Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
‘You never had any fucking rights and you never will,’ says a Russian mayor to a local man whose house he wants to steal. It’s late at night, somewhere in the remote Far North, and the air is heavy with violence and anxiety. In this devastating scene in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s acclaimed film Leviathan, the mayor’s sentiment carries an apparently indisputable logic.
The man built this fine house with his own hands. It commands brilliant views across a freezing bay. But the local authority wants the land for a development project, though everyone knows what that means: huge payoffs for cronies or a palace for the mayor. The authorities offer a pittance in return, enough for a concrete room in a grim corner of town.
Leviathan’s gloom is unremitting. The town is controlled by a criminal conspiracy that connects the mayor’s office, the police, the law courts, local business, and the Orthodox Church. The actors superbly create instantly recognizable types: the gorging bureaucrat, the bought judge, the drunken husband on a bender.
Each element rings true, but everything that is most rotten is brought onstage at the same time. The plot is a perfect anti-morality tale, in which the consequences of irresponsibility are other people’s deaths, incarceration, and loss. In this universe, even charitable acts are assumed to spring from betrayal and greed. For all the brilliant photography and acting, the film risks becoming a caricature.
Meanwhile, what of the mayor’s claim about one’s ‘fucking rights’? Of course, property rights in Russia have been inconsistently protected since 1991. But was it ever thus, as the mayor argues? Perhaps paradoxically, the Soviet Union was in some ways different.
Although cities were increasingly dominated by blocks of flats, town dwellers had the right to build their own house for much of the Soviet period. They could borrow cheaply from the state, and would own their home, rough and ready as it might be, on the basis of a medium-term leasehold. Laws existed to prevent the accumulation of property and to limit the size of dwellings. This was, after all, the workers’ state. But the instincts of ownership survived.
Even when Khrushchev’s modernization programme was in full swing, and many of these little houses were demolished to make way for new apartment blocks, a legal process protected each property owner. Archival records bring aggrieved householders back to life, but they disprove the existence of normalized expropriation or the habitual enrichment of local officials.