Themes in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan:
How Influence from the Bible and Thomas Hobbes Hints at Dostoevsky
By Robert Russell
Winner of the 2021 Rhoda Sandler Memorial Prize
The 2014 film Leviathan by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev is the story about one man’s descent into destitution as he struggles to fight against the state seizing his home. Kolya Sergeyev, the protagonist of the story, begins losing everything, and with each slight glimpse of hope, he is met with overwhelming loss and despair. The title of the film references the Book of Job, as well as the 1651 book of the same name by political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Also, there are various themes underlying the film that make connections to the ideas and themes expounded in those two famous works. However, the film manipulates the ideas found in the Book of Job and Hobbes’s Leviathan by tweaking symbolic representations and combining key aspects of each. The themes are manipulated by the injection of corruption, avarice, and vice into the characters which emphasizes their humanness and contrasts the futile fortuity of circumstance. The result is a modernized portrait of the clash between philosophy, religion, and morality that more closely resembles questions and thematic elements explored in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the ascription of ideas to the leading characters, Andrey Zvyagintsev recalls some of most significant works of literature in history, evoking the timeless and enduring themes and painting them in a modern context.
The Book of Job, the first poetic book of the Old Testament of the Bible, is hinted at the most as there are a plethora of allusions in the film to the story. The title Leviathan itself is an allusion to the Book of Job wherein God, in order to explain to Job the scope of his infinite wisdom, shows him his sea monster creation and asks him, “Can you pull in the Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?” (New International Bible, Job 41:1). God explains that because Job is merely one single man, he simply cannot understand the scope of His power and wisdom. David J. Rosner, in his assessment of the Book of Job, elaborates,
“We just cannot know what the moral order is. God’s plans for our world are unknowable through human beings’ finite intelligence. We do not and cannot know the reasons for why things in the world happen the way they do, and we probably would not be able to understand these reasons even if we could know what they are.” (Rosner 291)
Furthermore, there are various scenes in the film that include the skeleton of a whale. The first occurs in the beginning of the film, a mere few seconds in: the second during a scene where the son of the protagonist Roma, who after seeing his parents have sex, takes off running from the house and settles on a beach next to a whale skeleton; and the last is in the final scenes of the film as a part of a montage of landscapes that include the bones of the whale. Each is doubtless a reference to the Leviathan as well as a symbol of the impermanence of God’s enduring wisdom, the scope of his power. However, the greatest allusion to the Book of Job lies in the protagonist himself.
Kolya represents Job. Like Job, Kolya is the on the receiving end of an authority’s unyielding hand, in Kolya’s case, the authority of the state. The film begins with the major conflict of the story: the state seizing Kolya’s home for the expropriation of the land on which it is built. The presiding judge during the hearing for Kolya’s appeal outlines the seizure saying,
"Decree No. 1295 of the Pribrezhny Town Administration ordered for the seizure from Mr. Sergeyev of a land parcel of 0.66 acres…along with the residential building, automotive works shed, repair garage and greenhouse.” (Leviathan 18:35).
The judge also goes on to say that “Mr. Sergeyev petitioned…to repeal this Decree. The Court ruled to deny the petition,” thus setting off the chain of events that would eventually end in Kolya’s ultimate demise (18:35). This major premise of the film reflects first the same major conflict in the Book of Job: Job losing all of his possessions. In Chapter 1 of the Book of Job, Job learns from a series of messengers that he has lost: first, his livestock to the Sabeans who also kill the servants; second, his sheep and servants from a fire that “fell from the heavens”; third, his camels that have been stolen by Chaldean raids who have also killed the rest of his servants; and lastly, his sons and daughters have been killed by “a mighty wind [that] swept in from the desert” collapsing the house in which there were in (Job 1:14-19). To this, Job exclaims: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21-22). As Kolya has lost all he owns, so has Job, and that God has taken away Job’s possessions as a way to test his faith is also a theme that is explored in the film wherein the connection between Kolya and Job is directly outlined.
