Episode #3 – Russian bears and where to find them

Episode #3 – Russian bears and where to find them

June 5, 2018 0 By Gigi Green

This is my third episode. It’s called Russian bears and where to find them. It’s also the second episode of my Under the blanket production studios! 😀 You see I don’t have a sound room or a proper microphone for that matter. I had found a place that could work, my walk-in closet. And then its door got broken so for the moment I literally am recording this under the blanket! And actually it’s fun! Though a bit hot.

The transcript and the links are below

Russian bears through history

Anyway… there’s a joke in Russia that foreigners think  bears that walk the streets here. And I mean c’mon, people! Why would they walk if they could cycle? And there’s another one that says that Russians ride bears to work while drinking vodka and playing balalaikas. D’you know, I wouldn’t mind that actually! Except for the vodka part. And that I can’t play balalaika. Or ride… Crap!

Seriously though, where do you think those jokes come from? I don’t know precisely, of course. But it obviously is something historical. Because bears have been associated with this country for a long time. My occasionally dearly beloved and usually most appreciated Wikipedia says the Russian Bear has been a symbol for Russia since as early as the 16th century. It was and is used in cartoons and articles, and it relates to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union AND the present-day Russian Federation alike. Some say that it originated in British caricatures. And of course, it wasn’t always used in a flattering context. Often it implies that Russia is “big, brutal and clumsy”. I find the clumsy part ironic though (gosh, I hope I’m using that word right!). Because bears do look clumsy when they walk because they step on their whole paw. In Russian we sometimes call them косолапый – club-footed, but boy, are they graceful when they hunt. And also very fast, clever and dangerous. Watch any documentary about them or even something like Pixar’s Brave, and you’ll see it. So… an interesting symbol on many levels, isn’t?

That’s probably a part of the reason why it was taken up by Russians themselves. Bears appear on the coat of arms of several Russian cities including but not limited to Новгород, Ярославль and Пермь.

That one is Novgorod’s

Flag of Veliky Novgorod

Also they are often used as mascots or as a part of some logo. The most famous of those is the bear cub “Misha” (that’s also a diminutive name for a bear that sound like a short form of the name Михаил – Michael). It is the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games. Wikipedia thinks is was made to counter the “big and brutal Russian Bear” image with a small, cuddly and smiling bear cub. Which sounds like it might be true because that bear is so cute!!!

But it’s this bear image and the way foreigners used it that probably created the joke that “Russian streets are full of bears”. And we use it as an example of some really stereotypical and inaccurate information about Russia.

Where bears walk the streets…

But also occasionally news would pop up about some bear that climbed someone’s porch or even broke into someone’s kitchen to steal food. Which would suggest that some bears do indeed walk the streets in some places here. But the important thing to realize is that if it makes the local or federal Russian news (or sometimes even foreign ones if they want something funny in their ending segment or something), it’s just as unusual for us as it is for you. Because nobody makes news out of stuff that’s considered normal, like “today people in Russia woke up and went to work. Aren’t they crazy over there?”

But obviously those episodes do happen. The important detail is where. Russia is a huge country. Actually you knew, it’s the biggest in the world, right? And climate differs a lot depending on the place. I mean, I’m recording this while it’s 30 degrees Celsius outside (that’s 86 eighty-six Fahrenheit). But it’s still pretty cold in some parts of the country. I live in the south-east of the European part, my область (that’s like a state) borders Kazakhstan. So though it’s the same size as Scotland and Wales put together (for real! Google it, if you don’t believe me) it’s a steppe and a forest-steppe region. That would be like prairies. So I’m not sure how many bears live here in the wild. But I don’t think it’s too many. Though we do have a river that is called Медведица – literally a She-bear, throughout my whole life I’ve only seen live bears in zoos and in the circus. So as far as I know those are the best places to find a bear in Russia. But it’s worth mentioning that I’m a city girl.

If you go to the north of the European part of Russia or to Siberia (Which is called Сибирь in Russian) or to Kamchatka and Russian Far East, that’s a different story. Because contrary to the popular opinion, Russia for the most part is not frozen tundra but rather taiga or boreal forest where evergreens or coniferous trees grow. And there are quite a number of bears there.

I think this would be a good place to say that there are two main types of bears in Russia – brown bear (Ursus Arctos) and polar bears (Ursus marItimus).

