Leviathan Revisited: Reflections of Hobbes in Zvyagintsev’s latest award-winning film

ellinor soderstrom

This is the first in a series of blogposts on the film 2014 Russian film, Leviathan, written by students in the Politics module, Individuals and the State, who were asked to reflect on the connections between the film and the ideas of Hobbes or other social contract theories. 

Eleanor Soderstrom writes:

Zvyagintsev´s Leviathan is set in modern day Russia, introducing us to Kolya and his family, living in a remote town in northern Russia by the Barents Sea. You could argue that the movie´s main aim is to show us the social contract that has been established between the citizens of Russia, in particular in this small town, and the government – the sovereign (Debruge 2014). As the title of the film suggests, you could argue that the movie portrays a modern day Hobbesian view that shows that in order to live in peace, you need to obey the sovereign. In this case the sovereign is portrayed as Vadim, the local mayor. Trying to keep the rights to his property, Kolya tries with the help of his friend Dimitri, a lawyer from Moscow, to convince the mayor through blackmail, to pay Kolya a fair price for his land, which the former is trying to confiscate and return to the hands of the state. Vadim, who is portrayed as a corrupt power seeker, has the support of the Russian Orthodox Church and will by all means necessary do whatever it takes to win this power struggle.

You could argue that the similarities between Zvyagintsev´s Leviathan and Hobbes´ Leviathan are striking. Zvyagintsev shows us a modern day Hobbesian Russian society where, even though corrupt – government needs to be obeyed at all costs. As Hobbes argues in his Leviathan; when you are in a society under the social contract – you need to always obey your sovereign (1996:120-25). If not, this will give the sovereign right to do with the individual what he seems fitting. This can be immediately related to the ominous “fate” that awaits Kolya and his family as the film progresses. As the sovereign´s powers are absolute and undivided according to Hobbes (1996:120-27), the misfortunes that Kolya and his family are facing throughout the movie could be explained through Hobbes´ theory of the sovereign. In other words, Vadim´s words and actions are in fact the ultimate law, and when the sovereign´s subject, in this case Kolya, is no longer obeying, the sovereign has the power to: “…being able to destroy them if they refuse…” (Hobbes 1996:121).

Although, you could also see it from another perspective of Hobbesian view – that the corrupt politicians we see in Zvyagintsev´s Russia are a portrayal of failed and illegitimate government, and so this could explain the “state of war” that culminates as the film is coming to an end. The distrust for Russian politicians and politics is a silver lining that we can follow throughout the film. This can especially be seen in the scene where on an outing, the local police, while off duty, are using pictures of former Russian politicians such as Brezhnev and Lenin for target practice. While at the same time, a picture of Vladimir Putin has taken the ceremonial centre piece of the corrupt mayor Vadim´s office. The phrase “man is the most dangerous animal” is also spoken during this trip, which again, you could argue, hints at Hobbes´ view of the natural condition of human kind.

If you take the stance of interpreting the film in the way that it portrays a weak and corrupt government, which eventually leads to a state of war, the quote “…continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” can undeniably be an underlying message taken from the film. The more the corruption of Vadim´s actions shines through, the more you see the film taking a Hobbesian turn for the worse. That is, the more corruption within politics, the less legitimate government becomes. When the local government fails to be legitimate, society falls in to a kind of chaos, and immorality becomes a guiding light for the officials – in this case both for the government and the church. Hobbes describes human nature as power seeking and conflict prone (1996: 88), which ultimately can be seen through the struggle of Kolya´s plot of land, between Kolya himself and the state, and ultimately the church. Kolya feels entitled to the land as it has “been his for as long as he can remember”, which implies that it has been passed down from generation to generation. Although, looking at it from the other view suggested earlier (always obey the sovereign), the reason for Kolya´s misfortunes can also be explained by his inability to accept the sovereign´s decision of confiscating the property. As Hobbes argues that the sovereign has absolute power over everything, including property rights (1996: 125), Vadim has legitimate reasons for his actions and decisions.

No matter which of the two different views you decide on while watching this movie, one thing is certain – Zvyagintsev´s Leviathan most definitely reflects many aspects found in Hobbes´ writings. Zvyagintsev´s Leviathan is a great portrayal of a modern Hobbesian society, an example of what it could be – or maybe already is.

Debruge, P. (2014) Film Review: ‘Leviathan’. Variety, 22 May. Available from: http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/cannes-film-review-leviathan-1201189022/
[12 November 2014]

Hobbes, T [1651] (1996) Leviathan, R. Tuck ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

I´m a 2nd year undergraduate student in UCD doing a single major in Politics and International Relations. I am from Sweden, but I’m doing my 3 year undergrad in UCD. My main areas of interest are Comparative Politics and International Relations. After completing my undergrad I intend to do a Masters in Political Science.

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