The Fragility of it All

In the film Leviathan, a family and town are thrown into disarray as the society around them slowly decays. The movie is named after Thomas Hobbes work of political theory where he argues that the only way in which a society functions is through its citizens agreeing to respect a social contract in which they act rationally, basically arguing that society as an entity can quickly erode if those within it choose not to respect its legitimacy. In the film, modern Russia is presented as a society that is slowly eroding due to the nihilistic corruption omnipresent in every sector of life. A corruption that stems from a country that doesn’t seem to care whether it lives until the next day, probably because it has been falling apart for approximately the past half-century. It is a country that is constantly drinking itself sick, a country where Ak-47’s are used for fun at barbecues while depressed women try to protect their kids, and a country that tells those kids their future won’t be any different.

The twenty-first century Russia presented in the movie is a Russia that doesn’t believe in itself anymore. Not one of the characters genuinely thinks the world can get better. Dima, the Muscovite lawyer, and the only character that seems to attempt to follow the law is quickly shown the futility of respecting norms when he is kidnapped by the mayor, and afterward flees to Moscow defeated. He also finds it perilously easy to sleep with his best friend’s wife, showing how quickly a personal ethical code can crumble. This lack of faith in a better Russian future shows just how far the ethos of the country has fallen since the fall of the Soviet Union. A society that, for its many flaws, inspired a strong faith in its citizenry that it was working for a brighter future, a factor that modern Russia is sorely missing.

The unsatisfying end of the movie is what truly shows how fragile it all is. It is extraordinarily easy to frame someone for a murder, especially if the person doing the framing is someone with power (even the measly power of a small town mayor). When normal citizens stop choosing to be beholden to laws and to truth, anarchy, and injustice quickly come out. The only way for a society to function is for the citizen to be inspired by the society’s ideals, and that is something sorely missing from the Russia portrayed in Leviathan. 

Religion in the transition *into* vs. *out of* the Soviet Union

Leviathan depicts a very different notion of religion and the church than we’ve previously seen so explicitly in other works. We read a handful of works from the time of transition into the Soviet Union, in which, on the surface, we saw how the state conveyed the message that people must turn away from tradition and religion in order to pursue a new society based on communal hard work and reason. Of course, in reality, those works (such as Engelgardt’s Letters from the Country, and Platonov’s “The Motherland of Electricity”) showed us how complicated this transition away from religion was for people.

Whereas in the short film, “Bezhin Meadows,” we saw how the film itself supports religion by showing peasants denouncing it, in Leviathan, we see how the filmmakers denounce religion by showing the state supporting it. In “Bezhin Meadows,” the surface-level destruction of religion actually has an underlying suggestion that religion is a necessary part of those peasants’ lives. Leviathan achieves the opposite effect. In Leviathan, we see that the post-soviet transition back toward a nonsecular government changes how we should perceive religion. Toward the beginning, we see three icons on the dashboard, not far from three stickers of sexualized naked women. For me, this was the first visual hint that we, as viewers, are supposed to be suspicious of the ways in which people (particularly the state) turn to religion. Later, when asked by both Vadim and Lilia whether he believes in religion, Dmitri, as (arguably) the most sympathetic character, responds, “I am a lawyer. I care about facts.” These moments set up the idea that religion and facts are mutually exclusive, similarly to the surface-level contrast between religion and reason which we saw in Platonov and Engelgardt’s works.

As the film progresses, these hints of doubting religion turn into a clear denunciation of religion. The Bishop himself tells Vadim, “I am in the same business as you,” (paraphrased), which indicates how interwoven the state and the church are, not only with one another, but with notions of corruption. When we ultimately discover that the destruction of every aspect of Nikolai’s life and home are for the purpose of building this new church, we learn just how different the role of religion is now, compared with during the transition into the Soviet Union. According to this film, if anything, religion encourages corruption by the state, because it serves to atone the government officials from any possible feelings of guilt. The priest’s monologue is brutally ironic, because it centers around the necessity of truth for ultimate freedom. The filmmakers thereby masterfully suggest that this new post-soviet state is devoid of truth.

