Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘The Return of the Russian Leviathan’ by Sergei Medvedev: “For anyone interested in contemporary Russia, this book is an invaluable guide and will leave you smiling through tears.”

18 March 2021

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev. Translated by Stephen Dalziel. Hardback 250pp ISBN-9781509536047 (Polity, London, 2019)

Last month the Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann posted a photo on her Facebook page.  It was a photo of cheese: Cheddar and Stilton, bought at Tesco’s in London and carried to Moscow as a gift. Now, I know many Russians are crazy about cheese, even more so since European sanctions after the annexation of Crimea led to a Russian embargo on foreign cheese imports.  But Tesco’s?  Really? 

It took Sergei Medvedev, in his new book, The Return of the Russian Leviathan, to open my eyes to the huge historical, political and cultural significance of cheese.  In an essay entitled “Requiem to Roquefort”, Medvedev references Oscar Wilde, Vladimir Sorokin and General De Gaulle to expose the subversive nature of cheese and its semiotic meaning in a tour de force that leaves the reader open-mouthed at its sweep.   And all in four pages.

Medvedev argues that Russia’s relationship with foreign cheese developed into war as it came to be seen as a mark of the Other, a symbol of the decaying West.  “It is the rot and mould of the fluid urban class, which, having travelled around Europe, has come to think too highly of itself and demanded not only cheese but honest elections”.  Having spent almost 15 years as a research affiliate, studying and teaching in the West, Medvedev returned to Russia in 2004.  It is surely with irony that he describes the class to which he most certainly belongs.  

He continues the chapter by exploring why the cultivation of cheese never took off in Russia, despite the best efforts of both Peter the Great and Anastas Mikoyan, Stalin’s Head of Food Production.  He concludes that cheese has a lifecycle that is too long for Russian history and everyday life in the countryside: many of Europe’s finest cheeses take three to six years to mature:

The Russian peasant had no certainty about the future: tomorrow there could be a war, a military call-up, a corvée, or Bolshevik demands for extra produce.  The peasant didn’t manage his own life or his own property; he didn’t have time to make cheese, he just wanted to stay alive.  Russian production of both material goods and foodstuffs has always been the victim of the climate and the country’s history, which dictate quick production and use; and also the victim of weak institutions under which there is no right to ownership, nor the possibility for long-term planning or storage.  There is just a single Leviathan state, which can never be satisfied and will gobble up any surplus – and cheese comes about as the result of a surplus of milk.

To have cheese from Europe in Russia today is no small triumph.  Unlike the conspicuous consumption of imported cars, Swiss-made watches, brandy and cigars, cheese is a lifestyle choice and aspiration:  “Parking his Porsche Cayenne outside the shabby entrance to his crumbling Soviet-era block of flats and buying foie gras and XO cognac to enjoy in his tiny eight-square-metre kitchen, the Russian man can feel that he is taking part in the cargo-cult of the consumer, that he is in communion with civilization: but he has not become a part of it.  But a piece of French brie, a bottle of Italian Chianti and a warm baguette in a paper bag from a local bakery drew him close to Western values and were acts of social modernization.”

Medvedev returned to Russia to breathe the air and feel the zeitgeist.  For a writer and commentator this is oxygen to the bloodstream.  He took up a post teaching history at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and also had a media profile presenting his own programme on the Kultura Channel.  One by one, those jobs have been taken from him.  The Return of the Russian Leviathan (in an English translation by Stephen Dalziel) is made up of a series of essays as dazzling as this one; in 2020, it won the Pushkin House Book Prize and has been translated into eight languages.

The essays began life as long-form journalism for online sites such as Slon and Forbes Russia and blog posts on social media.  They were written over a period of three or four years since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Assembled here in book form under four different section headings: “The War for Space”, “The War for Symbols”, The War for the Body” (which includes the essay on cheese) and “The War for Memory”, Medvedev underlines the tension at the core of Russian state mentality, one of permanent war.  The Return of the Russian Leviathan has obvious echoes with Hobbes but also with Andrei Zvyaginstev’s 2014 film “Leviathan”, whose work Medvedev references in one very telling essay called “The Land of Abandoned Children”.

In the opening essay, “Sovereign Territory … With No Roads”, Medvedev takes us on a journey that signposts almost everything that is to come. The journey is an actual journey, by car from Moscow to Tartu in Estonia, a journey Medvedev makes frequently.   It describes the traffic chaos on the main M9 ‘Baltiya” federal highway west out of Moscow:  “250 kilometres from the capital, the asphalt ran out,” Medvedev writes.  

