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From: "Robert Bowie" <bowierobert@bellsouth.net>
Subject: The Dancing Bear in the Grand Russian Round and Round
Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2008

Robert Bowie, PhD, is an independent consultant, specializing in Russian mentalities. His website is www.russianmindsetsconsultancies.com.

When we are speaking about the future (in particular, about the Russian future), the one thing that we can be certain of is that we certainly cannot be certain of anything.

In view of this, it is nothing less than astounding that the majority of pundits who lucubrate about the prospects for Russia in the next 10-50 years deal so superficially with the realities and lessons of the Russian past. Those who do speak of the past often belabor events of the 1990s, or limit themselves to discussion of the Soviet Union (two tiny blips on the timeline of Russian history). Others may treat in some depth historical parallels from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, but practically no one touches upon that vast expanse of Russian history and culture that forms the foundation upon which modern Russian cultural mores, and, consequently, the contemporary Russian political and economic system, rest.

Bear imagery has become prominent recently with the inauguration of the new President, Medvedev, whose name is derived from the Russian word for ‘bear.’ As one brief illustration, therefore, of Russia’s lengthy cultural heritage (and its consequences for contemporary Russia), let us now speak of the Bear. Literature on the bear as a prehistoric image of reverence and awe throughout much of the world is immense, so we must limit ourselves here to a few telling details.

If you go back far enough in human history you will find connections to the bear that are relevant to practically everything in modern civilization. Here are some examples. The cities Bern (Switzerland) and Berlin (Germany) are just two of the multitude of place names in Europe and Asia that are bear names. Bern still maintains bear pits as tourist sites and an ancient clock tower that features, among other things, a parade of bear figurines every hour on the hour. The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word for bear (“arctos”). In ancient Germany military fraternities initiated a young man (to stifle his inhibitions against killing) by forcing him to strip naked, don the skin of a flayed bear and “work himself into a bestial rage: in other words, to go. . . BERSERK.[1]

Why the worldwide bear mania that so inspired our ancestors? Why the obsession with the bear in folk practices that are observed all the way across Northern Europe and Asia, all the way across North America (in Native American mythology and folklore)? Maybe because, as the prominent mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested, the earliest object of religion in the history of the world was the bear:

“in the high Alps, in the neighborhood of St. Gallen, and again in Germany, some thirty miles northwest of Nürnberg. . . a series of caves containing the ceremonially arranged skulls of a number of cave bears have been discovered from the period (it is almost incredible!) of Neanderthal Man.”[2]

In caves excavated in the Alps (dating not later than 75,000 B.C.) a number of altars were discovered, “the earliest altars of any kind yet found, or known anywhere in the world” (Campbell, P.M., p. 341). The focus of worship at these altars was bear skulls and leg bones. As evidenced by the title of the book by Shepherd and Sanders (“The Sacred Paw”), the leg bones of bears have continued to inspire awe in much of the world (Native American culture, Eurasian culture, etc.) up almost to the present day.

Campbell also discusses in detail (P.M., p. 334-39) the bear ritual of the Ainu peoples, who live on the northern islands of Japan (Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles). This ritual involves capturing a baby bear, suckling it and raising it, then sending it back to the other world in a ritual sacrifice. The bear is assumed to be a divinity, and the sacrifice of the divinity is accompanied by gestures honoring the beast, who was sent into the world for the Ainus to hunt, and who, upon his arrival back in the other world, will speak kindly to the other gods of the Ainus, who have “done him the honor” of sacrificing him. As Campbell explains here (and repeatedly in his books on world mythology), the main idea is connected with the preeminent mythological obsession of the Stone Age, an idea that no means disappeared with the dawning of modern civilization: the eternal return of all events and all beings. In describing Neanderthal burials (in fetal position, prepared for rebirth), he writes as follows:

“The mystery of death, then, had been met and faced, both for the beasts killed in the hunt and for man. And the answer found was one that has been giving comfort to those who wish comfort ever since, namely: ‘Nothing dies; death and birth are but a threshold crossing, back and forth, as it were, through a veil’” (P.M., p. 342).

