Foreigners quite often use a bear personification to describe Russia and the connection is correct. The bear, like the biggest country in the world, is a huge animal that weighs between 100 to 700 kilos (220 to 1,543 pounds). If you squint your eyes the right way, Russia’s geographical shape on the map is quite similar to a bear’s silhouette. A bear was the symbol of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the image of “Mishka” floating away into the sky after the Games will never be forgotten.
The roots of the bear connected to Russia go deep. The first time this image concerned Russia was in the 16th century, when bears were depicted as shield-bearers on the Muskovy Company emblem (an English company founded in 1596). There was no political colouring, just the attribute of mysterious Muscovites. In the 18th century, this image appeared in politics and represented some monstrous and aggressive creature from the East. In the heat of trade competition between Russia and Great Britain, the latter aimed to impose the most negative image of Russia on the world arena. Among the most significant political caricatures there were titles like “The Russian Bear and her invincible rider encountering the British Legion” and “From Russian Bears, Good Lord deliver me…” This usually shy animal was somehow depicted as cruel and ruthless. The perception of the bear is entirely different in Russia, and, as mentioned, was chosen as the symbol of the Olympics. It is also the symbol of the “United Russia” party.
We should remember that the bear is not a naturally aggressive animal. In fact, its diet is 75 percent vegetarian; the main part of their food intake consists of berries, roots, and sprouts. Still, brown bears may attack young deer, moose, and caribou, but, their prime choice is fish. Spending half of the year in hibernation, they are very lazy and prefer eating honey to hunting. Thus, the most intimidating thing about bears is their size. Surprisingly, these big creatures do not usually attack first, unless their cubs are threatened. Like the noble lion of the jungle, the bear is often regarded as king of the forest. The above statements are true of Russia as well. There is no aggressive bear here. All the negative perception of Russia is imposed on the West at every opportunity. A “Russian bear” is frequently used in the media to describe Russia, but, rarely in a favourable light. Recently, Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian Minister of Defence, commenting on the Russian-Georgian conflict, said that the behaviour of the Russian bear had deteriorated. Do you think “deteriorated behaviour” is Russia’s problem? It is more likely the answer. Punch in “Russian bear” into your Internet search engine and negative articles will pop up. But, Russia isn’t a hunter, it prefers a “vegetarian diet”; and it rarely kills people unless provoked. A brutal and clumsy animal has a different face.
The ties between Russia and the bear allegory are very close, but, there is more. Ironically, Russia’s current president has a “bear surname”. In Russian, “bear” is “medved”, and President Dmitri Anatolyevich’s surname is Medvedev (genitive of “medved”). Now, Russians can nod their heads in agreement when foreigners ask, “Are there bears on Red Square?”
19 September 2008
A Russian Briefer