It took me four hours to cover 100 kilometres of this asphalt-free highway, during which time I didn’t see a single roadworker; not one police car, no equipment for repairing the road; no signs saying how long the roadworks would last or indicating any diversion.  There was just the long-extinct road-bed.  

His experience of driving the M9 brings him to two clear understandings: that Russia has entered a new stage of absolute impunity, where anything goes and no one is held accountable and the people are largely indifferent.  But more alarming, is something else: “we’re losing the country.”  

I’ve been driving along the road to Estonia for almost ten years; exactly the same period of time, the propagandists tell us, Russia has been steadily ‘picking itself up off its knees’.  And what I see with every passing year is that just 100 kilometres from Moscow this landscape is falling apart before my eyes.  The M9 highway is constantly being repaired, but it simply gets worse and worse.  All around there are ever more dead villages; at night you can travel for dozens of kilometres and you don’t see a single light on anywhere. (…)  Just as in the sixteenth century, locals flog by the roadside whatever they’ve gathered in the forest: dried mushrooms, frozen berries, coarse fur clothing.  And the forests themselves are gradually claiming back the space that civilization has left behind: the abandoned fields and villages are overgrown with shrubs and bushes, and the trees are creeping ever closer to the road.  (…)  We defended our sovereignty in the bloody battles around Rzhev and Vyazma in the winter of 1941; but we’ve lost it on the roads going through those same places.

This essay, as all the essays, finds parallels over centuries of the Russian state’s interaction with its people, its geography, and its political and social vectors, providing a context that is essential to understanding the Russian Leviathan in all its present-day manifestations.  The M9 federal highway right in Russia’s European heartland is, in Medvedev’s telling, a metaphor for all the vainglorious official statements about Russian sovereignty, territorial integrity and the state’s utter contempt for the people over whom it rules.  

The Return of the Russian Leviathan is full of words associated with war and militarism, violence and thuggery, the lexicon of gangs and crooks, machismo, bullying and resentment.  Through it, Medvedev conveys the sheer aggression present in the Russian state, which is ramping up all the time and more often than not mirrored in Russian society.  His reading is broad and eclectic and he cites a panoply of influential thinkers in his discourse of different aspects of the manifestation of Russian state power.  From Carl Schmitt, the ‘court lawyer’ of the Third Reich to Michel Foucault and his definition of ‘biopolitics’, via Stephen Krasner and his 1999 work, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy and a plethora of Russian writers and thinkers – Viktor Pelevin, Alexander Etkind, Ivan Goncharov – Medvedev gives you a whirlwind tour of penetrating insights and surprising juxtapositions, embracing the social and political sciences, psychology, psychoanalysis and even anthropology.  Many of his flourishes have a bitter sweet taste: Russian acts of hybrid warfare, he writes, are cast in the same mould as those of Islamic State, North Korea or the traditions of the Potlatch of the North American Indians: “Being unable to change the world, Russia is trying to frighten it: it is calling up the spirits of the past, digging out the tomahawks and painting its face with mud.  It is burning cheese, crushing the carcasses of geese and waving its missile at the world.”  It is in moments of literary pyrotechnics such as this that Medvedev’s style and message come together, leaving you, the reader, winded, aghast and turning the pages for more.  

The section on biopolitics, “The War For the Body”, is tinged with melancholy and deep shame.  It is especially unequivocal in the essays to do with homosexuals, women and children – the weak and vulnerable in a state that venerates brute force and congratulates rather than punishes its implementation at every level of society.  In an essay called “The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom”, Medvedev argues that Russia’s inability to compete in the world, other than in its oil and gas exports, is a direct result of its social intolerance of difference and its persecution of homosexuals, immigrants and anyone outside the approved family matrix.  Citing Silicon Valley and its proximity to San Francisco, home of Castro Street and flower power, the Beats and a flourishing immigrant community, Medvedev references Richard Florida and his “Gay Index” as a measure of tolerance: the level of openness to sexual minorities is an indicator of how low the barriers are for the development of human capital, which is why centres of the innovation economy are very popular places for the gay community to live.  In summing up, Medvedev writes:

In a sense, the “worldwide homosexual conspiracy” that Russian politicians love to talk about does exist.  The point is, it’s not some collusion between gay politicians in order to seize power across the globe and ravish the last bastions of normality like Russia, but the encouragement of reflexivity and greater flexibility in society in managing complexity, allowing for people to take up key posts notwithstanding their sex, race or sexual orientation. (…)  As always, Russia is following its own difficult path (or, to be more precise, it’s going down the path which the West trod half a century ago).

