thus subject to mobilization from 1941 onward) the ratio is merely 644. In other words, for every ten 36-year-old women in 1959 there were only 6.44 male contemporaries, a far cry from the “nine guys” that the song claimed. This chart (based on the figures cited in Savchenko’s work) is easily explained: the older the guys were in 1941 and so the longer they were subject to mobilization, the more likely that they would be drafted and, sadly, that they would not come back from the war. The only anomaly is the data point for those born in 1927: the sex ratio for this age cohort is higher than for the next younger cohort, born in 1928. According to Savchenko, “this is a reflection of the fact that throughout the USSR, about 300-400 thousand young men born in 1925-1926 allegedly changed their papers to show 1927 as their birth date” (translation mine).

The second type of evidence that underscores the enormous effect of Soviet military losses on the remaining population structure involves sex ratios in Belarus and Ukraine. Since both of this republics were under Nazi occupation, based on the factor alone, one does not expect any differences within each republic, but that is not the case. Looking at those aged 31-70 in 1959 (the age bracket that made the men subject to mobilization),  Savchenko calculated that the sex ratio is highest in the westernmost parts of Belarus, and declines as one moves east. Thus, “in Grodno oblast of Belorussia there were 707 men for 1,000 women, in Brest oblast — 708, in Molodechno oblast — 700. But in the centrally located Minsk oblast the figure is 615, and in the eastern oblasts of Belorussia the difference [between the number of men and women] is even more conspicuous: in Vitebsk — 581, in Gomel — 578, in Mogilev — 562” (translation mine). If the Nazi occupation were the sole factor, this distribution would be counter-intuitive: after all, western areas such as Brest were under Nazi attack first and were generally occupied the longest. The real reason for this distribution, Savchenko suggests, is whether the area was part of the USSR, and hence subject to its mobilization, in the inter-war period. Western parts of Belarus were taken over by the USSR in the fall of 1939, before which time they were part of Poland.

The situation is similar in Ukraine, as Savchenko claims. For this post and for my class, I’ve created the map below, where the sex ratios for age cohorts that were subject to mobilization during the war are shown by oblast (Savchenko himself lists the figures only for half a dozen or so of the oblasts; I have calculated the remaining ratios based on the 1959 census data here). The base map here is one that shows territorial changes in Ukraine (I’ve discussed it also in my 2014 post):

As can be seen from this map, the highest (hence, most like peace-time) sex ratio, 843, is found in the westernmost region of Transcarpathia, which became part of Ukraine (and part of the USSR) only after the war. Areas that became part of the USSR in 1939 (Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Volyn, and most of the Rovno oblast) or in 1940 (Chernovtsy oblast and a substantial part of the Odessa oblast) exhibit fairly high sex ratios as well. The contrast between “Western Ukraine” (oblasts that were taken over by the USSR in 1939-40) and their immediate neighbors to the east (Khmelnitsky, Zhitomir, and Vinnitsa oblasts), as well as oblasts in central Ukraine (Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava, Cherkassy, and Sumy oblasts), is quite conspicuous. Overall, areas that were not part of the Soviet Union before 1939 have sex ratios in the high 600s, in the 700s or even above 800, while virtually all regions that were in the USSR prior to 1939 have sex ratios below 650, and about half of them—below 600. (The only exceptions are the industrially vital Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine and the city of Kiev, with the sex ratios of 670 and 668, respectively.)

In light of these figures, it appears that the timing of becoming a part of the Soviet Union is the best predictor of the severity of the sex ratio bias: the longer an area was part of the USSR, the higher the discrepancy between the two genders (and the lower the sex ratio figure) in the immediate pre-war period. This generalization is further confirmed by another data point, alluded to by Savchenko: Tyva, which became a part of the USSR only in 1944 and was little affected by the Soviet mobilization, has one of the highest sex ratios of any region in the USSR in 1959: 903, based on the 1959 census data here. (Again, only people aged 30-69 in 1959, the age cohorts that were subject to mobilization during the war, are being considered.)