Brown bears

Let’s start with the brown ones. You can find those across most of the Eurasia and North America. It’s one of the largest living terrestrial carnivorous species (only polar bears are larger). Also thankfully it’s listed as a least concerns species by International union for conservation of species. Isn’t it nice when animals are NOT on the brink of extinction, people? Although there are some subspecies of brown bear that aren’t that lucky.

Most of the Russian bears are European brown bears. There’s also Kamchatka brown bears which are larger and darker. You can find them – unsurprisingly – in Kamchatka peninsula and in the northern parts of Russian Far East that’s relatively close to Alaska. Actually, a documentary called KAMCHATKA BEARS. LIFE BEGINS was released in February this year. It’s about the newborn bear cubs’ daily life and it’s incredibly beautiful because Kamchatka is incredibly beautiful. I’ll leave the link to the trailer in the show notes. (But you, dear readers, can see it now 😀 )

There are also East-Siberian brown bears that are somewhere in middle between two previous types of bear when it comes to size. And in the south of Russian Far East in what is known as Приморский край or Maritime territory there are some Ussuri or Amur brown bears. They have nothing to do with the little greeko-roman god of love, they just live not far from the river Amur. And that name has nothing to do with Greeks or Romans either. It’s derived from the name indigenous population gave that river. The Amur bears meanwhile differ in size a lot. Some are even bigger than Kamchatka bears. And they are even darker, so some informally refer to them as black grizzly.

Don’t think I know all this stuff by heart, by the way. It’s all research. Also I’m willing to bet that if I ever meet a bear in the wild I would be more interested in getting out of there then in determining what subspecies it is. But I thought if I’m recording a podcast about those animals I might as well be specific.

White (I mean polar) bears

Now to polar bears! Which we call white bears! Because they are… you know… white! My non-Russian friends were very surprised to learn that we have them too. Because documentaries and other kinds of movies usually show them in Canada and Alaska. But of course they live in Russia too. And in Greenland. It’s essentially the same latitudes, the same Arctic ocean and the climate is very alike.

And our white polar bears are just as endangered because of global warming as the rest of them. Officially they are considered vulnerable species, but that just means that they are likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening their survival and reproduction improve. Which doesn’t look very likely right now.

Anyway, polar bears are the largest in Russia and they obviously inhabit the north of the country that’s in the Arctic circle. So you could find them everywhere along a superlong stretch of land from the Новая земля (that’s New land archipelago) and Franz Joseph land archipelago which are next to the east from Norwegian Svalbard or Spitsbergen archipelago and all the way to Chukotka okrug that has a sea-border with Alaska in Bering strait. Sometimes they even ride the ice to get to Kamchatka which is more to the south.

They weigh up to 500-700 kilos with females being somewhat smaller. They are the most carnivorous of bears and they eat a lot of seals, fish and whatever else they can find on ice and in the water. Or if they are extremely hungry, whatever they can find. Period. They hunt from ice and swim very well but not well enough to compensate for melting of that ice. That’s why global warming is so deadly for them. Pregnant females hibernate through the polar night and their cubs are the cutest animal after red pandas and koalas as far as I’m concerned. Males and other females don’t hibernate or only do it for a short while.

This is a Russian cartoon about a polar bear cub that I talk about later

Thankfully, nobody except indigenous people has a quota to hunt them in Russia. Not legally at least.

I don’t know if they still observe their traditions but the Chukchi, indigenous people of north-eastern Siberia, had a shamanistic ritual of “thanksgiving” to the hunted polar bear. It’s not especially… pleasant but I thought I should tell you anyway because it’s an important fact about bears in this country. So article on polar bear describes in all the gory detail, how after killing the animal, Chukchi would remove its head and skin and bring into the home. Then they would have a feast in its honor. To appease the spirit of the bear, they would play drum music and sing traditional songs. And the skull would be ceremonially fed and offered a pipe. Only when the spirit was appeased, the skull would be separated from the skin, taken outside and placed in the ground, facing north. I guess that must’ve insured that they didn’t kill too many bears. I mean it takes time to go through all that.

How not to meet a Russian bear?

So assuming you aren’t one of the indigenous people and don’t have any right to hunt bears what do you do if you meet one? I think it’s less likely that you’ll ever meet a wild polar bear unless you’re on some kind of expedition and then you’ll know all this stuff already (hopefully). So This is mostly about brown bears. But a lot of this stuff applies to the white ones too.

