If you remember nothing else about Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan”, the whale will remain with you.
In a squalid coastal town in Russia’s frigid north, a man gazes over the skeleton of a beached whale, the bones stark in their white purity. Although clearly suggesting death, the skeleton’s beauty and majesty stands in sharp contrast to the ugly trivialities of the town’s human population, lost in their obsessions with power and greed, in their corruption and hypocrisy. In the context of the film, it is hard not to see that “leviathan” as a symbol of the gigantic aspirations of the old Soviet Union, that other dead monster. Although the film-maker does not for a moment suggest that the former Soviet Union represented any kind of lost glory, “Leviathan” does portray a modern Russian society stumbling through a contemporary world utterly devoid of standards, morality, or hope. Most startling for a Western audience, that society now camouflages its vulgar graspings not in the language of Marxism-Leninism, but of Christianity.
Although “Leviathan” has been widely reviewed in both Europe and the U.S., few commentators have picked up that central religious message. “Leviathan” stands among the greatest films ever made about the corruption of religion. (Warning: the film concludes with a major twist, which will be revealed here).
“Leviathan” is set in the small fishing port of Pribrezhny, which is recreated in horrifyingly convincing detail. The story focuses on Kolya, an auto mechanic who spends most of his life in a drunken haze. Tragically for him, he owns a property that is coveted by the local mayor, Vadim, who gets everything he wants, and who readily deploys thugs to enforce his will. Ultimately, Kolya is railroaded on false charges and loses his home. Most viewers take Vadim as a transparent stand-in for Vladimir Putin, who similarly rules through violence and extra-legal trickery. For both men, law is merely a tool for the powerful.
Beyond that obvious satire, the film places these everyday Russian evils in a cosmic context. “Leviathan” is immersed in Biblical symbolism, drawing both on the Book of Job and the story of Naboth’s Vineyard, in which an evil king trumps up false charges to seize the belongings of a poor neighbor. To a Westerner, the name Leviathan recalls Thomas Hobbes’s vision of the all-powerful state, but in this case we should rather turn directly to the Old Testament. The Biblical leviathan is mentioned on several occasions, sometimes as a seagoing animal, but of occasion as a fearsome monster of evil, slain by God himself in cosmic warfare. In this apocalyptic vision, the image becomes “the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent.” Modern Russians live in the shadow of the slain leviathan.
Putin’s Russia is a deeply inhospitable environment for political satire, and the country’s media have largely ignored the international sensation that the film has created, including its prestigious awards in Europe and the U.S. Most controversial of all, though, has been the film’s treatment of the church, which is far more innovative and daring than the critique of Putin. So he’s corrupt and thuggish? Yes, we knew that.
The film’s other central character is the local Orthodox bishop. The most chilling scene is an intimate dialogue between Vadim and the bishop, a spiritual adviser who not only justifies the boss’s excesses but actually drives him to worse deeds. Is Vadim a good Christian, asks the cleric? Well, says Vadim, he tries. As a Christian ruler then, says the bishop, he must know that all power comes from God. Vadim has the absolute duty to exercise the power given to him, to solve all his issues and problems himself, and with all his might, lest the Enemy think he is weak. All is in God’s hands, it is all His will. We almost hear the voice of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.
If the priest is not actually the driving force behind Vadim’s evils, he is at least an accomplice, and an enabler. In a devastating climax, we see exactly why Vadim was so desperate to steal Kolya’s property: he (and more specifically, the bishop) needed it to build a gaudy new Orthodox cathedral, as a shrine to Power. The film concludes with a splendid and utterly hypocritical sermon by the bishop, who thoroughly unites Russian nationalism with the interests of the Orthodox Church. His sermon calls for values of truth and justice, in a venue that exists solely because such values do not exist within Russia.
If Vadim is meant to be Putin, then Russian audiences waste little time before linking the priest to another prominent national figure, namely Kirill [Cyril], Metropolitan of the country’s Orthodox Church. He has also led his church into an intimate and, most would say, a profoundly unhealthy alliance with the post-Soviet regime.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist government savagely persecuted the Orthodox Church, killings many thousands of clergy and monastics, and closing the vast majority of churches and monasteries. When Communism fell, the church returned to visibility, and the last quarter-century has witnessed a startling and many-sided revival. Places of worship have been rebuilt, monasteries flourish again, and pilgrimage shrines have begun a new era of mass popularity. The post-Soviet religious restoration was supervised by the then-Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008) and by his successor, Kirill.
In exchange for so many blessings, the church has of course given fervent support to the Putin government, lavishly praising it and providing ideological justifications for a strong government at home, and expansion beyond its borders. But such enthusiasm goes far beyond mere payback. Support for authoritarian regimes is deeply embedded in Orthodox political thought, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular has always been tinged with mystical and millenarian nationalism.
When Kirill presents Orthodox Russia as a bastion of true faith, besieged by the false values and immorality of a secularized West, his words are deeply appreciated by both the state and the church. The apocalyptic character of that conflict is made evident by the West’s embrace of homosexual rights, especially same-sex marriage. As so often in past centuries, Holy Russia confronts a Godless and decadent West. It is Putin, not Kirill, who has warned that “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”
We should not see Kirill as a rogue cleric abandoning the interests of his church to seek political favors: he really believes every word. Whether Putin and his circle literally believe the religious rhetoric is not relevant: they act as if they do. The solidly Orthodox framing of Russian nationalism also ensures that powerful Rightist groups happily rally around Putin and his not-so-ex-KGB clique.
Over the past few years, the nature of Russia’s military-ecclesiastical complex has repeatedly become evident. Kirill extended the church’s blessings to the pro-Moscow regime in Belarus after a highly troubling election. In Ukraine, Kirill completely echoed Putin’s line that the Russian-sponsored separatist guerrillas were well-intentioned local citizens who justifiably feared oppression by the Kiev regime. Kirill even granted church honors to Cuba’s Castro brothers. All is in God’s hands, it is all His will.
So egregious is the portrayal of the priest in Leviathan, and so blatantly based on real life circumstances, that Orthodox activists have been the leading advocates for suppressing the film altogether.
The United States spends a great deal of time worrying about the state of Iran, which is dominated by theocratic cliques who relish apocalyptic dreams, and who hope someday to obtain a handful of nuclear weapons. We don’t have to travel too far from Iran to find another state where ambitious theocrats shape the national ideology of a government that presently disposes of some 1,500 active nuclear weapons, not to mention another 8,000 or so in storage.
In Russia’s case, like Iran’s, we will not understand the state’s ideological motivations without appreciating that religious dimension.
Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.