Debating the symbolic meanings of Charlie Hebdo and Leviathan
Jan 17, 2015 Anastasia Borik (RUSSIA DIRECT)
Russian media review: The peace march in Paris and the controversy over the new issue of Charlie Hebdo dominated Russian media headlines this week. In addition, the media kept tabs on the Gaidar Forum and critical reaction to the film “Leviathan.”
The most widely debated topics in the Russian media this week were the peace march in Paris and the continuing saga of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. In addition, the Russian media reviewed the Gaidar Forum in Moscow and the critical acclaim surrounding Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated “Leviathan.”
This is not the first time that an Andrei Zvyagintsev film has made a media splash. The focus of attention this time is the Oscar-nominated Leviathan, which touches upon religion, morality and life in modern Russia. This week, the film won a Golden Globe, provoking a debate on whether the award was due to artistic merit or the present political climate.
The director won a great deal of praise, especially from the opposition press (Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow). The business newspaper Vedomosti also rated the picture positively, while the pro-government press (Izvestia, Argumenti i Fakti) tended to view the film as ambiguous at best, verging on inappropriate.
Novaya Gazeta columnist Dmitry Bykov described the movie as forceful and reflecting the realities of modern Russia.
Leviathan is a dark, powerful film, which one day will be used in judgment of Putin’s Russia... Leviathan is good European cinema, with leitmotifs, images, strong performances, succinct dialogue and a long aftertaste
“Leviathan is a dark, powerful film, which one day will be used in judgment of Putin’s Russia... Leviathan is good European cinema, with leitmotifs, images, strong performances, succinct dialogue and a long aftertaste. Zvyagintsev is so far the only one who has dared to speak out about Russia’s departure from God and the official church’s role in it.”
However, Bykov also reckons that the theme of the movie is not brought to a natural conclusion, which may not have been the director’s wish, but the result of circumstances.
“It’s troubling that the main metaphor of the film becomes blurred,” Bykov wrote.
Respectful opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman comments on Echo of Moscow’s website that Leviathan is "a very honest and concise film. Not one superfluous word. No debris. Wonderful acting. Simple and clear language. An understanding of people. And love for people. And love for the Motherland. And pain for her suffering. Worthy of an Oscar.”
Oleg Zintsov of Vedomosti believes the picture works and will pick up an Oscar.
Leviathan has a good chance, I think," he said. "And not because back home it has had buckets of mud poured all over it by armchair critics whose pride and feelings, this time national, are wounded by anything,”
Zintsov adds that “Zvyagintsev has produced a lofty parable, even when it is inside the showy dust jacket of a social pamphlet.”
Izvestia polled the opinion of film industry experts, in particular Nikolai Burlyaev, People’s Artist of Russia and president of the Golden Knight International Film Festival.
Andrey Zvyagintsev poses after winning the Best Screenplay award for the film Leviathan. Photo: AP
“The Golden Globe for Leviathan serves to clarify the West’s attitude to Russia," Burlyaev assumes. "The West wants to see Russia exactly as depicted by Zvyagintsev — on the fringe, drunk and obscene. ... On top of that, the film takes a real dig at the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Vladimir Polupanov of Argumenti i Fakti says that the film, despite all its merits, fails to produce the impression of a fully realized concept.
“The characters are somewhat one-dimensional, flat, cardboard, not clearly drawn," Polupanov said. "These discrepancies give rise to many logical inconsistencies and issues.”
Polupanov also believes it feasible that foreign audiences were drawn to the film precisely for the gloomy picture he paints of Russia, noting that, “We all know that life in Russia is more diverse, multi-dimensional, and a good deal more colorful than in Zvyagintsev’s melancholy Leviathan, in which he touches everyone and everything with a black-gray brush.”
Divided opinions about the Paris peace march
Russian media opinion on the Jan. 11 peace march in Paris was divided. Some (Nezavisimaya Gazeta) consider it an important event for French society, while others (RIA Novosti) believe that in many respects it was not a march of peace, but a march of weakness.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an editorial opining that the peace march was a decorous civil act that underscored the extent to which Europeans value active citizenship, and how much in this regard Russians can learn.
If half a million people take to the streets of the French capital to express this view, it means that the country has developed a civil nation. In Russia, messages of solidarity are not clearly formulated or understood
“For all their differences, citizens find a sense of solidarity in a common set of unifying principles. It’s about values," Nezavisimaya Gazeta's editorial reads. "If half a million people take to the streets of the French capital to express this view, it means that the country has developed a civil nation. In Russia, messages of solidarity are not clearly formulated or understood, so it is premature here to talk of a civil nation.”
