“I’ve been to Moscow. There are no bears.” So reads the saying on countless souvenir t-shirts going back to the time I first moved here in 2006. First of all that’s bullshit. There are bears in Moscow, even outside of the zoo. At least there were. Izmailovsky Market used to have two performing bears, which I haven’t seen in years and are presumed dead. The second bullshit aspect of this shirt and its meme is the Russian-born idea that Westerns believe Russia is so bear-infested that bears actually roam the streets of Moscow. I have never heard this idea in my entire life, having been born and raised in the United States. I have yet to meet any Westerner who has heard of this artificial stereotype. What is true, however is that Russia has historically been associated with a bear, and that has some interesting implications.
A number of reasons have been suggested as to why Russia came to be associated with bears. Size is one of the obvious factors. Bears are also known for defending their territory and for being somewhat mysterious. The analogies go even further, Russia is sometimes known for snearking into campsites and rooting through people’s garbage or coolers looking for sweet, sweet food. This is why you must hang your food from a high tree branch during the night if you don’t want Russia to snatch it. As Russia and bears are often just as afraid of you as you are of them, you can ward off both by attaching a bell to your rucksack and generally making a lot of noise as you trek through the forest.
Seriously though, the visualization of Russia as a bear became particularly popular in the 19th century, often in political cartoons. In those times it was not uncommon to portray different countries as animals. The British Empire, for example, was often portrayed as a lion. At the same time though, some nations had already begun to be portrayed as people. Great Britain had Britannia or John Bull, France had Marianne, and the US of course had Uncle Sam. Even Qing dynasty China got its own personification, usually in the form of a racist caricature dressed as a Manchu civil servant. Something is quite curious about Russia however. Even when Russia appears with the personifications of other countries, it is represented as a bear. It may be a bear wearing a Russian imperial uniform, but it is a bear nonetheless.
The bear characterized Russia as large and prone to ferocity. The pejorative imagery no doubt had a lot to do with the Victorian era “Great Game,” the competition between the Russian and British empires over colonial real estate in Central Asia. But while portraying Russia as a bear might have started out as a negative slight that equated Russia with barbarism and inhumanity, the symbol would later be adopted by Russia itself. The bear is the symbol of the ruling United Russia party. When Khabarovsk’s airport got a new logo, it silhouette of a bear with outstretched arms, as though it were flying. Patriotic Russian t-shirts depict a ferocious bear lashing out at threats such as sanctions, democracy, and human rights. Russia is portrayed as a bear even in pro-Kremlin political cartoons, while Russia’s perceived enemies are typically portrayed as human in most cases. Compare this to American political cartoons, where Uncle Sam is more likely to represent the country than a bald eagle.
Russia’s friends abroad also portray Russia as a bear even while they portray other countries as humans. A particularly interesting example of this is highlighted by author Aleksandr Volodarsky in an article published originally for Chetvyortaya Vlast’, translated and published in English by The Interpreter. Volodarsky, writing on the topic of Western leftists who support Russia’s “Novorossiya” project in the Donbas, presents us with an interpretation of a cartoon by Brazilian-Arab veteran cartoonist Carlos Latuff.
“This illustration clearly demonstrates how the supporters of Novorossiya present the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is simply a virgin territory encroached upon by Western imperialists. The latter are opposed by the Russian bear. Not man, mind you, but bear. We are dealing with a kind of “positive dehumanization.” The Russian is presented as a creature belonging to another species, to whom human ethical norms need not apply; therefore, Russia is easily pardoned for the actions which, if conducted by the West, are harshly criticized.”
To be sure, Russia got off easy. At least it’s portrayed by a living creature. Ukraine, as is so often the case, is totally dehumanized and is simply inanimate. It is merely a contested space on a map. In any case, while one could accuse Volodarsky of reading too much into this portrayal in one particular cartoon, he does raise an interesting point. Why, for example, could Russia not have been represented by some kind of person? All sorts of people could be used as a stand in for Russia, some with positive connotations and others without. Why don’t we see at least Putin, if not maybe a Rodina-Mat motherland statue come to life and batting Uncle Sam and Europa away?
