The Campaign Against "Leviathan" in Russia
Andrey Zvyagintsev is known as one of Russia's leading filmmakers, but his latest movie, "Leviathan," has been especially successful. Prior to its nomination for the Academy Award, it won Best Screenplay at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Best Film at the London Film Festival, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film (the first Russian movie to win since 1969), and a few other awards. At a time when the Russian government is being condemned globally and the country is under Western sanctions, the film's success might have seemed like a reason for national pride and celebration. Instead, Russia's largest TV networks, by audience, have barely mentioned "Leviathan" 's Golden Globe, and, last week, after pirated copies of the film leaked onto the Web in advance of its official February release date, Zvyagintsev came under attack from officials, clerics, conservative Christian groups, and other artists.
The vilification campaign speaks to the rise of anti-Western conservatism in Russia since Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin, in 2012, and the intensification of that trend since last year's confrontation with the West over Ukraine. It also shows the atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia that has resulted from Putin's harsh anti-Western rhetoric, the numerous legal norms introduced by his government to limit Western—and more generally modernizing—influences, and the raw propaganda appearing daily on television. Amid this climate, aggressive conservative groups, who not infrequently overstep the Kremlin's line, have come to the fore. The celebration in the West of "Leviathan," which portrays Russians in a seemingly unflattering light, has been an occasion for these forces to speak out.
Zvyagintsev's film is set in a small town in northern Russia, and tells the tragic story of a simple man who is robbed of his property by a ruthless administrator. As the man struggles for his rights, he is overwhelmed by increasingly harder blows. Zvyagintsev has repeatedly said that the film's inspiration was the story of Marvin John Heemeyer, a Colorado welder who, after losing a zoning dispute, in 2004, demolished a few buildings in his town with a bulldozer and then killed himself. "This story could happen anywhere, Zvyagintsev told one interviewer. "There is no place I feel closer than Russia, so we set this plot in the Russian realities." Zvyagintsev explained that he gradually came to see the film as a version of the Biblical story of Job, hence the title, "Leviathan."
Western coverage of the film has celebrated its artistry, while also highlighting its anti-Putin touches. One critic, for the Guardian, called it "a sober and compelling tragic drama . . . influenced by Old Testament and Elia Kazan," while another of the paper's critics noted that the film's corrupt officials work beneath pictures of Putin, and called "Leviathan" an "unremittingly poisonous portrait of the abuse of power in contemporary Russia." Zvyagintsev's persecutors in Russia, meanwhile, are outraged by what they see as his grim portrayal of Russian life; the filmmaker's irreverence toward the Russian Orthodox Church (the crooked official in the film has the support of a cynical priest); and his depiction of rampant alcoholism.
The condemnations have come from many sides. The administrator of the town where "Leviathan" was filmed said that the film is "useless and lacks credibility," and argued that, contrary to Zvyagintsev's portrayal of northern villagers as drunkards without life prospects, her town's birth rate is growing—and it has a school, two kindergartens, and a "library equipped with computers and satellite TV." Vsevolod Chaplin, an official spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, said of the film (which he had not seen), "It is obviously made for a Western audience, to be more precise, for the Western élites." Timur Zulfikarov, a novelist and a playwright, wrote a long diatribe condemning Zvyagintsev for "Leviathan" 's representations of social ugliness and its "dumb pseudomusic," as well as for borrowing his plot "from Americans." This, Zulfikarov wrote, makes Zvyagintsev responsible for turning Russia into a "country of total second-hand, an apes' colony."
Religious and political figures, too, have joined the chorus. The leader of a conservative group that calls itself an "association of Christian Orthodox experts" said that "Leviathan" is an "odious slander of the Russian Church and the Russian state." Sergey Markov, a political analyst and a Kremlin loyalist who has held several official positions, called it "an ideological justification for a genocide of the Russian people" and said that Zvyagintsev himself should block the release of his film in Russia and instead kneel in the Red Square and apologize to his compatriots. Meanwhile, Vladimir Medinsky, the country's minister of culture, has made it clear that he does not like "Leviathan," because of its profanity. David Remnick wrote for this site last year about a newly adopted Russian law that forbids swearing in films and media; even though Zvyagintsev's film was made before the anti-profanity legislation became law, he agreed to remove the film's swear words for its domestic release.
Medinsky has been an eager contributor to the Kremlin's new conservatism, and, in mid-January, his ministry said that it had prepared a resolution (which did not mention "Leviathan") that would ban from public distribution films believed to be "defiling the national culture, creating a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order." The resolution, which would authorize preliminary censorship of works of art by state officials, was to become operational as of January 1st but has so far been subject to bureaucratic delays.
The government's attempts to impose ideological constraints on artistic and cultural productions, and the attendant smear attacks against unwelcome artists, are strongly reminiscent of Soviet times. Preliminary censorship was universal practice in the Soviet Union; it was conducted by an army of censors operating under guidelines established by the Ideological Department of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Vilification campaigns against the ideologically impure were also commonplace: under Stalin, they often led to arrest, torture, and execution, though they grew much lighter after his death. The most famous case is that of Boris Pasternak, who was subjected to vicious public censure and harassment by officials after his novel "Doctor Zhivago" was smuggled out of the country and published abroad. When Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize, he was forced to turn it down.
Zvyagintsev will be under no such restrictions for the Academy Awards, of course. Despite the strong neo-Soviet spirit in Russia, the country's current leadership does not keep its citizens behind an iron curtain. Nor does it require unanimity of its people. Online access to pirated copies of "Leviathan" continues unhindered, and the film has been celebrated domestically, too. In January, Zvyagintsev won Russia's Golden Eagle for Best Director (two of his actors were also honored). And on Friday, Vladimir Putin's spokesman said that he (the spokesman, not Putin) did not think that "Leviathan" was anti-Russian, and that he would root for it to win the Oscar. This measured expression of support may indicate that the film will be released as scheduled in Russia, but it will not change the overall anti-Western and anti-liberal environment. The Kremlin may not have initiated the smear campaign against Zvyagintsev, but it bears full responsibility for emboldening his attackers.
"The New Yorker"