In Leviathan, a World Governed by Unwritten Rules

Under state capture, calling out extortion will not stop extortion.

While media attention is currently focused on Russia’s belligerence in Ukraine, director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan paints a devastating portrait of life in its isolated countryside. In addition to its visual magnificence—a quality that undoubtedly contributed to its Oscar nomination—the movie sheds light on the political and moral decay inside Russia, and reframes the concepts of corruption and rule of law.

Nested in the microcosm of a scenic, frostbitten town on the coast of the Barents Sea, Leviathan is a story of love and tragedy as experienced by ordinary people. Kolya is an honest but quick-tempered car mechanic. Lilya, his younger wife, is a factory worker. After a corrupt mayor decides to expropriate their property, they live under constant duress.

Law bears no meaning in their small town, nor does the file that Dima, Kolya’s friend from the conscription days and now a Moscow-based hotshot lawyer, produces to expose the corrupt mayor. In their tiny village outpost, there is little difference between the black-robed magistrates that bring the verdict to appropriate Kolya’s property and the thugs that viciously beat Dima.

With their friends turning against them, Kolya, Lilya, and Dima lose faith that people have the ability to discern ethical from corrupt. Even God seems to have taken the side of the powerful as the film concludes with a sermon delivered by the mayor’s friend, the priest who leads the new church built atop Kolya’s former property, as he calls for his congregation to champion the truth in a place that embodies truth’s absolute absence.

It is no surprise that the movie takes its title from Thomas Hobbes’s seminal work of 1651 about the supremacy of sovereign power. While Hobbes believed that rule by a strongman was the only way to ensure a productive, peaceful, and orderly society, the director ironically places that power in the hands of a burly, drunken, and unscrupulous mayor.

Perhaps because of this, many critics have cited corruption and bureaucracy as the key themes of the film. But in doing so, they have failed to acknowledge how brutish, patriarchal forces operate. And only some have grasped the melancholic life of Russian citizens “exhausted by political oppression and now bludgeoned by institutional impunity and rot.” In combination, these three factors—disregard for law, non-existing institutions, and pervasive melancholy—unmask systemic failure that’s much bigger than only endemic corruption.

The film also reveals the limits of external influence, especially when that influence is predicated on rules (in this case, the rule of law) that don’t apply in the setting at hand. Though he possesses the evidence to expose the mayor, the overconfident outsider Dima never stands a chance at winning the case in what is, at base, a phony courtroom. The police and magistrates unapologetically flout the rule of law. More important to them is the unwritten rule and their role in implementing it. The system they are part of responds with a vengeance towards the intruder.

How to challenge total power and admit the limits of an outsider’s influence when that outsider is armed only with the law are the two apparent links between this movie and our work at the Think Tank Fund. In the Think Tank Fund, we prefer to talk about state capture instead of corruption. While corruption reflects the moral failure of a few individuals, state capture is a systemic failure that occurs in a country or region without functioning checks and balances.

At the edge of Russia’s Kola Peninsula, laws and institutions have been replaced by deficiencies and loopholes. Law enforcement, political leaders, and even priests learn to maximize wealth, power, and impunity for the benefit of their particular group.

Once a pattern like this sets in, it can last a long time. For a while, the viewer roots for Dima, hoping that the rule of law will thwart the mayor’s capture of the system. But under state capture, calling out extortion will not stop extortion. Dima and Kolya are left alone in their fight.

The Think Tank Fund is not active in Russia, but addresses similar (albeit smaller) cases of state and regulatory capture in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. We are aware that with limited capacity for oversight, the efforts of individuals and NGOs usually cannot offset the loss of legal and regulatory controls and the endemic weakness of many state institutions.

Therefore, we focus on supporting coalitions that will work simultaneously to promote and advance the rule of law, enlist support among the local citizenry, and secure international recognition. In spite of initial challenges and ongoing adversity, Reconstruction of the State in the Czech Republic and the Alliance for Clean Romania have reaped some successes already.

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