Ursula Carlson: Dancing bears and Soviet nostalgia
About 10 years ago I attended a traveling circus on a small island off the coast of Estonia. There was a clown, trapeze artists, and horses with dancing girls. But the act that shocked me was the trained dog climbing with his hind legs on an extremely high rope ladder. It looked like slow torture.
There were no dancing bears at that circus and that may have been because performing bears in central and southeastern Europe had been gradually liberated since the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now these freed bears live in Europe’s largest sanctuary, Dancing Bears Park, in Belitsa, Bulgaria. Four Paws, a U.S. nonprofit organization, manages the park, which is a major tourist site.
Orlando Figes, professor of history at the University of London, in his review of Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, by Witold Szablowski describes how for decades, “if not centuries,” wild, young bears were domesticated and then trained to dance by attaching chains to rings driven through their noses and then forcing them to step on red-hot sheets of metal. Even worse was the damage done by making the bears live with their keepers, subsisting on an unhealthy diet of white bread and alcohol, working year-round. They forgot how to hibernate, hunt for food, attract a mate, move freely. They had to learn what’s instinctual and it wasn’t easy. They had been held captive for too long to ever live in the wild again.
Szablowski, an award-winning Polish journalist, ultimately compares the sanctuary bears’ experience (learning how to be free) to the difficult adjustment people born and raised in Soviet satellite countries have had to make. He points out those who grew up in the Soviet system never knew “what freedom is, how to make use of it, and what sort of price is paid for it.” Like some bears who have been infected with the prisoner mentality and start to dance whenever they see a human being, many former “captive nation” people look back on what the world calls tyranny yet they see as golden days.
Why this disconnect? For millions of people, the end of communism meant the loss of secure jobs. Collective farms collapsed and factories and mines closed. Pensions were meager. No one wanted to work the land. Decades of forced labor had deprived people of the will to work for themselves. “They became like the dancing bears, whose hunting instinct had been killed by servitude.” But nothing is simple and allegories are limited.
What interests me are Figes’s conclusions about post-Communist societies and how their nostalgia for the past mimics our own American nostalgia for the past when he states, “They yearn for the old certainties.” What are ours? That a person can graduate from high school, get a job at General Motors, make a decent salary, buy a home and count on his children having a “better,” financially more rewarding life than his own? That we are a nation of immigrants, and proud of it? That we stand up for those who are marginalized, oppressed, or discriminated against?
We have been conditioned by our affluence, our enviable democratic way of life, to think we’re impervious to change. But surely we see that such thinking is delusional. The “old certainties” that both guard and ensure our well-being are our laws, our institutions of government, our right to vote, our education.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College. See The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2018; Volume LXV, Number 12 for Orlando Figes’s “ Dancing in Chains.”