This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Every once in a while, the incomprehensible algorithm behind Instagram’s explore tab makes my day. During a recent idle scroll, I was whisked away to the Russian tundra where permafrost and now-shut gulags set the scene for whimsical photo shoots featuring Russian women posing with bears.
Let me elaborate. The Russian women are of the sexy variety, embodying a woodland nymph type of look as they pose sensually with what appears to be a domesticated bear. The bear is gigantic. The women, tiny. The images are equal parts mythic, romantic, and weird. It’s best to take a look for yourself because it’s more easily demonstrated than described.
The account that led me to these images belongs to Svetlana and Yuri Panteleenko, a Russian couple living in Moscow with their 24-year-old domesticated bear, Stepan. They seem like a normal family. They like to go for walks, eat meals together, play sports, and host an array of photo shoots alluding to some kind of bear-woman relationship.
The couple say they adopted Stepan when he was three months old after finding him in less-than-pleasant conditions. They’ve raised him as a member of the family for the past 24 years in their home, where Stepan continues to live. According to the couple, Stepan is a sociable bear who loves to play. A health icon in his own right, Stepan eats 25 kilos [55 pounds] of fish, vegetables, and eggs every day and stays in shape by playing football. He also keeps busy with acting projects, having appeared in over a dozen titles. He recently just wrapped up shooting on a Christmas film titled Fir Trees 4 where he plays a central character. For 10,000 rubles [1,550 USD] he will show up at your next corporate event where “you can approach him and not only pat, but also sit on his massive back and hold his powerful paw.”
It's worth noting that Stepan's life is not without controversy as animal rights activists say that the couple are exploiting him for profit and he is being denied his natural way of life.
According to photographer Olga Barantseva, the photo shoots are meant to show the softer side of the big predator as a part of an anti-hunting campaign showcasing the natural harmony between humans and bears. Stepan apparently enjoys these photo shoots where he is coaxed into different poses by his trainer with the help of mozzarella and sweet cookies—his favorite treats.
The list of models who have posed with Stepan is extensive. There are brides and pregnant women who don’t seem to mind spooning with a 700-pound beast. Others snuggle nose to nose or with a hulking paw around their midsection. The images clearly reflect some sort of performed femininity intertwined with a mythological fantasy that feels very Russian. But it doesn't quite explain why someone would volunteer to wear lingerie in the freezing winter to take photos with a bear.
Bears have a complex cultural history in Russia. They’re a bit of a national symbol. The Russian word for bear translates to “he who manages honey” and the bear was a mascot for the Russian 1980s summer Olympics. During the Petrine period, bear-related activities came under attack as Tsar Alexei banned jesters and ordered their bear companions killed. The ban was not a success. Other attempts include the 18th century when authorities banned the baiting and training of bears, but these too were failures. Even Russia’s iron-fisted fashionista, Empress Elizabeth prohibited the training of bears in 1752. A year later, she ordered two bear cubs to be trained for her personal entertainment.
There’s an understandable fear of bears. They’re irritable when berry supplies are short, climate change makes them cranky, and there are theories that they prefer women because of menstruation, but that has since been disproven. Trying to make the connection between bears and women is a tricky one. In Russia, bears are said to be “as moody as beautiful women” and according to Russian poet Nekrosav, a Russian woman “can stop a galloping horse and enter a burning house.” So, in some vaguely sexist way, the pairing seems fitting.
The captions that accompany Yuri and Svetlana’s page are also very intimate, to a point of absurdity. “Sometimes we open our eyes and rejoice that we were so close, so near. And so much together. Berigite and I appreciate each other,” reads one caption. (“If Stepan was a man, he would be the best husband and family man,” reads one commenter’s reply). Images of Stepan by himself tend to get about 2,800 likes, while those featuring models get upward of 4,000. The comments are generally positive, ranging from “Magnificent has so many tender moments” to “This bear looks doped.”
Bear-woman love has had a cultural moment at least once before. A controversial novel aptly titled Bear published in 1976 by Canadian author Marian Engel told the story of a a bookish woman who falls in love and has sex with a bear. The book won the prestigious Governor General’s award, the highest Canadian honor for literary arts in a year in which the jury included Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, and Alice Munro. In an alternate universe, Marian and Stepan would’ve had a magnificent promotional shoot. If you can dream it, the internet provides.
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