Beginning with bears, therefore, we have worked our way into the issue of the grand round and round, an issue that obsesses (bedevils?) the modern Russian psyche, and an issue that linear-oriented Western pundits blithesomely ignore. Before returning to this issue, let’s take a look at the folklore of the bear on the Russian land. As mentioned above, parts of northern Russia lie right in the midst of that “circumpolar paleolithic cult of the bear” mentioned by Campbell. Although there is no definitive proof of this assertion, anthropologists often assume that the bear was at one time a totem animal for the ancient Slavs. One piece of evidence for this is toponymy: there are bear names (of rivers, hills, islands, settlements, etc.) all over northern Russia. The coat of arms of the cities of Great Novgorod, Yaroslavl’ and Perm all feature depictions of bears.[3] More evidence is to be found in what are obvious naming taboos connected with the bear. From time out of mind, all over the world, there has been a prohibition against speaking the name of a god or other supernatural being. This often includes the names of the dead, of witches, the Devil, etc., plus the names of totem animals. In an article on naming taboos in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology, it is noted that “Ural-Altaic peoples of Siberia. . . never speak the name of the bear; they call him Little Old Man, Grandfather, dear Uncle, or Wise One. . . North American Kiowa Indians say that unless you are named for the bear you must not say bear.”[4] The word “bruin” (“Brownie”), used for bear in German (and sometimes in English) is another euphemism. Vladimir Dahl’s entry on bears in his famous four-volume interpretive dictionary of Russian is full of euphemisms used to name the bear: e.g., “kosolapyj” (“knock-kneed, clumsy”), “mokhnatyj” (“shaggy”), “leshij” (“wood demon”), “lesnoj chert” (“devil of the woods”). The bear is also given human names: Mishka (Mike), Mishuk (Mikey), Mikhailo Ivanich Toptygin, which suggest the special affinity that Russians have had for the bear and they way they have likened him to humans.[5]

Westerners dealing with Russians often underestimate the role of superstition in Russian life. Naming taboos still exist in Russia today. Most Russians would cringe at the common American practice of naming babies before birth. You let the evil spirits know the name of your unborn baby and they may conjure with that name. Baby showers or gift-giving for unborn babies are also rare in Russia. They are simply too optimistic in spirit. You don’t want to appear happy or the fates may quickly squelch your happiness. This is probably the reason why so many Russians respond to the question, “Kak dela?” (“How are you?”) with a shrug of the shoulders, a Russian scowl, and a neutral answer: “Normal’no” (“Same old same old”). If you say (as Americans do), “I’m doing great!” then some malicious something out there might decide to show you just how great you are NOT doing.

Of particular interest is the modern Russian word for bear, “medved’. Most Russian folklorists and anthropologists have assumed that this too is a euphemism. It means, essentially, “honey eater” and almost certainly derives from the reluctance of ancient Slavs to pronounce the real name of the bear.[6] A check of the words for bear in other Slavic languages confirms that the animal came to be called “honey eater” in Protoslavic times (before the Slavic languages became separated into their three modern branches). The Polish word, e.g., is nied wied and the Belorussian word is mjadzvedz’ (see Unbegaun, Russskie familii, p. 248).

In their zealous efforts to stamp out pagan beliefs, Russian Orthodox Church authorities fought to extirpate ancient reverence for the bear. This fight, supported by civil authorities, went on for centuries. The original bear trainers were, apparently, the skomorokhi (medieval minstrels and clowns associated with pagan religions and with the licentiousness carnival behavior that lies at the core of pagan mythological beliefs), and this was all the more reason why any manifestations of the ancient reverence for the bear should be suppressed.