All these figures underscore the immense human losses that the Soviet Union suffered, the “cost in blood” of the victory over Nazism whose 72nd anniversary is being commemorated today. These losses, skewed heavily against the “stronger sex”, were felt for a long time after the last shots were fired, and are perhaps still felt today. One consequence of this shortage of men is that the birth rate after the war, though higher than during the war, never reached the pre-war level, in sharp contrast to the U.S. and Britain, which experienced the “baby boom” in the same period. (The birth rates are shown by the blue line in chart below, from http://e-lib.gasu.ru/eposobia/minaev/R_1_7.html.)

Birth rate (blue line) and death rate (pink line) in the Russian Empire and the USSR


But the consequences of the skewed sex ratios after the war may be psychological as well: a whole generation of children, most notably boys, grew up with few fathers around, and thus with few role models of how to be a man, a husband, or a father. Is that perhaps the reason why the protagonist of our next film, Autumn Marathon, is so weak, meek, indecisive, and spineless? Nor is he alone among male cinema characters of that time; in fact, it seems that many if not most of the cinematic “good guys” in the late 1970s-early 1980s were very much like Buzykin.

Thoughts, anyone?


“The Last Empire”, by Serhii Plokhy

In preparation for my Russian history class, I’ve recently read Serhii Plokhy’s book The Last Empire. As the subtitle suggests, it’s a detailed account of “the Final Days of the Soviet Union” (a bit too detailed, to my mind). The focus of Plokhy’s narrative is on the rivalry between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and, predictably, the role of Ukraine in bringing about the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Plokhy is a scholar of Ukrainian history, after all). All in all, although the book is illuminating as to the minute details of the fateful year of 1991 and the varying opinions, plans and attitudes of the major players in and outside the Soviet Union, it left me dissatisfied as to the answer to the crucial question, why. Plokhy’s explanation of why the Soviet Union disintegrated makes sense:  once Ukraine pulled out, as did the Baltic countries, it was pretty much Russia against the Muslim republics of Central Asia, and those two camps didn’t want to be left alone in one union or confederation. But it does not touch upon the question of why the communism (or more accurately, socialism) failed as, and when, it did. After all, Ukraine, as Plokhy justly points out, wanted independence first and de-communization later, if at all. In fact, as late as the 1998 legislative election, the majority of the areas in Ukraine still voted for the Communist Party, as can be seen from the following map from ElectoralGeography.com:

The Communist Party of Ukraine took part in the legislative elections in 2002, 2006, 2007, and 2012, albeit with more limited success. It was finally dissolved in December 2015.





One thing I did find beautifully poignant is a little vignette that Plokhy includes in the last chapter of the book, “Christmas in Moscow” (p. 374). Here, Plokhy tells the story of Gorbachev signing his resignation decrees. Apparently, for this final act as the first and last President of the USSR, Gorbachev had to borrow a pen from Tom Johnson, the president of CNN, whose crew was recording the events of those last few days of the Soviet Empire. The country that had once planned to enter the exalted state of communism by 1980 and later boasted to be poised “to catch up and overtake America” has run itself into such state of chaos and ruin that its president could not find a working pen in his own office.  A wonderful metaphor of what the collapse of socialism has been all about.


Russian history class: Perestroika and the dissolution of the USSR

Today’s lecture in my Russian history Delphians’ class was about the perestroika and the dissolution/implosion of the USSR. One of the students did a wonderfully touching paper on the Chernobyl catastrophe based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book. We talked about Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, “acceleration” (ускорение), glasnost’, the rise of Boris Yeltsin, the independence movement in Ukraine and the Baltics, the August Putsch, and more. Below is my visual “Table of Contents” for the lecture.

I closed with a quote from Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms (pp. 724-725):

The Soviet system was built on extreme force and extreme fraud. Practically everything that Lenin and the Leninists did was accompanied by killing; practically everything they said was based on half-baked theories, a total lack of integrity and huge, barefaced lies […] When a general secretary finally came along who was no longer prepared to perpetuate the fantasies and the coercion, all the circuits fused, and total paralysis rapidly ensued.