Firstly, if you don’t want to meet a Russian bear (or any bear for that matter) in the forest, you shouldn’t go there alone (I’m talking serious taiga here, not just some small wooded area where people from the nearby city go in summer to make шашлыки (that means grill some meat). You should go as a part of a group and you should make noises, preferably those that don’t sound like an animal. For example, you know, talk loudly or tie a bell to your backpack.

Secondly, don’t go into taiga in the late evening or at night. Bears are nocturnal animals. They see very well in the dark (and their eyes shine red. For real, you guys!) and they are looking for food during that time of day. So don’t give them any ideas. Thirdly, don’t walk on bear trails. They look like two lines that are parallel and close to each other. Also be careful on the river banks. Bears like fish and don’t like competition on their hunting grounds.

Super important: don’t feed bears. No matter how cute they are. If you are camping, all your food should be stored in sealed containers that don’t allow the smell to escape. And either burn the trash (Properly! Forest fires happen in taiga too and you wouldn’t want to be there during one) or take it with you. DO NOT bury it. Bears have a great sense of smell and are very good at digging, because roots are one of their food sources. So they will find your stuff, eat it and follow you to get more.

Bears are most dangerous after hibernation in spring because they are hungry as hell. You also wouldn’t wanna meet them in June or July because that’s mating season. So they are aggressive. And of course bear-mamas with cubs are famously dangerous. Don’t cross their path and especially don’t get between them. Otherwise you’ll end up as Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. And that’s if you’re lucky.

All that being said, bears hardly ever attack humans. They are the biggest predators in the forest (although technically they are omnivorous) and have no natural enemies except – you probably guessed it! – humans. So they are just as afraid of us as we are of them. If you alert with sounds the bear that you’re coming, in most cases it will do its best to avoid you.

What do you do if you meet one?

What do you do if despite all precautions you still met a bear? For starters, you don’t run. Never run from a bear! It will make you look like prey, and bears are predators. So… again remember DiCaprio and the Revenant.
Also don’t try to climb a tree. Bears climb them better that you anyway. Alternatively they can sit under the tree for literally days to wait you out. So it just won’t work.

If you saw a bear, but it didn’t see you, carefully walk away. Back where you came from or to the side, just put some distance between you and the animal.

If it saw you, it might come closer to see what you are and then walk away. If it doesn’t, you should make some clapping or stamping noises and talk loudly. But DO NOT look the bear in the eye or growl. Or it will think you are competition. Which may sound flattering, but you know who will win if it attacks.

You can use bear spray, pepper spray or ammonia. They hate that shit because that’s where that great sense of smell is against them. So get yourself some of that before venturing into Russian (or any other) wilderness. Any sort of crackers and signal fires that make noise might also help.

If you see that a bear is going to attack you have several options. First: Lie on the ground very still and protect you head and face as best you can. The animal might trash you a bit and then lose interest. Don’t move until it leaves.
If the bear is serious and doesn’t stop, fight with everything you’ve got, preferably a knife. Show it you’re no easy prey. And it might think you’re too much effort. And the last option is shooting the bear which obviously means that you have to have a firearm with you. But I don’t know much about firearms or hunting (nor do I ever intend to find out) so you’ll have to google that stuff yourself.

All that applies to bears in warmer seasons. If you meet a bear in winter there’s some additional info to keep in mind. There are several reasons why the animal is not hibernating. It didn’t get enough food, or something woke it up, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s hungry and angry at everything.

Bears are not very good at walking in the snow. (The brown ones, of course, white ones are perfect at that) So if you’re walking in the winter forest and you see bear footprints in the snow, it means the animal is most likely pretty close. Normally they can easily walk 50-60 kilometres (that’s 30 -37 miles) in a day. But in the snow 2-3 kilometres (that’s a mile or two) is a lot for them. So if you see the footprints or the bear itself get away from that place as quickly as you can without running. Or use all the recommendations above. But better get away.

Russian word for “bear” and bears as symbols

Now to less alarming stuff! What is a Russian word for “Bear”? It’s медведь. You could still hear (well, if you know Russian really well) the etymology, the origin of the name for that particular animal. It’s made up of the words мёд – honey and ведь – old-fashioned form of ‘to know’. So медведь is the one who knows where the honey is. Or the end part of the word could be -ед. And then the meaning is the one who eats honey. Both make sense, I guess. By the way, did you know that bears don’t actually feel bee stings?

