Driving 130km from Murmansk through the tundra into the town of Teriberka, where Andrei Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated film, Leviathan, was filmed, the visitor is enveloped in the desolation of snow and sky. A small blizzard here can strand a car for days, a polar night lasts 43 days, the wind is damp, and -20 Celsius feels twice as cold. The mists rising up off the Barents Sea, and the haunting, unforgiving beauty of the white slopes present themselves to residents and visitors as a test. But the decayed carcasses of boats on the shore, the abandoned apartment blocks, and the rotting wooden shacks suggest that many have given up.
On the surface, it's easy to see why Leviathan raised such uproar in Russian officialdom. Zvyagintsev’s allegory of the biblical Job – a man who loses everything when he is tested by God – has the Russian state itself standing in for the Leviathan, in a nod to both the Bible and to Thomas Hobbes' treatise of 1651 on absolutist government. It's salt on a wound for a government that doesn't take criticism lightly.
Zvyagintsev's Leviathan tells the story of Nikolai, the resident of a fictional northern settlement who fights back unsuccessfully as a corrupt local mayor, backed by a priest, uses the courts to take away his family home. As it becomes clear that Nikolai cannot win, the film zeroes in on his unravelling life, the remains of which he drowns in vodka.
Throughout, Leviathan shows the underbelly of human relations between the weak and the strong, where profanity, betrayal, violence and alcohol abuse are layered so thickly that at some point they cease to shock. The dilapidated remains of civilisation in Teriberka serve as a backdrop.
Leviathan is salt on a wound for a government that doesn't take criticism lightly.
Leviathan is a complex film that can be read on many levels at once. Does the corrupt mayor redeem himself for taking Nikolai's property by building a church? Or is this a statement on the mysterious ways of God or of Russian state power? But the outcry it triggered has uncovered deep-seated anxieties and complexes within Russian society that should not be written off as merely another case of government-sponsored knee-jerk patriotic fervour.
To try to understand these complexes, I travelled to Teriberka, a fishing village with a population of about 1000 people.
‘Send us an American, and we'll tell him where to go!’
Its natural landscape – which they say is best seen in summer – is so beloved by locals that for some it was the only redeeming aspect of the film.
‘I went to see it for the first time with everyone [on 25 January, when it premiered there],’ said Tatyana Trubilina, the head of Teriberka's Municipal Council. ‘I didn't like it. I didn't understand what it was trying to say. But I liked the scenery it showed. I liked our people, the way they performed.’
The road sign of Teriberka. Image by Anna Arutunyan (C).
Trubilina's initial reaction – she spoke out against the film and even threatened to sue a journalist in January for using her comments without permission – can be explained by the fact that as head of the administration, she is held accountable for everything that's wrong with the settlement. Trubilina even admitted as much – on the defensive, she said she was puzzled by the negativity in the film and felt it was unfair that she was serving her term just as this film aired. Even though Leviathan centres on the actions of a fictional mayor, it's not hard to personalise real problems and attribute them to those who are actually in power, especially when those in power feel powerless.
The disappointment came from the official side. By contrast, locals not working for the government felt emboldened by the film's honest depiction of the realities they dealt with on a daily basis.
‘The film showed the truth: we are nothing, and it's like that everywhere.’
‘The first time I saw it I was shocked by all the profanity and the drinking,’ said Sophia Moroz, a cook at the fishing factory's dormitory, which houses workers coming to Teriberka from all over the country. ‘But then we thought about it. The film showed the truth: we are nothing, and it's like that everywhere.’
As for the government's response, Moroz said it was because ‘it's painful for them to watch.’
Moroz' words about being ‘nothing’ strike at the heart of both what Leviathan was trying to say and the nature of the social complexes that it has triggered in Russia. Because, while locals in Teriberka generally shared her view, they were also loath to talk to an American about it.
‘Send us an American, and we'll tell him where to go!’ a saleswoman at a liquor store said, refusing to be interviewed.
Indeed, many residents of Teriberka had already been interviewed by the Russian media and now regretted it.
‘I've given so many interviews about life here,’ said one local entrepreneur, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ‘But not one interview was published. They didn't want to say anything positive. And I don't want to say anything negative.’
The entrepreneur agreed that Leviathan angered the authorities by showing an accurate, if stark picture. Like everyone interviewed, however, he also insisted that this was life not just across Russia but across the whole world. Any man struggling against a tide of apathy and resignation in the face of unforgiving circumstances has two choices: either to focus on the positive, or struggle to accept that ‘we are nothing’; and this applies in equal measure whether you live in Russia, America, or Mongolia.
This may be a deliberate, even conscious, illusion. Locals are pretty honest when it comes to admitting how the authorities have failed to manage and legislate to make life easier in an already forbidding environment.
‘When it comes to regulating business, they're all over the place,’ said Tatyana Starinko, who worked several decades at Teriberka's fish factory and now manages its dormitory. ‘But when it comes to making workable laws so we can catch more fish – like in Norway – they keep putting it off.’
But the rub here – and this explains why so many locals in Teriberka demurred from talking about the negative – is that life is hard enough without being judged by foreigners for one's coping mechanisms.
Life is hard enough without being judged by foreigners for one's coping mechanisms.
This sentiment seemed to run both through locals' reluctance to talk, and through officials' aggressive condemnation of Leviathan. If focusing on the positive is one coping mechanism, then simply negating the negative is another – and that's the one that Russia's authorities have adopted.
Foreigners watching Leviathan might miss a central question that many Russians ask themselves all too often: ‘Why do I live in Russia?’ It's a triggering question. Of course, most people do not choose where they live, while for those who live in Russia by choice – like myself – there is no easy answer.
For the government, one way of dealing with this complexity is to forbid the question, and condemn the person asking it.
But on a local level, the same question applies to the harsh climate of a village like Teriberka. Why do I still live here? Why have I not given up and left?
‘They say that the North draws you in,’ said Tatyana. ‘I've tried to leave this place twice – and I couldn't.’
Standfirst image: A landscape shot of Teriberka, Murmansk. Via Anna Arutunyan. (c)