“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
Beasts dwell in the depths. They are ancient creatures, seldom seen, except as sad collections of bones and macerated flesh washed up on shore, picked at by flocks of seabirds. Somewhere in cold northern waters, these beasts swim in obscure darkness, much more majestic and true than we can imagine. The land above is the same land, the same rock formations, the same hard crust, unchanged though assaulted by the elements.
Russia, we are told, is full of broken women and shrivelled men, faces etched like a Brugel painting. It rains. Everywhere it rains, and the ghosts of communism still stalk the empty places. The people shoot assault rifles at glitzy portraits of former leaders that once hung in Commissar buildings. They drink vodka, and dance and suffer what they must, until they can suffer no more.
In Leviathan, a family is tormented by the corruption of the local government and, more distantly, by an indifferent Creator. Kolya is a man, beset on all sides by suffering, a modern-day Job figure (and, like Jonah, he is eventually swallowed whole by the eternal beast). He is also Russia, that endless land, one that still remains ever mysterious and cruel. And the rulers are as drunk and disorderly as the ruled. Vadim, the local magistrate, believes in God and the Orthodox Church. He believes in the state, yet his history is one of terrible crimes. He is blackmailed by Kolya’s friend and lawyer, and responds with savagery and violence.
This political escalation leads to tragedy, almost inevitably. This history is writ large across a land poisoned by masculinity and old wounds. A land where bodies lie piled amidst the tundra, and the Gulags lie abandoned. This is a story of man crushed by the weight of the things that he himself has created: the state, God, property laws. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, people must necessarily surrender nascent freedoms to those who would seek to do them harm, and a God who seemingly revels in the misery of it all. Or so we are constantly told. Violation of the social contract offers those who maintain the contract the ability to circumvent the rules to get what they want. This is what they wanted in the first place. This is the purpose of the contract. It was written by the eventual ascendants, the ones who would come to rule. The game was skewed from the start.