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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson


A riveting metaphor for Putin’s leviathan Add to ...

Ida, a Polish movie, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Having seen it, here’s one man’s vote for a better film, Leviathan, which resonated deeply this week with the killing in Moscow of Boris Nemtsov, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Leviathan, by director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a riveting metaphor for contemporary Russia, where the state is corrupt and violent, the rule of law exists only on paper and anyone who bucks the system has no chance of success.

Kolya, an auto mechanic, lives in an ancestral home with his wife and son by a previous marriage in a bleak village by the Barents Sea. He drinks a lot of vodka, but then so does everyone in Leviathan. Alas, the town’s mayor has decided he wants the property where Kolya’s home sits. What the mayor wants, the mayor gets.

A lawyer friend from Moscow tries to help Kolya. The lawyer is sure he has enough material about the mayor’s systematic corruption to make him back off. For a while, the mayor does seem a trifle worried. He’s not used to being confronted by someone who actually wants to use the law.

Then, the mayor invites the lawyer into his car for a meeting, drives with some thugs to an isolated place, ties up the lawyer and unloads a series of shots into the ground beside him. The message is clear: Hang around and you’ll be shot without anyone being found guilty. The lawyer returns to Moscow.

From there, predictably, the mayor gets his way, despite every protestation and legal appeal by Kolya. An individual Russian has no rights, power or chance of triumph against the leviathan of state power, supported by the Orthodox Church, which incants about the glories of Mother Russia, Holy Russia. If local politics doesn’t do in the dissenter, corruption or violence will, as Mr. Nemtsov had feared might happen to him.

Mr. Nemtsov was shot close to the Kremlin in an area with ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Strangely, the cameras near where he died where not functioning at the time. They were described as “under repair.”

The killers were professionals – they shot him in the heart and lungs and left his girlfriend unharmed – who had obviously followed Mr. Nemtsov, knew his whereabouts and shot him in a very public place before fleeing. As in Leviathan, the message was clear: Cause trouble and the worst might be around the corner.

Amy Knight, the historian of Soviet and Russian intelligence services, has written that since Mr. Putin came to power in early 2000, 23 journalists and several anti-Kremlin activists have been murdered. They were shot, beaten, pushed from apartment windows or poisoned. Most of their killers have never been caught.

Mr. Putin has declared himself in charge of the investigation into Mr. Nemtsov’s death, a declaration that speaks volumes about contemporary Russia, where an all-powerful politician can decide to oversee a police investigation. Could you imagine a Canadian prime minister telling the RCMP he or she would take over the investigation of a high-profile murder case? Mr. Putin’s decision illustrates the instincts of the all-powerful.

Immediately after the shooting, the Kremlin-friendly media began concocting theories that conform to the zeitgeist of contemporary Russia: The country’s “enemies” were somehow implicated. Maybe the CIA. Ukrainian “fascists.” Western interests devoted to undermining Russia.

Such is the dominance of this media that Russians are treated to a drumbeat of “them against us” narratives. As has often happened in the country’s past, Russia tells itself about being surrounded by enemies, both abroad and within.

All the country’s major institutions – government, military, intelligence services, church, business, media – must be stirred to defend Russia against nefarious Western influences designed to bring Russia low. Russia assumes it should have a zone of control or influence over its immediate neighbours – its own version of manifest destiny – because the idea of Moscow as centre of a large universe goes back hundreds of years.

This very deep strain runs through Russian history, a mixture of inferiority, defiance, nationalism and expansion within which serious political dissent is treated as a threat to state and country. The consequences for dissent can be menacing, even deadly, in Mr. Putin’s leviathan.

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