With space, I would talk more about how images of nature complement these ideas. I’d also like to think more about the Leviathan itself.


Corruption and Decay in Leviathan

Our theme for tomorrow’s class, “Post-Soviet decay and corruption”, is portrayed in various ways in the film Leviathan. On the surface, the Russian political system depicted in this movie is corrupt, to say the least, but when you look a bit deeper, this film works to depict several other aspects of their reality as corrupt and decaying. Visually speaking, the colors and tones used in the camerawork are dreary and bleak – this is seen everywhere from the washed out skin tone of the characters to the lack of natural color in water bodies and mountain ranges. Where I would expect color, there are only washed out tones of greys and greens, and I think this acts as a commentary on the wider societal reality of the time. The bleakness of the camerawork reflects the very bleakness of the characters and the society in which they are currently living. Most evident is the corruption and decay of the characters and how societal influences have created this in them. There are numerous examples of corruption in one’s character: Lilya cheating on Kolya with Dmitri, Dmitri willingly betraying his dear friend Kolya, the many acts of cruelty of Vadim, and generally, the characters in this film seem overly aggressive in their interactions with others, whether aggression is permitted or not. Kolya resorts to physical violence when he feels at all threatened or upset, as does his son, Roma, and Vadim and his colleagues. Social justice is not a feature in this film, as we see through the broken justice system, and the characters act according to this notion. The emotional states of these characters, similar to some of the Post-Soviet experience, are broken. Not to mention, the prevalence of alcoholism in both the male and female characters speaks to their depressed mental state. Throughout this film, I was reminded of this idea of collectivism and how this type of society was characteristic of the Soviet Union.  As it relates to these characters, I noticed a lack of this collectivist mentality – most of these characters operate independently and out of self-interest. Almost every aspect of this film – from the aesthetics and camerawork to the poor

Ambiguity and its Direct Characterization in “Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream”

“Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream” is a dream narrative by Viktor Pelevin about lavatory attendants in the Moscow transit system. Much of this piece focuses on the perspective of storytellers, including but not limited to the observations of attendant Vera and her colleague Manyasha. The voice of the narrator in this text is also Vera but expressed as she looks back on her dream. Understanding perspective is important in determining the intentions of certain characters within this piece. For example, Pelevin characterizes Manyasha as “Vera’s oldest friend” and “mentor” (Pelevin 37). Manyasha is superior to Vera that gives her guidance. Small epithets like these are vital because they establish characters in relation to one another.

There is a group of characters that Pelevin does not characterize at the beginning of the piece. This stylistic choice implies ambiguity and leads us to believe that they are irrelevant, having no relation to Vera. However, they nonetheless strike Vera’s interest. Pelevin describes the leveler that they bring with them as “one of those special things on a tripod stand” (41). We get this roundabout description simply because “Vera didn’t know what it was called” (41). This is the first hint that Vera is also the narrator of this story; the narrator does not know the name for the level because Vera does not know the name for it, and it is perhaps because the narrator is Vera. Pelevin initially foreshadows this connection amidst this scene of ambiguous men.

I question the relationship between ambiguity and greater truth in this piece. I think it interesting that such an under-characterized scene causes Vera to express not only her position in this narrative but also display Vera’s perceptiveness to the “smiles on” the men’s “faces” (41). Before this, Vera’s interactions with Manyasha and the proletarians did not do much in terms of characterization (38, 39). She had simply listened to her superior and reacted to the bathroom fight amongst the men. Those specific references had not left much space for Vera’s characterization, while Vera’s observations of the ambiguous men reveal both Vera’s ultimate identify, and express Vera’s perceptive side, rather than simply labeling her as a listener/reactor.

Transcendent Themes

After watching Leviathan, I could not help but think about the film we watched earlier in the course, Urga: Close to Eden. Though the films are about entirely different periods in Russian history, they focus on similar aspects of Russian culture that we have seen throughout the entire semester: the awe inspiring beauty of Russian nature, the complex relationship between man and nature, and the superfluous man.