In constrast, Vladimir Lepekhin of RIA Novosti sees the peace march as the "theatrical epithets" that "belie the utter perplexity of the French people and their awareness of the hypocrisy of the national elite.”
Debate was also sparked by the new edition of Charlie Hebdo, which featured yet another caricature of the Prophet Muhammad - this time on the cover. Many condemned the move, considering it provocative and likely to further inflame the situation. Among those in this camp were the business daily Kommersant, the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, and the pro-government Izvestia.
The most eloquent voice against the media outlet’s decision belonged to Murad Musayev, a blogger for Echo of Moscow, who considers the whole story of Charlie Hebdo to be hypocritical and the proclamation of the magazine as a symbol of freedom absurd.
“Charlie Hebdo is not a symbol of freedom of speech, rather a caricature of that same freedom," he said. "It seems acceptable to mock religious prophets, ignoring the feelings of billions, yet by the same token, an old cartoonist is fired and anathematized for drawing a harmless caricature of the president’s son and oligarch’s brother-in-law. If Charlie Hebdo symbolizes anything, it is in no way freedom of speech, but hypocrisy.”
Alexei Tarkhanov from Kommersant looks at the situation from the viewpoint of moderate Muslims integrated into European society. He concludes that Charlie Hebdo will win few new friends with its latest cover.
“Will a minute’s silence change the attitude of 5 million French Muslims to Charlie Hebdo?," Tarkhanov said. "Unlikely. The president of the French Association of Islamic Organizations told Le Figaro that Muslims, of course, do not intend to start shooting, but are offended and will again take legal action.”
Izvestia’s Leonid Shakhov called on journalists to be responsible, noting that the series of provocations from both sides augurs ill.
“The right to ‘draw and say what you think is necessary’ is indisputable," Shakhov said. "No one says it serves them right. But, face it, any artist or journalist, assuming he’s not a complete idiot, on finding a less than enthusiastic public response to his nonchalant attacks against the cherished ideas and beliefs of others, whoever they may be, must, if not apologize, then at least not exacerbate the ‘sin of provocation.’”
The Gaidar Forum
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the 2015 Gaidar Economic Forum. Photo: RIA Novosti
The Gaidar Forum, one of Russia’s largest discussion forums on economic and financial matters, took place in Moscow this week. The press closely followed the statements of leading experts, politicians and businessmen. Alongside the open skeptics of the event (KM.ru and Echo of Moscow) were those who consider the forum to be an important event for the Russian economy and politics (Novaya Gazeta and Aktualnyie Kommentarii)
KM, known for its swings between pro-government and opposition viewpoints, gave the floor to renowned Russian publicist Anatoly Wasserman, who believes that the value of the forum is undermined firstly by the lack of polemics and secondly, by the dominant liberal line pursued by supporters of the late Yegor Gaidar (a major politician and economist in post-Soviet Russia in whose honor the forum of is named).
Wasserman asserts that “the forum produces no recommendations with the capacity to alter observable reality for the better, while the stream of ‘Gaidar-esque’ economic experiments have long since proven that strict adherence to liberal economic postulates can change reality only for the worse.”
A negative assessment of the Gaidar Forum was also delivered by blogger Ivan Melnikov of opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, who is also, incidentally, a leader of the Communist Party.
“Fresh ideas or real, up-to-the-minute tasks and solutions are totally beyond this liberal stratum, which settled as a result of the Gaidar-Chubais shock therapy, saddling the economy," Melnikov said. "The Gaidar Forum reveals the deep-rooted crisis at the heart of the liberal elite and the intellectual staffs it created.”
Alexei Polukhin, economics editor of Novaya Gazeta, evaluates the forum with cautious optimism, stressing that at least the political elite in Russia is beginning to realize the complexity of the situation.
“The scale of the crisis, which the Kremlin seems to be slowly becoming aware of, requires commensurate, i.e. radical solutions," Polukhin argues. "The scale of the solutions must in turn be Gaidar-esque (as implied by the name of the forum)... We need to pull down the administrative system and overhaul the law enforcement agencies and judiciary.”
However, Polukhin notes that, “there seems to be an understanding that the old way of doing things is not the way forward, yet there is insufficient political will to change anything of substance.”
Online portal Aktualniye Kommentarii's Andrei Suzdaltsev clarifies that “experts consider the Gaidar Forum to be one of the largest platforms for adherents of liberal reform, who in recent times have faced mounting criticism. However, some members of the expert community are sure that even in a crisis liberal economic reform must not be abandoned.”