Leviathan (2014)

leviathan the Itself

Text by Jukka Tyrkkö, Pia Koivunen & Heikki A. Kovalainen

Leviathan is one of the internationally most recognized Russian films of the last decade. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (1964-), the film was released in 2014 to rave reviews and much controversy. A bleak, uflinchingly naturalistic depiction of a layman’s life in contemporary Russia, Leviathan was enthusiastically received in the West – and it’s been this very enthusiasm that’s made the Russian authorities somewhat nervous.

Putting it briefly, Leviathan is a story about a man who loses everything. The tragedy takes place in a fictitious small town by the sea near Murmansk, in North-West Russia. The local administration, especially the mayor of the town, Vadim, wants to expropriate a property on the Barents sea coast in order to redevelop the region. The owner of the property, a middle-aged mechanic Nikolai (Kolya) doesn’t want give up without a fight and takes the case to court. What follows is a Kafkaesque battle between a little man and corrupted local administration.

Reactions to the film have been very mixed in Russia. The current Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinski, has accused the director for trying to court Western audiences. The film was warmly received in the West, indeed, and it’s been precisely this enthusiasm that’s made the Russian audiences somewhat nervous, as they’ve found the film to be depicting contemporary Russia in a disturbingly grim light.

At the same time, Leviathan has been praised for taking a fearlessly realistic and honest look at modern life in Russia, for depicting the plight of the underdog fighting the system, and above all, let us not forget, for its hauntingly masterful cinematography.

leviathan drinking

We had the pleasure of watching Leviathan in one of the IASR film sessions, preparing ourselves for the upcoming Winter Seminar to be held in St. Petersburg. Discussion on the film touched on various themes, for instance, the relationship between the state and the church.

The question was raised as to whether Zvyagintsev’s film presents criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, or of the illicit bond between religion and state, more generally. As a Russian film critic Yury Gladilshchkov puts it, “the film is about the faith of current Russia, about the horrible Leviathan, a corrupted state without honour and conscience, where the church safeguards the state, while the Christ is, in fact, privatised by criminals (bandits).”

Certainly, in a Russian context, one cannot help seeing the critique’s teeth gnawing primarily at domestic issues, yet a more general argument may be drawn out from the film as well. In the film, the mayor Vadim makes appeals to God – via his confessor – to justify his ruthless behavior towards Kolya. Implicitly, the film may be taken to suggest, then, that any attempt to use God to justify the state’s actions against the interests of the individual is unjust. We’re assuming that a Western spectator, at least, will side with Kolya in the way she views the film, finding the mayor’s actions without any moral footing.

Finally, a hypothesis was outlined during the discussion that there are perhaps two genres of film qua social critique. There are films, on the one end of the scale, that invest abundant energy in depicting characters’ emotions – to the extent of using melodramatic conventions – and among these, Ken Loach’s films are perhaps the prime example.

On the other end of the spectrum, social criticism can be practised via the medium of film in the Bressonian tradition. Within this genre, the director is concerned with showing incidents happening to the characters but without showing their emotions; rather, emotions are left for the audience to experience. On our view, Leviathan falls within the latter tradition – and it is precisely in the film’s dispassionate portrayal of the underdog’s fate where the power of the film lies.

leviathan scenery

Winter Seminar 2016: Russia

This year, our annual Winter Seminar headed off to St. Petersburg—a metropol exceptionally close to Finland both culturally and geographically.

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Choosing St. Petersburg as a Winter Seminar destination had been the long-cherished dream of the Institute’s Director, Risto Heiskala (shown in the middle wearing a black coat in the picture above) since at least 2014!

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The city centre is built around the gigantic river of Neva, which divides further into numerous canals and tributaries interlacing the city.

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If not so much around Jena, then at least on the bus ride to the hotel we had a chance of gaining a glimpse of everyday life in the city…


… as well as the breathtaking beauties of Imperial Russia, including the numerous Orthodox churches in the city (here showing the Peter and Paul Cathedral located in the Peter and Paul fortress, on a small island bordering the city centre) …


In Finnish, there’s a saying that if something takes exceptionally long, it takes as long as to build St. Isaac’s Cathedral—so of course, we had to see this crown jewel of Russian Orthodox churches as well.

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The weather wasn’t the best imaginable, but we didn’t let that distract us from enjoying the city—and certainly for most of us it’s something we’re quite used to!

[Photos by Marjukka Virkajärvi and Jessica de Bloom]

St. Petersburg: Seminars 1/2

The first joint seminar between the IASR Fellows and the local Russian academics circled around the broad theme of Russia in Context.

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Dr. Aleksandr Sherstobitov from St. Petersburg State University presented a network perspective on the public sphere—allegedly in existence, but in actuality struggling to function properly—in contemporary Russia.

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The second local speaker Dr. Irina Lantsova offered insider perspectives to Russian foreign policy, with the special emphasis on the “Orient”, in particular, South Korea.

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Finally, professor Dmitry Lanko‘s talk on Biopolitics and gay rights in Russia bristled with imagination and various humorous quips to the questions posed by the IASR audience after the talk.

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Among the IASR Fellows, papers were given by Risto Heiskala, Ilkka Pietilä and Pia Koivunen. Dr. Pietilä’s insights into the contemporary Russian health care system, in particular, generated fruitful discussion with the local colleagues.

[Photos by Marjukka Virkajärvi]

St. Petersburg: Seminars 2/2

The final day of our Winter Seminar in St. Petersburg found its early climax in an excellent session on democracy and the public sphere in Russia, organized by the two IASR fellows, Jarkko Bamberg and Esa Reunanen (shown in the foreground in the picture below).

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The seminar began with Esa’s excellent meditation on the parallel erosions of journalism and the public, where he diagnosed the sister threats of society’s polarization and marketization as serious challenges to the credibility of journalism.

photo by Jarkko Bamberg]

After this, we had the privilege of hearing a most moving foray into the brief history of contemporary Russian journalism, by Anna Sharogradskaya (Director of the Regional Press Institute in St. Petersburg) who’s been a highly active scholar promoting journalism in difficult times in Russia.

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Dr. Oleg Pachenkov addressed the challenges of public spaces in present Russia vis-à-vis the case of St. Petersburg urban planning.

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Finally, Jarkko offered comparative stances to urban planning in Finland, with examples drawn from Tampere, and the talk was followed by a joint discussion on the overall themes of this concluding session of the IASR Winter Seminar in 2016.

[Photos by Marjukka Virkajärvi, unless otherwise mentioned]

Russian culture

And finally, in what’s often been called
the cultural capital of Russia, there’s a
chance to see pretty much everything,
so we were happy to encounter…

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… high culture in the Hermitage Museum…

… the disproportionate statue of Peter the Great …

… the Swan Lake in the Marinsky Theater …

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… an unexpected balalaika show in a local restaurant …

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… and not-so-high culture in the shape of a hockey match …


Our academic programme began with a session on Russian culture, and Dr. Christian Laes gave an inspiring lecture on the etymological origins of Russia and Russians.


After the first session, appropriately, we went to a restaurant called the Literary Cafe …

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… where the appearances of certain geniuses were not entirely unlikely.


Why is everyone so happy? It’s because they got to color pictures ranging from monastic settings to the logos of Russian sports clubs to get our seminar started!

Thanks to Jessica, Pia and Maiju—the impeccable coordinator of the trip—for the pics!