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The Russian Bear is a widespread symbol for Russia, used in cartoons, articles and dramatic plays since as early as the 16th century, and relating alike to Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union and the present-day Russian Federation.
It often was and is used by Westerners, to begin with especially in Britain and later also in the US, and not always in a flattering context – on occasion it was used to imply that Russia is "big, brutal and clumsy" (see 19th-century cartoon below).
The bear image was, however, on various occasions (especially in the 20th century) also taken up by Russians themselves. Having the teddy bear "Misha" as the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games was evidently intended to counter the "big and brutal Russian Bear" image with a small, cuddly and smiling bear cub.
In Russia associations with the image of the bear received relatively mixed reactions. On one hand, Russians themselves appreciate the bear for its raw power and cunning, and bears are very often used as mascots or as a part of a design on a logo. On the other hand, the overuse of the image of the bear by foreigners visiting Russia prior to 20th century lead to the image of bear being a sort of insider joke, postulating that "Russian streets are full of bears" as an example of factually inaccurate information about Russia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was some support in the Russian Parliament for having a bear as the new Russian coat of arms – with the proposers pointing out that "Russia is anyway identified in the world with the Bear" – though eventually it was the Tsarist coat of arms of the Double-headed eagle that was restored.
Later, the bear was taken up as the symbol of the United Russia Party, which has dominated political life in Russia since the early 2000s. Coincidentally, the surname of Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president elected in 2008, is the possessive adjective of медведь: i.e. his surname means "a bear's".
In his successful 1984 re-election campaign, Ronald Reagan used the bear motif, in the famous Bear in the woods ad, which claimed that he recognized the existence of a Soviet threat, and that his opponent denied its existence.
The Russian Bear (sitting, to the right) among the European powers courted by Bismarck in order to isolate France.
Cartoon from the English satirical magazine Punch, or The London Charivari. With the Russian Bear sitting on the tail of the Persian cat while the British Lion looks on, it represents a phase of The Great Game. The caption reads: "AS BETWEEN FRIENDS. British Lion (to Russian Bear). 'IF WE HADN'T SUCH A THOROUGH UNDERSTANDING I MIGHT ALMOST BE TEMPTED TO ASK WHAT YOU'RE DOING THERE WITH OUR LITTLE PLAYFELLOW.'"
Media related to Russian Bear at Wikimedia Commons