That word is pretty old because Russians or rather Slavic tribes some of which are the ancestors of modern Russians, Ukranians, and people of Belarus have been neighbors with bears throughout the history. When Slavic tribes were still pagans (which was before 988 AD) bear was a totem animal for a lot of them. Bear has a lot of different names in Russian language that expressed respect and admiration. One of them is a master of the forest. (Because they ARE the biggest animals in a Russian forest and as I said they don’t have any natural enemies except for us). So Slavs associated them with power and vitality and had a lot of customs and rituals related to them, made bear talismans, amulets and dolls and, of course, had a thanksgiving ritual after the successful hunt. Don’t know if it was as elaborate as Chukchi’s though. And I hope they didn’t eat bear meat because it’s infested with parasites and some even less pleasant things. And yeah, I totally hope that this information would stop anybody from trying to hunt any bears ever.

Anyway, these days a lot of people wouldn’t mind harnessing unconscious positive associations with that animal. So polar bear is on the logo of Russia’s leading political party United Russia. Actually after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some people wanted to have a bear as the new Russian coat of arms. But it fell through and Russian Empire coat of arms — the Double-headed eagle was restored.

Coincidentally, the surname of Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president who is now a prime-minister (which is just… don’t even ask), is the possessive adjective of the Russian word for медведь. So his last name literally means “bear’s”.

My favourite bears

But I don’t wanna end with those guys, so I’ll tell you about my personal favourites among famous Russian bears. The first is Winnie-the-pooh. He obviously didn’t originate in this country but he was and is very popular. I’m not sure if it was the reason or the consequence but there’s a series Russian (or rather Soviet) short animated films that is based on his adventures. And they are iconic and still very popular (and grown-ups can find some innuendos in there that Disney’s Winnie can only dream about). They were voiced by popular Soviet actors and they gave us tons of famous quotes.

One of my favourites and the one that might be useful if you ever feel like learning Russian is “Поздравляю с днем рожденья! Желаю счастья в личной жизни. Пух” Happy birthday! Wish you happiness in your personal life. So let’s go over that one again slower.

Our translation by Борис Заходер is also very good.

And the second episode

Another famous cartoon bear is actually a white or polar bear cub called Umka (see the video above those two). He lives in the Arctic circle and befriends a small chukcha boy. But the boy and his family move away. And Umka starts searching for him. There are two short animated films about him made in 1969 and 1970 and I found a link to one of them and to Winnie the Pooh with English subtitles on youtube. I’ll leave links in the shownotes. Umka also has my absolutely most favourite lullaby ever! So check it out!

And now it’s time for my final segment:

How do you say it in Russian?

I’ll tell you a phrase in Russian and then translate it. This time I’ll go with a classic that they ALWAYS mispronounce in Hollywood movies: На здоровье! – Which is a toast you drink to that means “your health”. And dear god in heaven, where the heck did they pick it up and why did no one correct them? You would use На здоровье if you gave someone something, and that person says “Thank you”. And you go: на здоровье meaning “You’re welcome!” But when you are drinking with someone, you would say “Your health” – Ваше здоровье or твое здоровье depending on how well you know the person or how many people there are. Ваше is formal or plural and твоё is for friends or good acquaintances. It works like vous and tu in French. Or like you and thou used to work, I guess.

And that’s the end of this episode. If you like my podcast, subscribe on itunes, stitcher, anchor.fm or wherever you get your podcast fix! And please, leave reviews. I know everybody says that, but that really helps the show with those strange algorithms that govern the Internet these days! You can find me on instagram at greennily If you want to ask me a question about Russia or have some ideas or suggestions, you can write to me at journeyswithgigi@gmail.com . Till next time!

Yours, Gigi, from Russia with love.


The bear image is By MrPanyGoff [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Crazy Russian people feeding cookies to a brown bear that came to visit in Kolima (Колыма). The man in the video is saying Потихоньку meaning carefully. Though it translates differently.

Crazy Russian people feeding cookies to a white bear. What can I say? Bears like cookies, I guess.

Brown bear
Polar bears in Russia
Russian bear as a symbol