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Punch Drunk: The Bear, Richmond's Spirit Animal?



Much like the United States’ soaring bald eagle, India’s majestic Bengal tiger and Canada’s crafty beaver, the bear generally is seen as the animal symbol of Russia.

A bear is inherently powerful and cunning — traits that Russians from the days of the czars through the Soviet era to modern times tend to see reflected in themselves. The bear cub Misha even served as the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. (The 2014 Sochi Olympics also had a polar bear among its mascots.)

The bear also has been used by Russian rivals, in particular the West, to denote that Russia is a big, awkward brute — quick to use force and little practiced in the ways of diplomacy.

Ronald Reagan famously used a “bear in the woods” ad during his 1984 re-election campaign to portray Russia as a lurking menace to U.S. peace and prosperity.

Russian president Vladimir Putin even made an extended, somewhat bizarre Russia-as-bear analogy during a news conference in December, saying: “Maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quiet, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace. They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.”

Absurd, possibly, but his point is that the Russian bear, aka the Russian Federation, won’t remain docile while others use force.

So clearly, the image of the bear, the symbolism, whether as a negative or a positive connotation, remains strong. And why not? In Russia alone there are thought to be more than 100,000 brown bears. You can’t crap in a salmon stream without hitting a bear.

There’s no shortage of Russian bear stories either. Curiously Russian in tone and not just your typical bear-in-the-backyard-type anecdotes. It’s more like bears in crowded urban areas, bears in bars, bears in rehab (seriously, see below) and now bears ... in cars?

The New York Post recently reported that a motorist in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg had a brown bear in the back seat of a Volga car. The bear was photographed sticking its head out the window and playing with a human passenger.

It gets better.

Local police said they weren’t going to cite the driver because the bear had a seat belt on, and thus was breaking no laws.

Yes, in Russia, bears are allowed in cars provided that they’re safely restrained.

What confuses me is that other than the normal hunting and poaching-related laws, Russia actually has laws that pertain to bears in cars. That there probably are people who refer to “bear law” in a court of law.

One can only hope the country has people who specialize in bear law.

“Hello. I’m Jack Lauterback, bear attorney.”

This is one of literally hundreds of weird bear stories, which I suppose to Russians who might read this, aren’t weird at all.

Earlier this year a legal battle broke out over two bears that were kept caged next to a restaurant in Sochi — where they’d become alcoholics. According to animal welfare groups, the two bears were regularly slipped alcohol by drunken restaurant patrons. The restaurant’s owner counter-argued that alcohol is good for the bears because of the cold climate.

The bears since have been moved to a bear sanctuary in Romania, where presumably, they’ve been able to kick the sauce.

This is a real story from a real news source. There are people out there who think nothing of giving alcohol to bears. It’s unfair to pin that only on Russians, though, as I have friends who might in similar circumstances do the same thing.

I should mention that we have a large bear population in Virginia, particularly in southeastern Virginia, where there’s a strong black bear contingent.

In August, a Midlothian woman miraculously survived a rare black bear attack at Douthat State Park in Bath County, which left her with 28 stitches. Before that, in June, a black bear was spotted in Church Hill before eventually being found and tranquilized in Mosby Court.

You know how the old saying goes. In Virginia, you drive away the bear. In Russia, bear drive you!

That’s not an old saying? You sure?

Well, it should be. S

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