The connection between Kolya and Job is explicitly illuminated in a scene when Kolya, as he is buying bottles of vodka in local shop, encounters a local priest, Father Vasily, and as they are leaving, asks him, “Well, where is your merciful God Almighty?” (Leviathan 1:51:30). In the exchange, Kolya, distraught after the recent passing of his wife and the state threatening to repossess his home, vents his frustration to the priest who recites verse 1 of Chapter 41 of the Book of Job: “Can you pull in the Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?” He summarizes to Kolya the Book of Job, explaining that “Job resigned himself to his fate and lived to be 140, got to see 4 generations of his family and died old and content” (Leviathan 1:53:50). This direct and vivid account of the Book of Job coming so late in the film serves not only as an explicit revelation of the allegory of the film but also as an internal revelation for Kolya.
It is in this revelation that the connections between the film and the Book of Job and the ways in which the connections are manipulated become clear. Father Vasily asks Kolya, “Who do you pray to?” and goes on to say, “Haven’t seen you in church. You don’t fast, take communion or go to confession” (Leviathan 1:52:00). In this exchange, Kolya’s lack of religiosity and faith is emphasized which, according to Father Vasily, may plausibly have accordance with Kolya’s unfortunate demise. Kolya’s religious apostasy is further depicted when, after Vasily recounts the Book of Job, he responds with, “Is that a fairy tale?” (Leviathan 1:54:00). It is Kolya’s blatant apathy towards religion and ignorance of the Bible that contradicts Job’s piety and faith in God in the Book of Job. However, this alteration of the story serves to contrast Mayor Vadim and his apparent representation of God.
Mayor Vadim, the powerful and antagonistic force who dispossesses Kolya’s of all his earthly belongings, is a very pious man. He has a close spiritual advisor whom he consults regularly. In one such meeting, his spiritual advisor tells him, “All power comes from God. As long as God wishes for it, you need not worry,” to which Mayor Vadim aggressively replies, “And does he? Who can I ask if not you? You’re the priest!” The priest calmly says, “He does, he does” (Leviathan 24:00). The priest reaffirms the belief that all will be fine so long as he trusts in God; because the Mayor has faith, all will be fine. Faith is brought up later in the film during another consultation wherein again Mayor Vadim is nervous, anxious about the perturbation of his plans, and the priest asks him, “What troubles you? Is your faith wavering? Do you take communion? Do you go to confession?” To this, Mayor Vadim responds, “Every Sunday, without fail. I try…I get so busy, but I try” and the priest again reassures him saying: “I’ll tell you again: All power is from God. Where there’s power, there’s might. If you hold power in your territory, solve your issues yourself with your might.” (Leviathan 1:13:30). Mayor Vadim and his undeniable piety along with his incredible power contrasts Kolya’s powerlessness and impiety. These aspects of the characters both paradoxically relate and stray from the influence of the Book of Job. Job himself is a pious man whose possessions are stripped away by God; however, Kolya is not a pious man whose possessions are stripped away by the Mayor. Also, the mayor representing God in his unwavering religiousness relates to the Book of Job. However, the mayor as a symbol of God also strays from the Book of Job when considering the corruption and crookedness that Mayor Vadim exemplifies, a notion more closely related to the film’s second allusion of Leviathan, the book by the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Expounded in Thomas Hobbes’s famous book Leviathan, published in 1651, are ideas regarding the sovereignty of the state in relation to the commonwealth and the structure of a civil society. According to social contract theory, the establishment of contracts between the commonwealth and the state are necessary for the maintenance of civility and peace. Hobbes writes,
“The only way to erect such a Common Power…is to confer all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will” (143).
Thus defines the sovereign, a governing body, to which the commonwealth, what Hobbes defines as “the multitude so united in one Person,” forfeits certain rights in exchange for protection and rule (Hobbes 143). Hobbes writes, “And he that carries this Person is called Sovereign, and is said to have Sovereign Power; and every one besides, his Subject” (144). The distinction between the sovereign power, the commonwealth, and the basic relationship between the two is the beginning foundation of the social contract theory. The relationship between the two is the so-called “contract.” And it is this contract that is exploited and manipulated in the film Leviathan.
