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Johnson’s Russia List, 2 September, 1998

Bear Hunting

By Craig Copetas

A Russian bear (Ursis arctos) is the world’s largest terrestrial
carnivore. Cannibalism occurs more frequently among this species than
among any other animal group. Born with an incessantly antagonistic
disposition and an innate ability to camouflage that fact, the bear uses
his viciousness as a weapon.

With stocky feet, small eyes, a broad head, and twenty highly curved
claws that are impossible to retract, the Russian bear medved will
strike without notice and eat his victim completely. Those who
professionally hunt the bear within Russia assert that he is far more
preoccupied with wielding ultimate power over his domain that with
developing strategy. Indeed, amateurs who confront wild bear are warned
not to pay attention to his facial expression. A bear’s facial muscles
are so poorly developed that it’s impossible for him to make the
expressions that other animals normally use to telegraph their
intentions in the wild.

In ancient times, the ancestors of the people who now inhabit many
parts of Russia worshiped the bear as a totem animal; he was the object
of mystery cults, which sometimes included ritual sacrifice. The bear,
through religious creed and deity and the heavenly configuration of
Kallisto (the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear), enjoyed exalted

Over the past ten days, the world’s financial markets have learned
much about the Russian bear. To be sure, the use of bear metaphors to
describe the ruble without a cause range from ‘Russian bears
mauling the great bull market’ to ‘will the bull become a

But the analogy is slightly flawed what Russians call (ital) tufta (endital):
creative misrepresentation. The Russian language has a word for bears
that become extremely savage and ruthless: (ital) shatoon. (endital)
Ivan the Terrible was fond of setting shatonni on humans for the sheer
pleasure of seeing how they would destroy their victims. Later tsars had
the teeth of captured shatooni filed down into stumps; dogs were then
released upon them, with spectators gambling on the outcome of tooth
versus claw. Boyars, the oligarchs of old Muscovy, indulged in the
practice of pouring alcohol into muzzled shatooni to observe the

A special breed of dog, nicknamed the shatoon laika, was later
develped to hunt the animal in the wild depths of Russia’s northern
winter. Today, shatonni are not pursued for sport or by sportsmen. They
are stalked and executed at great risk by professional hunters to ensure
the survival of the people they would destroy.

Of course, one might well argue that bears are supposed to hibernate
in winter. Their dens plush, their bellies lined with green foliage,
bears supposedly use this respite to prepare themselves for the
challenges of rebirth. Not the shatoon. The very word, in fact,
describes a bear of such physiological dementia that nature prevents it
from hibernating in winter. Instead, the shatoon roams the landscape,

Shatoon is an expression unique to the Russian vocabulary. During
Soviet times, northern Russian villagers and hunters used it as a
cautionary noun to describe the apparatchiks who appeared to have been
displaced by the perestrokia policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. Since 1991,
however, the shatoon has come to represent the corrupt clique of Russian
politicians and businessmen who were to have been eradicated by, among
other weapons, the intervention of International Monetary Fund loans,
the application of Western financial expertise, and the Western world’s
faith in the charismatic anarchy of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

In the great taiga, Russia’s vast subarctic forest, tales abound of
shatooni rishing up from apparent death to devour their executioners. Of
course, the Russian language for centuries has been rich in fables, puns
and double entendres that reflect the great gulf between dreams of what
might be and the harsh reality of what is. Nonetheless, Valeri
Sherabokov , a hunter with whom I spent weeks tracking a shatoon some
ten winters ago, explained that Russian villagers grieving through
financial crisis after crisis then as they do today never considered the
bear an enchanting character. The shatoon, Mr. Sherabokov said, will
never tell you the truth. He will also never lie to you. ‘He will
tell you what you want to hear: that he is dead.’

For nearly a decade now, Western leaders have allowed Kremlin fairy
tales to lull them into complacency. So as U.S. President Bill Clinton
and the IMF miracleworkers arrive in Moscow with more money and ideas to
contain the fallout of Russia’s economic collapse, they’d be well served
to remember the story of the shatoon and the eerie expression of
blankness, animation and frustration that passes across the animal’s
face. Bear hunters warn its countenance has everything to do with magic,
and the skill to make people believe in what is not real.