The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev – book review

Sergei Medvedev, a political historian, wrote this set of essays, originally published in 2017, over several years. The book is copiously foot-noted and brilliantly translated by Stephen Dalziel. It reads as a sometimes overlapping or repetitive stream of consciousness, covering politics and geopolitics, history, social issues, and the Russian mentality (if there is such a thing). 

The book starts with geopolitics, which Medvedev sees as Russia’s equivalent to European liberal values, but in fact their diametrical opposite because ‘geopolitics’ are based on power relations rather than shared values, equal rights and protection of the weakest and disadvantaged. After Part I – the War for Space, comes Part II – the War for Symbols, and Part III is the War for the Body, dealing with the way that the state authorities “are poking their noses into places that were previously considered the domains of our private lives: the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen – even looking inside the fridge.”

This section is of most interest to The BEARR Trust, as it focuses on violence against women, a topic introduced in Part II with the statistic that 14,000 women are murdered in Russia every year by their partner.  A leading Muslim cleric in the North Caucasus, Ismail Berdiev, concluded a few years ago that female genital mutilation in Dagestan was beneficial in ‘calming women down’ and thus reducing debauchery, while still allowing them to procreate. As if this was not shocking enough, especially in a region where FGM is not traditional, elements in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) agreed with Berdiev. Among Christian fundamentalists who shared such views was the late Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who declared his sympathy for the mufti on the matter of what he termed ‘feminist howling’.

The Russian state appears currently to share this kind of conservatism. Journalists have uncovered a statement by Anna Kuznetsova, the Russian Children’s Ombudsman, wife of a priest and mother of six children, in which she supported the pseudo-science of ‘telegony’, which maintains that the cells of the womb have ‘an information-wave memory’, and when a woman has a number of partners this leads to ‘confused information’, which affects ‘the moral basis of the future child’. The Ombudsman’s posts on social media show her to be a conservative Orthodox believer: she is against abortion, surrogate motherhood, vaccinations for children and even ultrasound examination, which she describes as ‘a paid-for mutation’ that will ruin the health of the patient in ten to fifteen years. She also runs a charity which tries to dissuade women from having an abortion and to influence doctors to do the same. 

Recently, a scandal about sexual abuse of schoolgirls by their teachers led to a public outcry and many women spoke out about their own experiences, which they had hitherto kept quiet. This “Me too” campaign #yaNyeBoyusSkazat, “I am not afraid to speak out” was, according to Medvedev, ground-breaking and “a real eye-opener for the Russian mass consciousness; not because people learnt anything new, but because the taboo on speaking out about such matters had been shattered.” A battle continues to be waged about the law and domestic violence. It was decriminalised a few years ago (at the initiative of a female member of the Duma), but public pressure has resulted in a new draft law. It is considered by activists as far too weak. The author sees this confrontation with the state and society over women’s bodies as the real frontline in the battle for ‘the Russian World’ rather than the perceived confrontation with NATO; it is the line where the citizen faces up to the state.

He describes the new conservatism as “a crisis in scientific knowledge and the new cultural condition of society, where on our TV screens ‘Word of the Preacher’ competes for ratings with ‘Battle of the Psychics’; where priests bless spacecraft and astrologers discuss pregnancy with gynaecologists. A post-secular world is developing in Russia with the anti-modernist agenda of a new Middle Ages. He identifies the real start of this trend as coinciding with Putin’s post-2018 latest presidential term, “to ensure the loyalty of the elite and social stability in a time of economic crisis and the transit of power”. Here, he says, “we have a parallel with the collapse of various empires, be it the Roman or the Byzantine, when all sorts of sects and Gnostic teachings sprang up; or the Russian Empire on the eve of the First World War, the time of the ‘wise man’ Grigory Rasputin, the favourite of the Empress; or the Third Reich, with its occult organization, the Ahnenerbe, and its searches for Shambhala in the Antarctic. As all great empires have declined, people have sought solace in mysticism.”

Also relevant to BEARR’s interests, the next poignant chapter is about children. Just as the title of the book is reminiscent of Zvyagintsev’s brilliant film ‘Leviathan’, a struggle between authorities and inhabitants in a small town in provincial Russia, in his chapter ‘The Land of Abandoned Children’ he describes Zvyagintsev’s next film, ‘Loveless’ in which the neglected child of a spoilt and feuding couple goes missing. (He points out that most of Zvyagintsev’s films feature abandoned children.)  The story starts at the time in 2012 when the state outlawed international adoptions of Russian children in the Dima Yakovlev Law, allegedly because of a couple of sad instances where things went wrong. It ends in 2015 when the Russian state is at war in the Donbas. One of the most remarkable features of Loveless is the portrayal of a vibrant civil society – the police refuse to help search for the child but point the parents in the direction of an NGO which is highly proficient in searching and comes to their aid. Medvedev sees the story as symbolic of a lost society in moral decline. He says the issue is not Putin, the Kremlin or the Donbas, nor even corruption and theft – these are just symptoms of the disease, “the disease itself – it is society, mired in lies, cynicism and a lack of trust, having lost all hope for the future and for change”.

Medvedev presents a weighty litany of faults in the way Russia is governed and in society itself. However, the author himself, whom I heard speak in person a few months ago, does not come across as a complete pessimist. Despite his concern that “Russia is once again sliding back into its old historic rut”, he sees grounds for optimism in the gloomy scenery of Russia today. “The reflective part of society has begun to be aware of the moral dead-end in which we all find ourselves, and the conspiracy of silence that has surrounded the problems of violence, humiliation and trauma.”

Janet Gunn, BEARR Trustee, 8 April 2020

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