With his tendency to be both a deeply religious Russian Orthodox believer and a scurrilous apostate simultaneously, Ivan Groznyj (the Terrible--1533-1584) manifested ambivalent attitudes toward the once sacred bear and the pagan bear handlers. Preparing for his upcoming marriage to Marfa Sobakina in 1570, Groznyj sent an envoy to the city of Great Novgorod, with an order to have skomorokhi and performing bears sent to Moscow for the wedding celebrations (Nekrylova, “Ursine Comedy,” p. 36). Bear baiting seems to have been a common folk entertainment in the years of Ivan’s reign, which is also associated with tales about how he and his equally sadistic son Ivan threw people into bear pits, or sewed them up in bear skins and tossed them to the dogs.[7]

When a new religion attempts to establish its beliefs and rituals, it tramples upon the most sacred symbols of the religion that it supersedes. It is not surprising, therefore, that by the nineteenth century the bear was denigrated and mocked, seen largely as a figure of fun: (1) the embodiment of stupidity and clumsiness in the animal folk tales (2) the entertainer who provoked laughter by his awkward imitations of human behavior in the bear acts. More important, however, was that, despite centuries of efforts to ban them, the bear acts were still going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were a particularly popular part of village entertainments and performances in urban marketplace squares, especially at times of the year associated with important (originally pagan) seasonal highlights: winter solstice, Maslenitsa (ancient pagan pre-Lenten festival), summer solstice, etc.

Old ideas are slow to die out. Russian and Soviet folklorists have established that at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries there remained vestiges of the ancient reverence for the bear, which was still connected in the folk psyche with the most salient elements of the pagan mentality: a striving to promote fertility, health, and well-being through the repetitive enactment of rituals that were often highly sexual and violent. Because of their association with bears the handlers/impresarios in the folk bear performances acquired the reputation of healers and witch doctors. Since it was still widely believed that the bear could drive away evil spirits, the handler would often have his bear step over a sick person or pregnant woman. In accord with the belief that the paw of the bear was supposed to have magical powers, it was sometimes hung up in the peasant household “ot domovogo” (to conciliate the often capricious “household imp”) or put under the floor to encourage the fertility of the domestic animals.[8]

One final example of bear ritual perhaps explains best of all why the bear was, and remained, a figure of reverence for so long on the Russian land. P. V. Shein, a famous collector of Russian and Belorussian folklore, published a description of the festive rite known as “komoeditsa,” carried out under the direction of a priest Simeon Nechaev in Belorus (1874). “This festival is always observed on the eve of the Annunciation and is dedicated to honoring the bear. Special viands are prepared on this day: the first course consists of dried turnips, as a way of emphasizing that the bear is primarily herbivorous; the second course consists of kisel’ (jelled oats), because the bear loves oats; the third course consists of lumps of peas, which is why the festival was given the name “komoeditsa” (“lump-eating day”). After consuming the meal, everyone­both young and old­lies down, not sleeping, but in very slow movements rolling from side to side, as if in an attempt to stimulate the [hibernating] bear to make similar movements. The ceremony continues for about two hours; it is intended to facilitate the bear’s awakening and arising from his winter den. . . The peasants are convinced that on Annunciation Day the bear comes out of hibernation. He is to be greeted with encouragement for his well being.”[9]

This final example brings us to a still-relevant truth about Russian mentalities­a truth that Westerners who study any aspect of Russia ignore at their own peril: this truth is that Russians, as opposed to modern Westerners, are cyclical thinkers, not linear thinkers. Primitive and Oriental mythology, still vibrant in the cultural mores of modern Russia, differ from Western mythology in several important ways. Here are the essential parallels: (1) In the West­straight lines, progress (the apocalyptic view; we are progressing toward some grand End, or at least toward some goal). In the East--the circle; we are, essentially, doing the same thing over and over in our lives, history repeats itself, and we’re not really getting anywhere (2) In the West­free will, individualism, rationality; the assertive individual can change his/her life, can alter for the better even the human condition on earth. In the East­no free will, collectivism, irrationality; the individual cannot really change anything; the broad masses have little choice but to go with the eternal flow of ever-repetitive events (3) In the West­Nature is darkness, alien to the principles of light and progress; death is an abomination, something unacceptable (to be overcome, or, failing that, ignored if at all possible). In the East­Nature, like all of life, is a blend of light and darkness; Death is the complement of Life, not to be dreaded but accepted. Furthermore, Death is not an end, but a new beginning in the eternally repeating cycle: every exit is an entrance and every entrance an exit. The ceremony of “komoeditsa” described above is exemplary, in that it reinforces and promotes the beliefs in eternal return that so many other peasant rituals of the solar calendar reinforced in Russia right up into the twentieth century. Encourage the bear to come out of hibernation in the spring and renew the cycle, and, by so doing, you also encourage the burgeoning of the spring crops and the fertility of the cows and pigs upon whose prosperity the very existence of the peasant depends. Even Christianity in agricultural Russia has the same implications: Christ is ritually sacrificed once a year, and his Resurrection on the third day renews the cycle, promotes the eternal round and round of the agricultural season.

