March 01, 2008

Medvedev Emerges from His Den

This commentary aired on Vermont Public Radio on February 29. To listen to the podcast, go here.

(HOST) Russian Life magazine has been published from Vermont since 1995 by commentator Paul Richardson, who says that, when Russians go to the polls on this Sunday, they will be thinking about bears...

(RICHARDSON) In the 2002 film Oligarch, by Russian director Pavel Lungin, the main character predicts his own downfall, saying, "Russia is a bear. You think you are playing with it and it devours you."

The bear has long been associated with Russia. For over a century, it has been a mainly derogatory image in Western political cartoons. Yet to Slavs, the bear has had positive connotations for thousands of years. Today, it appears on countless Russian town shields; lovable bear characters abound in cartoons; and the bear Misha was especially beloved as the 1980 Summer Olympics mascot.

Bears also figure richly in the Russian language. In such cases, the bear is often seen as clumsy. In Russian, when you do someone a "bear's favor" your clumsy assistance hurts them more than helps them; when someone has no ear for music, a common idiom has it that a bear stepped on his ear.

Pre-Christian Slavs believed the bear to be their common ancestor. Indeed, the animal was such a powerful symbol of strength and fertility that Russians dared not mention its real name. So they gave it a substitute designation "medved," which was derived from its favorite food. Medved literally means "honey-seeker," or, "the one who knows where the honey is."

Some of the bear's power derived from its annual ritual of entering Mother Earth in the fall, only to emerge in the spring, reborn. Until 150 years ago, Russians celebrated a "bear holiday" near the spring solstice, timed to coincide with the bears' supposed emergence from their dens.

Bear imagery has become particularly strong in Russian politics of late. Last year the bear was adopted as the ubiquitous symbol for United Russia, the Kremlin-sponsored party created to devour all political opposition. And bear symbology reached its peak in December, when President Vladimir Putin annointed Dmitry Medvedev his heir apparent. In Russian, Medvedev literally means, "of the bears."

Western media have been full of speculations about Medvedev's political leanings. Some are at pains to paint him as "softer" or more liberal than Putin, pointing to Medvedev's education as a lawyer and his love for Heavy Metal Rock. It reminds me how, in 1982, when former KGB chief Yuri Andropov became Soviet leader, some speculated that his love of scotch and jazz augured a warming in East-West relations. In fact, the opposite happened.

So, what should we expect from a Medvedev presidency?

Most likely, more of the same.

Medvedev is Putin 2.0. Shorter, less polished, and still ironing out some bugs, Medvedev has been Putin's go-to guy for 17 years. He has bailed Putin out of political scrapes, was a key player in the takedown of the oligarchs, and has been chairman of the board for Russia's richest company, Gazprom.

Powerful and awesome, bears can be clumsy and unpredictable, particularly when first emerging from their dens. But we should keep in mind that this bear, though young, is an old hand. And clearly he knows where the honey is.

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