When you think of Russia, what symbol comes to mind? You might have thought of the bear: an animal that is so closely tied with Russia that it seems to appear everywhere you look, from mascots, advertisements, to political cartoons. Despite the bear’s close linkage with Russia, the bear is not and has never been an official symbol of Russia (that title goes to the double-headed eagle). If that is the case, why has the bear become so closely associated with the Russian people, culture, and state? This article explores the historical roots of the bear’s connection to Russia and its implications as a cultural and political symbol on the world’s stage.
The Bear’s Roots in Ancient Slavic Tradition and Folklore
Since Russia’s ancient times, the bear has been a highly respected animal. To the ancient Slavs, the bear’s hibernation cycle—hiding underground for the duration of the winter only to come back to life in the spring—made the animal subject to the celebration. Some communities even celebrated the bear’s emergence from hibernation on March 23rd.
However, in Russian folklore, the bear was portrayed in less-than-admirable ways, often being characterized as overly trusting, gullible, stupid, lazy, and clumsy. In most traditional Russian stories, the bear suffers indignity and exploitation at the hands of other characters. In one famous story, a fox tricks a bear into giving up his butter; in another, a group of animals tricks a bear into building them a hut for the winter.
The West's Portrayal of the Bear
The answer to why the bear is such a famous Russian symbol lies in the Western portrayal of Russia from the middle ages into the modern era; the bear was often used to represent Russian geography, culture, and politics. Due to Russia’s relative remoteness from Western Europe, Russia was perceived as the land of mystery—many thought that Russia was wild, untamed, and dangerous. This perception is apparent in the maps of medieval times when mapmakers used animals to “fill in the gaps” of certain uncharted regions —and for Russia, mapmakers used the bear. An example of such a map is shown below, where packs of bears inhabit areas of Russia, apparently suggesting that these areas lack civilization.
Outside of cartography, the symbol of the bear quickly rose to prominence in political cartoons, where cartoonists commonly used the bear to represent the Russian people and state. The earliest known use of such political symbolism came in 1791, in a caricature titled “The Russian Bear and Her Invincible Rider Encountering the British Legion,” which shows a bear with the head of Empress Catherine the Great confronting England’s King George III and his ministers. Later on, the bear appeared frequently in popular newspapers in the 19th-century, such as Britain’s Punch, the London Charivari, and America’s Harpers’ Weekly.
Looking at the cartoons published in these Western publications, one can easily recognize how the bear demonstrates Western attitudes toward Russia throughout the 19th century. These cartoons often portrayed the competition between Russian and the Western powers, frequently implying that Russia was a land-hungry country seeking to assert influence over eastern and central Asia. For example, when tensions between Russia and the Ottoman Empire increased in 1853 and Russia moved its troops to the Danube region, Western governments became concerned over Russia’s apparent aggression. The cartoon “Turkey in Danger” appeared just months before the eventual outbreak of the Crimean War, illustrating Russia’s supposed expansionist intentions in the region.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, other cartoons continued to use the bear as a symbol for Russia as the country expanded its influence throughout Asia. In a cartoon published in 1879, the Ameer of Afghanistan is stuck in between a Russian bear and a British lion. In another, cartoons used the bear to represent Russia during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. While the cartoons did not always use the bear to depict Russian aggression, they certainly conveyed that Russia had expansionist tendencies and should be watched carefully.
The Russian Bear in the Cold War and Today
Cartoonists continued to use the bear to display Russian aggression during the Cold War Era, often in opposition to America. In the cartoon below, a bear is wearing a hammer and sickle symbol and aggressively stares across a chasm at an American eagle, with two of them separated by “irresponsible statements” and “deepening suspicion,” represented by the papers falling through the crevice. As such, the Cold War only cemented the bear’s connection to Russia, continuing to characterize the country as aggressive, hostile, and antagonistic.
A 2009 survey found that when asked to rank the symbols of Russia, 46% of respondents from Western countries ranked the bear as their first choice, ahead of the Red Square with 39% and Mother, Russia at 32%. When respondents were asked what the bear represented, a hefty 77% chose “aggressiveness,” which starkly contrasts what Russians believed the bear represented, with 58% of Russian respondents choosing “strength.”
Today, Russia has embraced the symbol of the bear. The bear was chosen as the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which sought to portray the bear as a friendly creature rather than the aggressive one depicted in the media. The parliament of the new post-Soviet Russian Federation even considered choosing the bear as the official symbol of Russia, coming in close second after the double-headed eagle. Today, the most popular party of Russia, “Russia United,” uses the bear on the official party emblem and quite a few of the Russian republics, okrugs, and krais use the bear in their flags. No longer is the bear a negative stereotype of Russia— Russia has now claimed this symbol as their own.