First and foremost, both movies display the landscape in similar ways. For example, both movies begin and end with long sweeping scenes of the landscapes without any of the characters. Urga: Close to Eden focuses most on the steppe in reference to how the mongols coexisted with nature and roamed throughout the vast Russian Steppe. Though Leviathan takes place in a very industrialized modern Russia, there is still serious screen time for the Russian coast. The vastness of the steppe and the coast invoke similar emotions of awe and uncertainty in the viewer.

The endings of Leviathan and Urga: Close to Eden also both comment on the complex relationship between man and nature. In Leviathan, nature provides the location for Lilya’s death, which though left unspecified, is likely a suicide. Though there is evidence found that incriminates Kolya, Lilya’s husband, it is possible for that evidence to have been fabricated to make Kolya answer for previous misdemeanors against the corrupt Mayor Vadim. Regardless of the official cause of Lilya’s death, the ominous sea shown throughout the film is directly involved in Lilya’s death. The ending of Urga: Close to Eden shows the steppe where Gombo and his family used to live with a smokestack that has been built there. Though Gombo’s family practiced a fairly traditional Mongol lifestyle, the ending reveals that their fourth son works at the factory that was built in place of the Urga. The endings of both films invoke the complexities involved in the relationship between the Russian land and the Russian people.

A theme that both of these movies share that is unrelated to nature is the trope of the superfluous man. Kolya is stubborn and hotheaded, rarely thinking about what might be best for his family. He is a mechanic who constantly has trouble obeying authority, corrupt as it may be. Lilya is constantly upset with Kolya’s refusal to move on from his trivial arguments with Mayor Vadim that are impossible to win. Gombo refuses to modernize with his wife. He is so afraid of buying contraceptives in front of the women at the pharmacy that he does not buy them at all, even though it would be to the best interest of both him and his wife.

A Matter of Trust

One topic that comes up in both Voices from Chernobyl and The Babushkas of Chernobyl is the rift between farmers living near Chernobyl and the scientists/officials responsible for the nuclear reactor. The difference between these groups lies primarily in their respective relationships to nature. A monologue by an environmental inspector reveals that “[f]armers didn’t invent Chernobyl, they had their own relations with nature, trusting relations, not predatory ones, just like they had one hundred years ago, and one thousand years ago”  (Alexievich 173). This stands in sharp contrast to the “educated [people],” whom, after causing the Chernobyl disaster through their predatory approach to nature, ensured the farmers that “[t]here’s nothing to fear” (173). Despite the gradual shift since the emergence of the Soviet Union towards a hostile relationship with nature, the farmer’s fundamental relationship to nature has not changed. While historian Aleksandr Revalskiy claims that “Chernobyl is the catastrophe of the Russian mind-set,” he likely refers to the mindset of the Soviet elite rather than the farmers. He further claims the Russians “were raised with a particular Soviet form of paganism, which was that man was the crown of all creation, that it was his right to do anything with the world that he wanted” (175). In light of the comments of the environmental inspector, this predatory upbringing was likely more prevalent in urban areas, as it appears that rural farmers still held onto their traditional relationship with the world that they always have had.

The Babushkas in The Babushkas of Chernobyl carry on a trusting relationship with nature through their reliance on the land. Even though the scientists inform them of the detrimental effects of radiation, they continue to grow their own food and drink contaminated water out of both a love for their Motherland and the trust that nature will not harm them if treated with respect. The tragic aspect of this disaster is that those who had a trusting relationship with nature made up a large portion of those who were harmed by the actions of a few who did not. However, this relationship with nature may be one of the factors the doctor in the film refers to when he claims that “socio-psychological factors also greatly influence health” (The Babushkas of Chernobyl). Given the Babushkas’ old age, their traditional respect for the environment has possibly caused nature to return the favor by mitigating radiation’s impact on them.

Curating or Interpreting?

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is simultaneously dealing with depicting the story of the victims of Chernobyl while questioning conventional methods of documentation and storytelling. Alexievich herself ends the novel in her epilogue lamenting, “(Chernobyl) is more powerful than anything literature has to say” (240).  The ending of Alexievich compilation seems to suggest that anyone learning about this catastrophe that did not experience it is unable to understand its severity. One of her narratives near the end emphasizes, “Because no one knows what Chernobyl is. People have guesses and feelings” (236). I believe that Alexievich’s style of storytelling, in the compilation of individual narratives, is not an attempt to show or inform the reader about the event generally. Yes, the narratives circle around the event of Chernobyl, however, Alexievich understands that the tragedy cannot be encapsulating in writing, but rather in experience. Consequently, instead of attempting to write literature about Chernobyl which attempts to display its tragedy, Alexievich resists and instead documents individuals. Acting more as a curator than as the traditional author, Alexievich is able to communicate the unheard stories of the “solitary voices” without generalizing the event in whole.


Alexievich asks for a comparison of her historical approach to Toylstoy’s in his novel War and Peace. In her second narrative she documents, “Do you remember how it was in Tolstoy?” (25).  Tolstoy tells the Franco-Russian war through multiple perspectives, similar to Alexievich. Tolstoy’s perspectives are narrative and all from a generally similar background: Russian and of nobility. Although Tolstoy emphasizes the importance of history encompassing multiple narrative of an event, he still writes a literary narrative and not a documentation.


Alexievich pushes Tolstoy’s established tradition. She rejects any complete narrative and instead replaces any of her authorial voice with the voice of the victims. Instead of translating and interpreting history as Tolstoy does, Alexievich curates.

In Living Memory

One theme that struck me throughout the film, The Babushkas of Chernobyl, and the book, Voices from Chernobyl, is the relationship between history, being forgotten, and life persevering. The babushkas in particular exemplified this interconnection of ideas—they live in abandoned, radioactive places and yet these women (those who are left) are living to the age of 80 and above. With minimal help from the outside world, they grow their own crops, brew their own moonshine and generally take care of themselves. Their headscarves are bright colors, as though to remind themselves that they are still alive and vibrant people, full of joy and a will to live despite the contamination around them, which they are consuming every day. Yet the contrast with the “stalkers” who are inspired by a video game to sneak into the contaminated zone acts as a stark reminder that some truly believe the Zone to be an empty yet thrilling place and worth nothing more than a good dare. The woman in the video of remarks that these “stalkers” are constantly forgetting that this zone is dangerous, as though they have forgotten the true history of what occurred there and see it solely through the modern lens of video games.

In the other short video we watched in class on Monday, the man remarks that returning to these contaminated and abandoned towns and homes is like looking into the past. There are photos and clothes and just the remains of these people’s lives. Which made me wonder—is looking at the babushkas’ homes still looking into the past? Are they isolated from time? Or are they themselves a remnant of history, living in isolation? But these homes are also reminders of abandonment, as a photographer describes in Voices from Chernobyl: “You wanted to just remember it: the globe in the schoolyard crushed by a tractor; laundry that’s been hanging out on the balcony for a year and has turned black; abandoned military graves, the grass as tall as the soldier statue on it, and the automatic weapon of the statue, a bird’s nest…People have left, but their photographs are still in the houses, like their souls” (Alexievich, 192). What these people leave behind is not just history, but part of who they are. And these babushkas of Chernobyl could be considered part of that which was left behind, even as they struggled and sneaked through barbed wire to come back to their homes. But they should not be remembered just as a part of history, but as living and vibrant people, which I believe the movie does a wonderful job of capturing.

