Thomas Hobbes and the Russian Soul
By Stewart Pollock
“But Sasha was from Russia, where the sunsets are longer, the dawns are less sudden, and sentences are often left unfinished from doubt as to how best end them.”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando
For once, Churchill was wrong. Russia is not, as it turns out, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside of an enigma. And we would all do very well to stop pretending that it is.
Few places on earth can conjure an assortment of stereotypes as eclectic and contradictory as Russia does. In our popular (American, and presumably a few other places as well) imagination, it is the land of vodka and bears, Kalashnikovs and samovars. Long ago in a vaguely defined past, its steppes were home to moody and ever-dueling poets, while the streets of its cities were stalked by noseless bureaucrats and axe-wielding philosophers.
We envision Russia as a land of dashcams and tracksuit wearing gopniki, while at the same time living in fear of them starting World War III. It is not merely enough to stereotype Russians; we seem to have gone out of our way to make sure that our vision of the country is as contradictory as possible.
For decades it was the evil empire, until, almost overnight, it wasn’t, where blue jeans and fake Rolexes carried more currency than the ruble. In 2001, at a summit in Slovenia, President Bush saw into the new Russian president’s soul. A decade later, Joe Biden did the same, and left convinced that the not-so-new Russian president “had no soul at all.” We envision Russia as a land of dashcams and tracksuit wearing gopniki, while at the same time living in fear of them starting World War III. It is not merely enough to stereotype Russians; we seem to have gone out of our way to make sure that our vision of the country is as contradictory as possible.
But why are we as Americans so quick to attribute such outlandish excesses to Russia? Part of it may come from the genuine spontaneity that continues to define life here. Case in point: last week a group of drunks started shooting off fireworks in the vacant lot behind my apartment, before getting chased off by a local babushka carrying a single cabbage. Russia gave the world its first spaceflight, and its worst car. In January of last year, in Sverdlovsk, a man died in a knife fight over the comparative merits of poetry and prose. As strange as things like these are, they are in many ways beside the point. Russia is not a symbol or a literary foil—it is a large, proud, and oftentimes ramshackle country. Its problems and its triumphs are both remarkable, but they are not unique.
I recently saw Andrey Zvaginsev’s film Leviathan in New York, where it was released weeks before it arrived in Russia. The film, which won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar and the Palme d’Ore, is set in a small town in the far northwest of Russia. It tells the story of an alcoholic everyman, played by Alexei Serebriakov, who attempts — with increasing desperation — to defend himself, his family and his home from the town’s unscrupulous mayor. The movie deals with corruption, hypocrisy, and religious doubt, all set against the stunning backdrop of the Barents Sea. Many of the minor aesthetic details of the film, such as the way people eat, drink and talk, are remarkably authentic. In an era where most Russian movies are Hollywood knock-offs or thinly-veiled propaganda films (including one upcoming film which coincidentally focuses on the Soviet liberation of the Crimean port of Sevastopol from fascist occupiers), Leviathan stands out.
Although a critical hit overseas, reception to the film here has been more lukewarm. Although his ministry provided over a quarter of Leviathan’s funding, the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, called Leviathan “anti-Russian” and accused Zvaginsev of seeking “glory, red carpets, and statuettes” rather than providing an accurate portrait of Russian life. Amongst members of the Orthodox Church, which the film portrays in a negative light, reception has been mixed. The Metropolitan of Murmansk issued a statement calling Leviathan “an honest film, one which raises questions about faith and society” while Kiril Frolov, an outspoken pro-Church activist dubbed it “evil filth, not worth watching.” Several members of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, also condemned the film, which was leaked online in Russia several weeks before its official debut. Although Medinsky suggested that legislation banning “anti-Russian” films should be proposed, he has, as of yet, made no effort to actually do so. Given Leviathan’s number of award nominations, it isn’t quite so easily dismissed.
Irkutsk is very far away from the Barents Sea, but most of the people I have talked to here are ambivalent about Leviathan. A friend at my university said that while the film is pretty to look at, its relentless bleakness borders on a parody of “what the west expects Russian movies to be.” One of my professors noted that despite its Russian setting and references to Putin and other figures, Leviathan is actually based on real events that took place in America.
If anything, Leviathan is a toned-down Russian version of an over-the-top American reality, rather than the other way around. As for the film’s politics, Zvaginsev has said that the movie is inspired primarily by Hobbes (philosopher, not tiger) and by the Book of Job.
Specifically, the filmmaker was inspired by Marvin Heemeyer, a Colorado man who, following a dispute with local officials, built a customized armored bulldozer (later dubbed “Killdozer” by the media) and went on a two-hour rampage, destroying thirteen buildings (including the mayor’s house and the town hall) before taking his own life. If anything, Leviathan is a toned-down Russian version of an over-the-top American reality, rather than the other way around. As for the film’s politics, Zvaginsev has said that the movie is inspired primarily by Hobbes (philosopher, not tiger) and by the Book of Job.
Speaking of Putin, however, it is hard to deny the central role his government has played in (re)creating the myth of Russian exceptionalism over the past two decades. The peculiar and rather eclectic ideology adopted by the third-term president and his ruling United Russia Party is premised, among other things, on the belief that Russia is an exceptional country, aloof from, and inherently superior to both the West and the East. In 2012, Putin wrote a series of articles where he outlined his vision of Russia’s “State Civilization,” premised on a shared religious and political history. While describing “his” Russia as a heterogeneous and multiethnic society, Putin referred, somewhat ominously, to “so called tolerance which promotes a situation where good and evil are held equally.”
The government has banked heavily on this appeal to national solidarity as Russia’s economic woes continue, and for the time being, it seems to be working. The criticism of Leviathan is actually a symptom of a larger national “circle the wagons” mentality. Filmmakers like Zvaginsev have the misfortune of being popular in the West, which in the eyes of an ever-increasing number of Russians, is itself cause for suspicion.
In the end, this means that Russians and non-Russians are both guilty creating a false and contradictory image of Russia. Leviathan is a beautiful film, but when I watched it, I could not help but feel that its characters — drunk, cynical, and corrupt — were just as misleading as the dull-eyed newscasters on Perviy Kanal who, day in and day out, present new evidence of “western-backed atrocities” in Eastern Ukraine. They certainly bear little resemblance to the people I have met here, except perhaps in their complete disregard for road safety. To be sure, the film has the excuse of being a work of highly allegorical fiction rather than an attempt to chronicle and report on real events. But then again, people on both sides of the Bering Strait seem to have a lot of difficulty distinguishing the two lately.