The origins of the Russian ‘bear myth’
One of the most common standing jokes about Russia has to do with bears roaming the streets of its towns and cities. How did this ‘bear myth’ come about?
There are various explanations. One has a very old origin. Back in the IX century, Byzantine historians mentioned in chronics that “in a barbaric land of the Slavs, people worship bears as gods, and bears live among humans and roam their settlements”. This myth stemmed from the fact that the Slavic god Veles had, among others, a bear incarnation.
The bears actually did roam the streets of Russian medieval towns and villages but only show actors at numerous town fairs.
And here’s another the possible explanations suggested in a book “In the Woods” by Andrei Melnikov-Pecherski (written in 1871-1874).
In his book, he presents the following most curious fact. During the war with the French in 1812, many French prisoners were sent around different towns and settlements of Russia to winter. Several officers ended up in the town of Sergach. This town historically was home to hundreds of bear keepers, the so-called ‘sergachi’, who wandered from one Russian town to another during warm season with their tamed bears and the so popular bear shows. The local country gentlemen of Sergach were very hospitable to the French officers, gave them food and shelter. It was around Maslenitsa (Pancake holiday) when everyone eats and drinks plenty so the local aristocracy were treating the French to generous holiday meals. During one such meal they got to talk about the future of the Napoleon campaign. The French officers expressed skepticism about Russia’s military success in summer. The Sergach police captain surprised the French by saying the Russians don’t have enough people they will then send bear regiments to fight, and that he himself is currently training a bear battalion and the training is going well. He then invited the French officers to see the training for themselves.
The bear keepers were all home for the winter season. They were told by the town governor to get their tamed bears in one place, ‘arrange troops for battle’ and demonstrate the command: ‘Shoulder, arms!’ - which the trained bears easily did! The French were beyond amazed! After the show they wrote letters back home about how they saw a Russian bear regiment with their own eyes.
And that’s very likely how the French (and other Europeans) started calling the Russians bears and spreading myths about bears and humans cohabitaion in Russia.
Adapted from “In the Woods” by Andrei Melnikov-Pecherski.
For photos and videos of bears roaming the streets of Russian towns, see: