How does Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Leviathan interpret social contract theory in Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

Aonghus O DonnchuThis is the third 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. 

Aonghus Ó Donnchú writes:

Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Leviathan (2014) depicts a brutish example of Hobbesian social contract theory in which Locke’s views are forced aside; in the words of Observer film critic Mark Kermode it ‘is a tale of big themes and little people’.  The protagonist, Kolya, battles alongside his old friend Dmitri for his supposed Lockean right to property which Dmitri claims is enshrined in Russian law.  This falls short of the actuality of the situation whereby the local mayor, Vadim, fights for his right to take Kolya’s property.  This reflects a Hobbesian state of affairs in which man sacrifices his rights in return for the protection of the state.

The film reflects the Hobbesian nature of Russia’s social contract very well.  Hobbes sees the social contract as a safeguard against the anarchy of the state of nature he describes.  This anarchy can be seen simmering under the surface from beginning to end with hatred growing, violence and betrayal between friends and corruption within the authorities as every man looks after himself.  Ironically it is the crooked government of Vadim that stops this anarchy from coming to a boil.  The fact that the movie frequently alludes to Russia’s wider power structures, Vadim often referencing power brokers in Moscow, the picture of Putin in his office and even the shooting of portraits of previous Russian and Soviet leaders at a birthday get-together, proves that this outlook on the social contract is not just in play in this town, but across Russia as a whole.  This, however, does not mean that this rural, seaside town under Vadim’s control lives under a peaceful social contract whereby the people make sacrifices and in return Vadim protects them.

A key motif of Leviathan, clearly tangible throughout, is the failure of Russia’s social contract under current leader Vladimir Putin, whose portrait hangs centrally in the corrupt Vadim’s office. None of the protection the state owes its individuals is provided to the main characters in this film.  This is palpable in Dmitri’s beating to the brink of death at the hands of Vadim’s bodyguards, Lilya’s suicide and Kolya’s biased trial which judges the innocent man guilty.  However, there is no starker case of Government failure to uphold the social contract than the case of Kolya’s son Roma, who is left alone for roughly five days after the arrest of his father, and after that is saved by his father’s accusers rather than be left to the implied misery of state care.  Failure to adequately care for the weakest in society, children under eighteen years of age, is a clear depiction of Vadim’s, and through him, Putin’s, failure to uphold the totalitarian Hobbesian contract that appears to be favourable to the corrupt mayor Vadim.

Hobbes acknowledged that the state of war as depicted before the social contract came to exist does, after its creation, become existent on a higher level as those in power have no sovereign powers to bow down to.  A microcosm of this can be seen in Leviathan in Vadim’s leadership.  There is of course a higher power here, in the form of the Moscow power base, but they seem disinterested for the most part provided Vadim proves to be no trouble for them.  The only other power that can be expected to outweigh that of Vadim is that of God and the Russian Orthodox Church, a strong recurring organisation in the film.  Vadim clearly respects the power of the Church with frequent visits to priests in the church; however the church is constantly committed to Vadim.  Its unwavering support grants him heavenly support to do as he wishes.  Of course the favour is returned when Vadim builds a church on Kolya’s land.  This is clearly seen to be no more than a power grab by Vadim, however, at the end when the poor majority are barely visible in the midst of the power players driving expensive cars to this church.  Not even the church was above Vadim.  Once he was granted the power of the social contract the world became his in his eyes.

The view of the social contract portrayed in Leviathan would be a horror to the civil rights based contracts of Locke or Rousseau, however it is too similar to Hobbes’, whose book of course shares the film’s title, to dismiss.  Even this version of the social contract is visibly coming apart at the seams, but a strong ruler remains who does, for the most part, provide protection, if rather limited, in return for the loss of certain rights.

Kermode, M. (2014) ‘Leviathan review – Andrew Zvyaginstev’s outstanding tale of the epic and the everyday.’  Guardian available from [last accessed on 24 November 2014]

I am a 2nd year history, politics and international relations student in UCD.  I was born and raised in Ballyboden in South Dublin.  In politics my main interest would be international relations, while in history I prefer military history.  Thankfully there is quite a lot of overlap between these two fields of research.  I hope to continue studying history after my degree and attain a masters.

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