What do we learn from thinking about the USSR through its near anagram: the bear (ursus in Latin)? Perhaps not that much: the image of Russia as bear originated in the eyes of the astonished Western spectator, standing in for the dark continent in the coat of arms of the Muscovy Trading company and on early modern maps, and later for the brutal Russian empire in prints and newspaper caricatures. The Russian bear was large, powerful and wild; she was also aggressive and lethally dim—witted. By comparison we note the paucity of Soviet images of Russia as a bear, excepting the mascot for the 1980 Olympics, which was clearly devised to work in the international tourist market.
This contradiction reminds us how central to the Soviet project was liberation from the image, understood as the capture of a being, its full identification and taming. The October Revolution freed people to emerge into visibility on their own terms, in their individual identity and difference, mediated but not defined by class, ethnicity and other collectivities [See: 3]. Emerging, that is, as a worker-human, peasant-human or soldier-human. Not as bears, and certainly not as a single collective bear.
Soviet ideology was humanist (in name if not in deed) and squeamishly eschewed bestiality. Sports teams were named for the industries in which people labored, for revolutionary heroes like Spartacus, for elements of a solar mythology, like zenith, or of energeticist mythology, like dynamo. “Remaking nature, man remakes himself”: this paraphrase of Marx, ubiquitous in the 1930s, underscored how little interest there was in public discourse in returning human sociality to totemic tribalism.
Bears abounded in Soviet literary and visual culture, probably originating from folklore of various kinds. There is the bear of Dem’ian Bednyi’s fable “Aid” (“Pomoshch’”), who strikes an alliance with the whale and is left helpless when the bear is attacked by an elephant. The moral? Make friends with those who are in a position to help. Lonely colossi have feet of clay