Innocence and Optimism among Young Narrators in “Voices from Chernobyl” and “A Child’s Drawings”

The motifs of youthful innocence and child-like optimism are pervasive in Psychologist Pyotr S.’s testimony from the Chernobyl disaster during the Cold War. In describing his childhood years before Chernobyl, he states that he would dress up and “play dad” in an attempt to “see how life would appear” for those around him amidst the hostilities of war (Alexievich 26). With that said, Pytor states that he had still always felt protected, constantly believing that “the most horrible things had already happened” (26). This scene portrays one child’s optimism amidst an entire nation’s suffering. The juxtaposition of these images emphasizes innocence that had served to both symbolically and literally protect these children from the darkness of their war-environment.

This notion of being protected by one’s youth is not only a key element of Pytor’s testimony, but it is also clearly illustrated in the child’s drawings within Varlaam Shalamov’s piece “A Child’s Drawings.” In this short story, the boy artist had also lived in the Russian North during wartime, just like Pytor. However, this young artist functions merely as an apostrophe, represented only by the illustrated notebook he leaves behind. In this notebook, he draws bright green grounds and clear blue skies (Shalamov 137). Furthermore, he depicts numerous “yellow fences,” “black lines of barbed wire,” and soldiers traversing the Russian landscape (137). Just like Pytor’s childhood testimony, these illustrations are optimistic, expressing both bright, solid colors, and the images of defense and protection. Note, these drawings suggest that the boy’s memories focus more so on the notion of defense, rather than the specific destruction of war.

The final connective feature I would like to elaborate on is the sense of fear and greater understanding possessed by older characters within both of these pieces, despite the youthful optimism of younger ones. For instance, in Pytor’s testimony, he speaks about how his “past no longer protects ” him, as he is no longer protected by neither his childhood nor the optimism that had come along with it (Alexievich 26). The quotation that “there aren’t any answers” left in the past suggests that Pytor comes to realize that the world is more complex, now that he is an adult (26). Meanwhile, the convict in “A Child’s Drawing” functions as the older character, and has a similar realization about the complexity of life. He states that he is frightened by the brightness and lack of halftones in the artwork, and implies that there is a void of grey area and complexity in these illustrations. Overall, the wisdom of the narrator/artist in each of these pieces plays an important role in his perception of war scenes around him.

Life, Love, and Death as One

In Voices from Chernobyl, several victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster share how their notions of life, death, and love are all inescapably intertwined. In the preface, these storytellers are referred to as survivors. The inexplicably awful contradiction that these victims are survivors mirrors the fact that death hangs over every aspect of these people’s lives. 

Each storyteller either directly ponders, or at least tells stories of how life and death are one in their lives. One person describes the door that is used in family rituals for death, but also has etch-marks of him and his children growing up. His “whole life is written down on this door” (35). This man is the only person who suggests how life and death, in this case, were beautifully and meaningfully connected, even before the Chernobyl incident. However, after Chernobyl, life and death forcefully become one and the same.

One pregnant woman recalls from her memory as follows: “The baby starts crying, it’s just come out… So they grab the little baby, it’s been on this earth for maybe five, ten minutes, and they throw it out the window…. How are you supposed to live after that? How are you supposed to give birth?” (57). Another woman who stayed in her village and watched all of her neighbors around her die, says, “you can talk to the dead just like you can talk to the living. Makes no difference to me. I can hear the one and the other. When you’re alone… And when you’re sad” (33). And yet another reflects,  “Back then I thought of death just as I did of birth.” (26).

The prevalence of these piercing images and reflections of life and death shows us how much this incident psychologically killed these “survivors.” They however yearn to return to a reality in which life and love are oppositional to death. The first woman captured this in asking,  “Why are these things together – love and death…. No one wants to hear about death. / But I was telling you about love. About my love…” (23).

The concepts of how nature and individuals and society are in a war with one another– as discussed by our classmates’ blog posts — resonates with me. However, I found it difficult to focus on the portrayal of nature in this work. There are certainly passages that are rich with commentary on how the animals responded to the incident. However, I found, in reading these narratives, that the human emotional destruction is so strikingly horrific that I didn’t even have any emotional capacity to think about nature. In my next read, I will try to hone in more on this, but ultimately, how could these people even think about nature, when their friends and family are being destroyed?