Volodarsky has definitely hit on something here. Western leftists have often had a problem with positive stereotypes, the “noble savage,” the agency-free victim who must be beyond any criticism, and so on. I’ve seen a similar stereotype about Arabs and Muslims dismantled in detail by Maajid Nawaz in his article “The British Left’s Hypocritical Embrace of Islamism.” The way some leftists apparently see it, any criticism of Islamist movements, in spite of the fact that most of their victims tend to be Muslims, should be off limits. While the same leftists might claim to fight for women’s rights, minority rights, and LGBT rights, they excuse the rabidly contradictory positions on these issues held by radical Islamists because they are different in some way. In a similar vein, many of the same leftists similarly make excuses for the reactionary policies of Putin-controlled Russia because it is allegedly “standing up to Western imperialism.” The stereotype of the angry but righteous Islamist insurgent and the backward but defiant Russian bear may be at work here.
When Russian cartoonists, especially pro-Kremlin ones, portray their country as a bear, it also brings up interesting questions. What sort of image would they use to personify Russia, to humanize it? Rodina-Mat or not, it wouldn’t be a woman. Could it be Putin? That might highlight the centrality he plays in the system, to the point where someone might consider him responsible for the things that happen here. Perhaps this is why they use a bear. But I can’t help but agree with Volodarsky that the possibly-subconscious motive might be similar to that of Russia’s supporters abroad. Russia need not be held to the same standards that leftists hold their own countries to. Russia is not human. Russia is a bear, a wild animal.
This message, coming from a domestic instead of a foreign source, also serves the Kremlin’s narrative about Russia’s so-called “special path.” It’s almost as if to say, “Sure, maybe the West is right, maybe we are less civilized! But this is our way. We’re not meant to be like them. We can’t.” If this seems unlikely, keep in mind that Vladimir Putin himself went on a rambling rant comparing Russia to a bear during his 18 December 2014 press conference. In a surreal tangent, he wondered allowed if the West would allow the Russian bear to simply wander around in the forest eating “berries and honey.” If we translate that into human, the most logical result is that leaving the bear alone in the forest to eat berries and honey means not allowing the bear to attack campers like Ukraine, and not remaining silent while its authoritarian leaders continue to rob the country blind so they can eat more “berries” (Luxury cars and watches?) or “honey” (Your guess is as good as mine).
Whatever the president and those pro-Kremlin cartoonists meant, the dehumanization is there even if the message is supposed to be pro-Russian. It’s not far removed from portrayals of Native Americans being “close to nature,” portrayals of elderly black men and women who always have some kind of sage advice for a troubled white character, or East Asian men who possess mystical powers. In Western pop culture, white characters run a wide gamut of personalities and roles, whereas the others are pigeonholed into a typically limited set of cliched roles. On an international scale, other countries can be represented by people, albeit sometimes stereotypical examples, but Russia is still the bear.
I don’t make any pretense to being able to read the minds of those who use the bear to represent Russia. Many of these cartoonists or writers are merely adhering to conventions which were established long before they started working in their profession. It helps to remember, however, that the portrayal of Russia as a bear, particularly when in political cartoons opposite personified nations, was originally a negative trope designed to contrast the supposedly civilized Western imperial powers with backward, “Asiatic” Russia. Such a negative stereotype, decades later, can just as easily be reworked into something allegedly positive, but ultimately dehumanizing and designed to excuse behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated from other nations.
It’s time to stop looking at Russia as some kind of aberration. Those who claim it is unique forget that the same could be said for every nation. This doesn’t mean we should go and liken those nations to wild animals who need not be held accountable for their governments behavior. Russia is a nation of people, not bears.
There still are a lot of bears here though. Count on that.
Jim Kovpak is the founder of Russia without BS