Medvedev often draws on the historical precedents of other imperial powers and finds Russia sometimes half a century behind, but at other times several centuries behind.  His subject is less the personal power of one man in Russia today and more the very nature of Russian power and its manifestations in the death throes of empire. 

The final part of the book, “The War for Memory”, draws together many of the strands from the previous parts into what is for Medvedev perhaps the central question that must be addressed if Russia’s transformation into a modern 21st century state is to be accomplished: the lacunae at the heart of the interpretation of Russia’s recent historical legacy.  He describes delusional forays into historical revisionism, such as passing the law that changed the 1954 Decree on the Transfer of Crimea to Ukraine, the 1989 Decree criticizing the invasion of Afghanistan and the 1867 Agreement on the sale of Alaska.  He also confronts the contradictions left by Russia’s failure to have its Nuremberg moment or find common understanding and objective truth about its recent leaders, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev or Yeltsin.  Three essays in this final section left me blindsided: Medvedev’s own memoir of the August 1991 coup, titled “Maidan in Moscow”, another about Svetlana Alexievich and the Nobel Prize, and another called “The Battle at the River Iset”, about the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg.  It is precisely because I thought I knew the arguments and was on familiar territory that I was so taken aback by Medvedev’s analysis and prose.   He shines a torch into the dark recesses of Russian consciousness and conscience, forging connections that have the power to astonish. 

I read The Return of the Russian Leviathan wishing there could be a sequel, right now, that would address the events of the past tumultuous year: the Coronavirus pandemic, the constitutional amendments that could make Putin president for life, the phenomenon that is Aleksei Navalny – his poisoning, subsequent arrest and incarceration.  But in actual fact, The Return of the Russian Leviathan has a prescience that takes you beyond the timespan of the book itself.  An essay about Russia’s entry to the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev provides essential background to understanding how Russia’s choice of Manizha, an ethnic Tajik refugee and campaigner for women’s and LGBT rights, might play out this year in Rotterdam – is this another strike in its hybrid war with the West?   

In his very personal account of the August 1991 coup, Medvedev writes: 

More than a quarter of a century on, it all seems like some ancient fable.  The spring of history, pressed down as far as it could be in those days, has sprung back and returned to its normal position.  Today it seems that it wasn’t Yeltsin who triumphed, but the GKChP [State Committee on the State of Emergency, the coup plotters –TC]: all the democratic gains that were made in the country have been turned back.  In effect, a one-party system has been reinstated with the lifelong rule of one man.  The economy and society are being militarized, and the country is run by Chekists.  All that remains for history to come full circle is to return the statue of Dzerzhinsky. 

In the days just after the coup was defeated, the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Cheka, precursor of the KGB and today’s FSB, was pulled down from its pedestal in Lubyanka Square.  Just a few weeks ago, the Mayor of Moscow gave the residents of the city a vote on the very question of the statue in Lubyanka Square: should it be Dzherzhinsky again or should it be Aleksander Nevsky, the 13th century prince?  After just two days and 32,000 ballots cast – Nevsky leading Dzerzhinsky by 55% to 45% – Mayor Sobyanin scrapped the vote, but it was a close-run thing.  

In the first instance, of course, Medvedev wrote these essays for his Russian compatriots. Published in 2017 under the title Park Krymskogo Perioda: Khroniki tret’ego sroka (Park of the Crimean Period: Chronicles of the Third Term), the book enjoyed critical acclaim in Russia.  Crimea, Ukraine and the hybrid wars of the Donbass run like a thread through each and every section of the book. whether discussing sovereignty, imperialism, nationalism, historical memory, historical revisionism or political and strategic hubris.  

Medvedev’s eye is unflinching, his instincts honed, his erudition and intellect sharp.  Like Schulmann and other Russian commentators, Medvedev has a large Facebook following.  He continues to post his commentaries on Facebook, but as he himself recognizes, it is like addressing an echo chamber of like-minded people, a drop in the ocean when considered as a fraction of Russia’s population. 

But for anyone interested in contemporary Russia, this book is an invaluable guide and will leave you smiling through tears.  

If there is another English edition, I hope the publishers can make a correction: Beslan, where the school hostage tragedy occurred in 2004, is in North Ossetia and not Ingushetia.

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