How did the modern West end up (at least in the ideals that it professes to live by) on the linear path, while modern Russia (in the depth of its cultural mores and its mentality) remains committed to the Eastern philosophy of the cycle? This is an issue that demands treatment in an entire book, not in a short article. The usual answer is that Russia skipped the great intellectual movements of Western civilization: the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, etc., but the issue is more complex than that.[10]

At any rate, reformers (most prominently, Peter the Great, Aleksandr II, Lenin, Gorbachev) have made repetitive efforts to overcome the cyclical Russian mindset and force the country onto a straight-line path. In other words, to undermine definitively the venerable Russian tradition of GETTING NOWHERE and convince the Russian people that it is worth trying to GET SOMEWHERE. These reformers have all failed miserably. Now we are about to see (possibly) a new attempt on the part, paradoxically, of a man whose very name embodies the principles of the round and round: Medvedev.

The new President has been making linear noises, assuring the Russian people that they can dispense with the chaos of the round and round and live by a new set of rules (Western rules): fixed and enforceable laws, the imperative to stamp out corruption, the establishment of a true middle class and civil society. What the Bear President professes to be seeking is DEMOCRACY, a word that is anathema from the point of view of the grand eternal cycle. The last dance of the bear in Russian folk life (if we don’t count the circus bears that are still around today) was that of the trained bear who was still performing in villages and urban marketplace squares in the early twentieth century. At the climactic moment of the performance, controlled by his handler and trainer (he had a ring through his nose and a lead attached to the ring), the bear got up on his back legs and did a whirling dance round and round.[11]

So who is Dmitry Medvedev? Is he the same old dancing bear, going round and round and getting nowhere, controlled by his handler, another votary of the grand round and round of Eternal Mother Russia (who is the handler? That’s obvious: VVP)? Or is he the bear who can break the lead and set off on the linear path toward a brand new Russia? I don’t know. That’s a matter for the political pundits to pontificate upon. One thing is for certain: better men than Medvedev have already tried and failed to stop the round and round of Russian history.

One last point. For over 230 years the United States of America has been committed to the great linear path. The United States believes in progress, and all of its institutions (political, religious, etc.) are aimed at getting somewhere. Both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, harp incessantly upon the idea of changing things for the better. But if we look at history (present, past and future) from a broad philosophical perspective, of course, we must admit that the ideas of the Neolithic primitive planters (hardwired in the modern Russian psyche) still have validity. Great political reformers (ideologues in the worst sense of the word), who assume that political Utopia is possible and that human cultural mores can be radically revamped, often end up changing essentials very little, while managing to murder huge numbers of innocent people. Examples of such reformers throughout history are rife, but here we need mention only one: “Velikij Ilich” (Vladimir Lenin). Medvedev, on the contrary, is not an ideologue, and let us hope that his efforts to push Russia onto a straight-line path will not involve the excesses of leaders like Lenin and Peter I.

Any linear path, ultimately however, anticipates, certainly in terms of the mortal individual, and almost certainly in the future of the entire human race, the Great End of the Line (Armageddon or the Apocalypse). This does not mean, however, that we should encourage the dancing bear to just keep whirling round and round. We must make the best of what we have here in our transient existence. So, Da zdravstvuet Medvezhonok! (Long live the Baby Bear!). In terms of the venerable old ways, his ascension to power is an extremely good omen. The ancient superstitions assume that the sacred bear encourages the progression of the solar cycle, promotes well-being and fertility (something that Russia is desperate for in light of its demographic crisis). But (to take the Western perspective) it would also be nice it the baby bear could soon break the lead of his handler, shake the whirling rhythms out of his head, and set off down the linear road, traipsing along on his plantigrade way, following the sign marked, “TO SOMEWHERE.”


