Grinning and Bearing It

Article excerpt

  "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 symbol 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.

In fact, there is evidence that in some parts of Russia, up through the 19th century, villagers celebrated a "bear holiday"--komoeditsy, near the spring solstice, on March 24. It was an elaborate celebration, timed to coincide with the supposed emergence of bears from their dens.

Apparently komoeditsy is coming three weeks early in 2008. On March 2, Russia will elect its third president, and Dmitry Medvedev, whose ursine family name represents the apotheosis of bear symbology in Russian politics, will emerge from his metaphorical den and take center stage. The inauguration is set for May, perhaps timed with this year's Victory Day celebrations, when, for the first time in about a decade, fearsome military hardware will course through Red Square.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Medvedev, who some Western media outlets are touting as a liberal without KGB ties, a lover of Deep Purple and the internet (see page 7), will likely use the "coincidence" of the May holidays to underscore his toughness--something that came more naturally for his predecessor and long-time patron, Vladimir Putin. …