In the film, the social contract theory is examined under a modern context in the connections between the sovereign power and the commonwealth as portrayed respectively by Mayor Vadim and Kolya. Mayor Vadim abuses his power, and exploits his inferiors for personal gain as evidenced by the scene in which, after the initial proceedings, he drunkenly visits Kolya’s residence to flaunt his power and antagonize him. He says, “Kolya, don’t you recognize authority when you see it? You’re all insects. You always have to make things difficult, don’t you?” (Leviathan 31:30). The Mayor’s display of blatant disdain is not simply an inflammatory gesture of his ill-will towards Kolya, but it is also a demonstration of his power over Kolya, a power to do whatever he wants against the wishes of Kolya and his family.
In Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan, Hobbes proposes two methods of the installation of the “contract,” the symbiotic relationship between the commonwealth and the sovereign. He writes,
“The attaining to this Sovereign Power is by two ways: one by natural force; as when a man makes his children to submit themselves and their children to his government as being able to destroy them if they refuse or by war subdue his enemies to his will, giving them their lives on that condition; the other is when men agree amongst themselves, to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others.” (Hobbes 144)
The former of the two methods is what Hobbes names, “Commonwealth by Acquisition,” and the latter “Commonwealth by Institution” (144). In Leviathan, it is the former of these two methods which Mayor Vadim exploits for his own personal gain as demonstrated by not simply his blatant disregard for the individual, but also his complete and utter refusal to negotiate a compromise. When Kolya’s lawyer Dmitri proposes conditions for a compromise, albeit in the form of blackmail, Mayor Vadim does not concede. When asked what he wants, Dmitri says, “I want Kolya to keep what’s his,” to which Mayor Vadim quickly retorts, “That’s not possible” (Leviathan 48:30). Mayor Vadim not relenting is yet another indication of his stalwartness in his adjudication, his unwavering authority over the matter. Later, Mayor Vadim and his henchmen kidnap Dmitri, drive him far out to the deserted barracks, forcibly restrain him using violence and perform a mock execution on him. Mayor Vadim, as he loads the gun, mockingly says to Dmitri, “So, how does it feel?” (Leviathan 1:25:15). It is the most extreme declaration of his authority, his power and subjugation over Dmitri, who flees after this scene, thus abandoning Kolya whom he was supposed to represent. It is the final nail in the coffin, the exemplification of force, which comes out the victor.
In relation to Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan, Mayor Vadim, as a representation of authority, the “sovereign power,” exemplifies the Hobbes’s proposed method of “commonwealth by acquisition,” what he defined as “one by natural force.” Naomi Sussman, in an analysis of political theory explored in Hobbes’s Leviathan, explains the equivalence of both proposed methods, writing,
“The manner by which sovereignty is acquired makes no difference to the nature of the relationship that evolves round it thereafter: the former is, if you will, a strictly formal question, while the latter is a question of essence, of substance.” (Sussmann 593)
The sovereign power being the utmost authority has the duty to protect and maintain civility and order amongst the commonwealth, the “plurality of voices,” no matter the means taken to ensure that civility and order. In the film, Mayor Vadim demonstrates the fallacy in this concept. He is a portrait of corruption, indomitable will, and megalomania. As the sovereign, he is the antithesis of the will of the people, the enemy against the commonwealth, as he is the enemy of Kolya. It is this symbol of corruption and acquisition that not only serves to highlight the abuse of power and exploitation of the inferior in regards to the social contract theory but also contradicts the symbol of God that the Mayor also represents. However, it is in these two contradictory symbols that themes expounded in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov begin to become clear in the film.
Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel The Brothers Karamazov, first serially published in 1879, contains a famous parable entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” in which ideas regarding religion and power are explored and analyzed, ideas that when considered under the context of the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’s social contract theory connect with major themes explored in the film Leviathan. In the story, which brother Ivan relays to brother Alyosha, Jesus Christ returns to the world at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, heals the blind and raises a little girl from the dead, and is thereupon arrested, and subsequently thrown in jail. The Grand Inquisitor, an enigmatic cardinal, visits Jesus in jail and asks why he must interfere with the duty of the church. He says,
“Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned…Thou had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but thou didst not listen to those warnings; thou didst reject the only way by which men might be happy. But, fortunately, departing thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou has promised, thou has established by thy word, thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast thou come to hinder us?” (Dostoevsky 227).
The Grand Inquisitor explains that Jesus himself, in His word, has granted the clergy the freedom to impart unto men an indomitable will, and in doing so, grants to men their freedom. Because “man was created a rebel,” man, when given the option to do right or wrong, will choose the latter. Therefore, man must be made to choose the former; man must be forced to do right. It is this reasoning by The Grand Inquisitor wherein Hobbes’s proposed method of “commonwealth by acquisition” is exemplified.
In the film, Mayor Vadim imposes his will onto Kolya by means of force, and in doing so represents the sovereign power imposing its will onto the commonwealth, this being a full representation of Hobbes’s “commonwealth by acquisition.” However, Mayor Vadim, in regards to the fable relayed by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel, is no longer a symbol of God, in reference to the Book of Job, but instead represents The Grand Inquisitor. It is The Grand Inquisitor whose power reigns in the face of the reason, who imprisons Jesus Christ, thus stripping away his rights, his freedom, in other words, dispossessing him. The notion of the head of the state and the head of the church, as portrayed in The Grand Inquisitor, having sole political and religious power, total sovereignty over the commonwealth is an idea explored in the final moments of the film.
The spiritual advisor of Mayor Vadim leads a long homily in a final scene in the film. Before a great congregation of which Mayor Vadim and his family stand in the front, the priest sermonizes:
“When people destroy crosses, break icons, defile the crucifix, and blaspheme by calling demonic rites a prayer, when people try to convince others that they do this out of good intentions, they are passing off lies as the truth. How can one preach freedom while destroying the foundations of morality? Freedom is finding God’s truth. The Bible teaches us this. Know God’s truth and it shall set you free.” (Leviathan 2:11:40)
Freedom is defined, as by The Grand Inquisitor, by that which must be implemented, forced into an individual or commonwealth by an overarching power, a sovereign power, such as the clergy or a cardinal, so as to enforce morality, to ensure that good will prevail. Therefore, in the film, the freedom about which the priest preaches is the philosophical doctrine that the Mayor abides by, the Hobbesian notion of “commonwealth by acquisition.” The priest expounding this revelation serves as justification for Mayor Vadim’s actions, his corruption, his abuse of power and exploitation of his inferiors, his subjects. By the church’s own admission, Vadim has instilled into Kolya God’s truth and is therefore vindicated.
Furthermore, by the end of the film Kolya has completely lost his freedom. After the death of his wife, he is arrested under the suspicion of her murder. The police chief tells him, “We have every reason to believe you killed your wife and faked her drowning,” and after detailing a long list of evidence, he finishes by saying, “We advise you write a full confession…Pursuant to Article 105 Part 1, you’ll get up to 15 years unless there are aggravating circumstances, in which case it’ll be up to 20 years” (Leviathan 2:00:00). Kolya is detained and taken to the penitentiary. The verdict of his trial is revealed when Mayor Vadim, while eating his dinner, receives a phone call and responds, “Hello…15 years? Well, thank God. That’ll teach him to know his place” (Leviathan 2:09:10). Kolya is ultimately defeated, having lost his freedom just as Jesus Christ has lost His voice in Ivan Karamazov’s legend of “The Grand Inquisitor.”
In the fable, Jesus is locked away in a prison cell, and when The Grand Inquisitor comes to speak with him, Jesus remains silent the entire time. The Grand Inquisitor explains to him that if he should speak, it would disrupt the faith that men have in him. He says,
“‘Hast thou the right to reveal to us one of the mysteries of that world from which thou hast come?’…‘No, thou hast not; that thou mayest not add to what has been said of old, and mayest not take from men the freedom which thou didst exalt when thou wast on earth. Whatsoever thou revealest anew will encroach on men’s freedom of faith.” (Dostoevsky 227)
The Grand Inquisitor bends logic to subdue Christ into silence so as to keep him appearing absent. The subjugation of Christ, the absence, necessitates the freedom for the individuals who have faith in Him. As Kirsten Koppel of the University of Glasgow writes:
“Through not speaking, Christ’s presence remains of an unworldly kind…This allusion to the apophatic is present explicitly in the reproachful language used by the Grand Inquisitor who speaks of the necessity of the absent God, and articulates his knowledge of ‘the point’ of this silence and absence as the necessary condition that gives humanity the possibility of freedom.” (37)
Christ’s silence is not only an admission of surrender to The Grand Inquisitor, but it is also a demonstration of the power of the Grand Inquisitor over Christ. The voice of Christ represents the freedom which must be mended and forced, as revealed by the The Grand Inquisitor’s explanation. The force which The Grand Inquisitor imparts onto Christ is the same as the force that Mayor Vadim forces upon Kolya. Like The Grand Inquisitor bending logic and turning the faith of His followers into a premise, Mayor Vadim is able to bend the laws, sculpting the narrative in order to exert his power over Kolya.
In conclusion, the connections between the film and the Book of Job are clear: the allusion of the title of the film being of the great creature that God shows to Job during their excursion of the universe; the scattered whale bones in various frames throughout the film; and the connections between Kolya and Job which convey the religious themes expounded in the Book of Job. The connections between the film and the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes are clear as well: the power dynamic between the sovereign and the commonwealth as illuminated in the book; how that dynamic is portrayed in the film between the relationship between Kolya and the Mayor; the subsequent exploitation of the individual and the abuse of power which foments Kolya’s ultimate demise and Mayor Vadim’s ultimate victory, the idea of which is explored in Hobbes’s definition of sovereignty and commonwealth; and also the title of the film being the same as of Hobbes’s book. However, in these connections, there are alterations, important changes made that contribute to a modern context: unlike Job, Kolya is impious and overall a very flawed individual; unlike God, Mayor Vadim is a corrupted, abusive oligarch who exploits his connections for the subjugation of his inferiors by exemplification of Hobbes’s “commonwealth by acquisition.” These changes, these minute manipulations and alterations to the two influences serve another purpose: to illuminate the connection to the story of “The Grand Inquisitor” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: Kolya represents Christ, as he has lost his freedom and is ultimately imprisoned, losing his voice like Christ; and Mayor Vadim represents The Grand Inquisitor who overtakes Kolya, asserting his “natural force” to execute his will which exemplifies the idea that freedom must be forced as expounded by The Grand Inquisitor. The Book of Job, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, all very famous works of literature in the history of world, doubtless influenced Andrey Zvyagintsev in the production of the film Leviathan, and it in his own manipulation of the ideas found such works that elevate Leviathan and cement it in the annals of significant films.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881, The Brothers Karamazov. Dover Publications Inc. 2005. Part Two, Chapter 5, p 223-240. Print.
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679. Leviathan. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1950. p. 139-144). Print.
Koppel, Kristen, The Grand Inquisitor and the Problem of Evil in Modern Literature and Theology. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?directtrue&db=edsoai&A =edsoai .on1137360845&site=eds-live&scope=site. Acessed 4 May 2020.
Leviathan. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, performances by Aleskei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, and Roman Madyanov, Non-Stop Production, 2014.
New International Bible. The New International Version (NIV), biblestudytools.com. Biblica. The New Bible Society 1973. Web. biblestudytools.com/job/1.html
Rosner, David J. “Self-Deception and Cosmic Disorder in the Book of Job.” Cosmos & History, vol. 11, no. 1, Jan. 2015, p. 285-297. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=edo&AN=109210616&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Sussmann, Naomi. “How Many Commonwealths Can Leviathan Swallow? Covenant, Sovereign and People in Hobbes’s Political Theory?” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 4, Sept. 2010, pp. 575-596. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09608788.2010.502336.