March 01, 2008

Bears Just Want to Have Fun

“Russia is a bear. You think you are playing with it and it devours you.” Protagonist in Pavel Lungin’s 2002 film Oligarch, predicting his future downfall.

The bear has deep roots in Slavic mythology. Indeed, Russian folklore expert Professor Jack Haney (An Introduction to the Russian Folktale) indicates that the bear was so important to pre-Christian slavs that they dared not mention its real name. So they gave it a substitute designation, derived from its favorite food: medved, “honey-eater,” or as defined in this issue’s Survival Russian, “the one who knows where the honey is.”

The bear, which Eastern Slavs believed to be their common ancestor, was a sym- bol of strength and fertility. That it entered Mother Earth in the fall and emerged again in the spring also made it a powerful sign of rebirth.

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