[1] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (Vintage Classics, 1987), p. 219. For Indo-European roots of the word ‘bear’ and the profusion of words derived from these roots, see Paul Shephard and Barry Sanders, The Sacred Paw: the Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature (NY: Viking Penguin, 1985), introduction, p. xvi. The Shephard and Sanders book is an excellent compendium of bear lore worldwide.

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (NY: Viking Press, 1979, revised edition 1969), p. 339. The period during which Neanderthal Man lived is assumed to have begun about 200,000 years ago and ended about 75,000 years ago. Some scientists project a much later date for his demise (between 25,000 and 20,000 B.C.) See p. 340-41. On p. 340 Campbell presents a map showing the most prominent areas of Europe, Asia, and North America where the bear cult was ascendant in prehistoric times (“the vestiges of a circumpolar paleolithic cult of the bear”). These include parts of today’s northern Russia and show the influence of the bear stretching southward, into modern Novgorod Province and Belorus.

[3] See the chapter entitled “Medvezh’ja komedija” (“Ursine Comedy”) in the book by A.F. Nekrylova, Russkie narodnye gorodskie prazdniki, uveselenija i zrelishcha (konets XVIII-nachalo XX veka) [Russian Folk Urban Festivals, Merry-Making, and Spectacles (at the End of the 19th and Beginning of the 20th Centuries] (Iskusstvo Publishers: Leningrad, 1984), p. 37-39.

[4] Maria Leach, editor, Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (Harper and Row, one-vol. edition, 1984), p. 782-83.

[5] Vladimir Dal’ dictionary, II, 311. According to Boris Unbegaun, the surname Toptygin comes, originally, from the nickname “tjazhelostup” (“clumsy stepper, lummox”). B.O. Unbegaun, Russkie familii, translation from English edited by B.A. Uspenskij (Moskva: Progress, 1989), p. 123.

[6] On the “honey eater” meaning see an informative letter by Elena Carducci to the journal Russian Life (May/June, 2008, p. 5). Ms. Carducci cites three Russian etymological dictionaries in support of her interpretation. The issue of Russian Life for March/April, 2008, contains an interesting compilation of Russian expressions relating to the bear (under “Survival Russian,” by Mikhail Ivanov, p. 29), but perpetuates the erroneous folk etymology (medved’ as “knower of the honey”), later corrected by Ms. Carducci.

[7] Isabel de Madariaga, Ivan the Terrible (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 295, 358.

[8] Nekrylova, “Ursine Comedy,” p. 37-38. See also V.P. Anikin, Russkaja narodnaja skazka [The Russian Folk Tale] (Moskva, Prosveshchenie, 1977), p. 44-45.

[9] Shein quoted in Anikin, The Russian Folk Tale, p. 45. Note the involvement of an Orthodox priest and the connection of this pagan festival with the Christian Annunciation Day. This is one of multiple examples of the existence of syncretism (“dvoeverie” or “double belief”) in Russia. Paganism coexisted for centuries with Christianity; they still coexist, so some extent, to this very day.

[10] The literature on the Stone Age mythology and folklore that forms the foundation of modern Russian cultural mores is vast. On primitive mythology of the eternal round and round, the best books are by Joseph Campbell (especially his four volume series titled The Masks of God). Equally important are the many works by Mircea Eliade (for example, his The Myth of Eternal Return). Seminal works relating to the influence of primitive plant mythology on Russian culture are, e.g., V. Ja. Propp’s Russkie agrarnye prazdniki [Russian Agrarian Festivals] (Leningrad University, 1963) and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World [original Russian title is Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable], translated into English by H. Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984).

[11] For a detailed description of the marketplace bear performances of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Nekrylova, “Ursine Comedy,” p. 38-53.