Why is Russia associated with a bear

The Russian bear became a symbol of Russia through a strange set of circumstances, and the whole story goes to show that fake news has been around for hundreds of years.

To begin with, the bear is not a symbol of Russia and has never been one, at least officially. The official symbol of Russia today is a double-headed eagle. At some point, the number of people all over the world who believed in this idea exceeded the critical threshold, and eventually Russians just kind of got tired of trying to resist it. At some point it just became easier to accept this misunderstanding than trying to constantly explain why it isn’t true.

What is true in this whole bear story is the fact that bears have indeed been venerated in Russia since ancient times. For pagan Slavs, the bear was in effect a totem animal.

It is also known that for several centuries in the Middle Ages, troupes travelled all around Russia with tame bears that were trained to dance, do simple tricks and beg.

A case of geography

Another reason Russia was associated with bears in the eyes of Europeans was a famous bear academy that was established in the 17th century in the town of Smorgon. Calling it an academy was probably a bit ambitious for what was really just a private school that trained bears for circuses throughout Europe. And it did not matter that at the time Smorgon was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The average European was not particularly bothered with geographical accuracy. They knew that it was somewhere in the east, and they knew that somewhere in the east was Russia.
It is therefore not surprising that when England began to produce political cartoons and engravings in the 19th century, Russia was always depicted in them as a bear. This image was picked up by others, and during the Cold War the bear became a metaphor for the cruel, bloodthirsty policies of the USSR.

Olympic symbol

Do Russians like the bear as a symbol? It's hard to say. It was always somewhere in the background, as it were. But the Russian bear’s popularity in Europe was such that the Soviet Union decided the bear's negative image could at least be shown in a more positive light, simply by reminding the West that the bear is a very brave, strong and tenacious animal. Not to mention a great mascot for the Olympics!
And so it was that many viewers were moved to tears when the bear mascot soared up into the sky on dozens of balloons at the closing ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Later, after the breakup of the USSR, the bear was one of the contenders to appear on the Russian national emblem, but it lost to the Russian Imperial double-headed eagle. However, the bear had a comeback in the early 2000s, when it was picked as the symbol of the ruling United Russia party.

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