What in the World Did Mike Pence's 'Russian Bear' Comment Mean?

During last night's vice presidential debate, Mike Pence dropped a serious knowledge bomb that may have surprised many a biologist.

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Oct 5 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Flickr/Tambako the Jaguar; Wikipedia Commons

During last night's vice presidential debate, Mike Pence dropped a serious knowledge bomb that may have surprised many a biologist. On the subject of President Obama's Russian foreign policy, which Pence called "weak and feckless," the Indiana governor also had this to say:

"There's an old proverb. The Russian bear never dies, it just hibernates."

What? Okay… Wait, what?

I was deeply unfamiliar with this proverb, so I turned to Google to learn more about the wintering habits of the Eurasian brown bear. My findings were surprising.

First of all, I don't believe the phrase that Pence quoted has ever been uttered by a Russian in the entirety of human history. In fact, nothing seems to indicate that it's an actual proverb at all.

According to BuzzFeed News editor Hayes Brown, Pence sort of repeated a quote he gave to the National Review in 2014. In an interview about Vladimir Putin, Pence said, "history shows the Russian Bear's ambitions never die, they just go into hibernation." Hmmm.

The next closest search hit that matched this saying was a Geocities-looking site called "RUSSIA… The Hibernating Bear Of The North Is Awakening And Is Very Hungry!" (Note: The site's author also attempts to prove creationism and discredit evolution, so it's possible that Pence, who argued that creationism should be taught in America's public schools, might have visited it at one point in time.)

However, the term "Russian bear" has been used to symbolize Russia and the USSR; sometimes in a pejorative way. According to the tourism site Russia-IC, the bear "appears in many Russian literary works, folk tales, epics, proverbs and sayings, not infrequently acting as a protagonist… Initially the bear as the symbol of Russian state appeared in Europe as personification of slowness, laziness, barbarity and aggression."

But the bear has also occupied a sentimental spot in Russia's collective conscience, such as "Misha," or "Mikhail Potapych Toptygin," the beloved mascot of Moscow's 1980 Summer Olympic Games. The bear's creator, children's artist Viktor Chizhikov, once told the Wall Street Journal that Misha was "the face of the country."

Still, it's not yet clear what Pence was trying to say.

Additionally and somewhat ironically, climate change, which Pence once called a "liberal environmentalist agenda," is now rousing hibernating bears uncharacteristically early, according to The Siberian Times. Last year, residents of Tuva in southern Siberia reported seeing bears foraging for food long before their usual awakening in early April.

One might wonder, then, if climate change is allowed to progress at this unprecedented rate, whether Russian bears will die, after all. In Russia's Arctic regions, scientists suspect that warming conditions are causing hungry polar bears to descend on villages in search of their next meal.

I also learned that Russia has a long-standing history of slaughtering hibernating bears in their winter dens. Would that be like Americans shooting eagles? (This happens.) Regardless, the practice was officially outlawed in 2011, much to the relief of organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which called the hunting tradition "cruel."

Are any of these things what Pence was referring to? Did he get confused by the actual saying, "Don't poke a sleeping bear"? I still don't know. If you have some insight here, I'd love to hear from you.

Until then, please don't rustle any large predators. Stay safe.

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