David A. Antler

Dancing Bears

True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny

By Szablowski, Witold

Read: 2019-04-22
Rating: 7/10
ISBN: 978-0143129745

I’ve long been curious about the Slavic affinity towards bears that seems to pop up all over the internet. This book includes stories about bears and about people, with a clear intent on highlighting how similarly we can behave while (and after) suffering repressive circumstances. It’s also a tour of the Slavic areas in Europe, and the originality of the whole piece kept me entertained.

my notes

my father never stopped telling me that God sees all. He gave you the bear, and if you treat it badly, it’s as if you’d insulted God. I believe that, because it has happened very often to many different bear keepers. Sooner or later, God will repay you for your evil.

Nothing’s as good for backache as a bear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on June 14, 2007, the Bulgarian custom of dancing bears came to an end.”

To reach the Dancing Bears Park in Belitsa, you drive along a beautiful road that winds through a mountain gorge; but thanks to time and water flowing down from the mountains almost all the asphalt has been worn away.

For a bear, freedom is such a shock that you can’t just let it out of a cage and into the woods. You have to give it a few days to adapt. Freedom means new challenges. New sounds. New smells. New food.

One-third of the population of Belitsa is Muslim. “Mostly the sort of Muslims who speak nothing but Bulgarian and won’t say no to a glass of rakia, but some of them are more traditional,” explains Vasil.

Bears really are wonderful animals, I have to say. They’re intelligent, noble, and regal. Nature in its most perfect form.

“Our women have been sending letters to the party in which they complain of having too much work. In my view, if that were the case, they wouldn’t have time to write letters,” said Kubadinski on Women’s Day.

In Bulgaria the bears were not allowed to hibernate, but at Smorgonie they certainly were. From November 1 to the end of February the academy was closed, and several of its rooms were lined with pine needles and branches. There the bears went into hibernation.

The British envoy to Poland during the rule of the Saxon kings (1697–1763) made fun of the state of Polish education, writing in a letter to London that “the best academy [in the country] is at Smorgonie in Lithuania, where bears learn to dance.”

In the twenty-year interwar period, the term “you student of Smorgonie” was still a genuine insult in Poland.

bear that’s terribly obese—he weighs over 880 pounds. So the bears at Belitsa are only given nuts in the fall, to put on some extra fat for hibernation. Now their diet is almost perfect, except that it’s impossible to wean them off wheat bread. It’s a shame, because that’s what ruins their digestive system. But they’re already so accustomed to this diet that trying to take them off bread might only cause them harm.

despite all this: to this day, almost all the bears still dance.

When they see a human being, they stand up on their hind legs and start rocking from side to side. As if they were begging, as in the past, for bread, candy, a sip of beer, a caress, or to be free of pain. Pain that nobody has been inflicting on them for years.

He circles her like a shy teenager. Now he goes closer, now he moves away again. He

“My father’s brothers came to see him from the other side of the Urals,” says Julia. “They had a few drinks; then the vodka ran out, so they picked up the keys and headed for the car. My father lay down in the doorway and said, ‘Over my dead body! You’ll kill someone!’ In Estonia drunk driving is a very serious offense. My uncles looked at my dad and said, ‘You’re not a Russki anymore. You’re not our brother anymore.’”

The next stop is Sierakowo Sławieńskie—otherwise known as the Hobbits’ Village. “As long as none of them bites me,” jokes one of the community leaders. We park the bus by some wooden cottages inhabited by characters out of Tolkien. The main attraction is a game in the woods, where you can meet them in person. In June alone, three thousand visitors showed up at the Hobbits’ Village. We buy tickets for fifteen zlotys each (under five dollars), including a bowl of soup and a sausage. Gandalf himself supplies us with maps. We set off for the woods.

This year the queen—a.k.a. Małgorzata—plucked up the courage to take a job at Espersen, a fish-processing firm. “Why do I say ‘I plucked up the courage’? Because if you haven’t worked for a long time, it’s hard to make that first effort. But seriously, it’s the first time I’ve had a job.”

On the website we read that Espersen’s international mission is to supply Baltic Sea fish to quality-conscious customers in Europe and the USA; their standard products include frozen fish blocks, frozen fillets, special cuts, and a range of breaded fish. These standard products are deboned and packed by the Elf Queen. Right now she’s on a month’s leave. She’s not sure what’s going to happen next. “I might have to resign from the hobbits. That would be a pity. But the hobbits don’t provide a pension, Espersen does.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we also tried to persuade the people at his apartment block to have one of them dress up as Dr. Dabić for our tour. He’d put on a false beard and a black sweater. He could have charged one euro for a photo. But they don’t want to do it. They haven’t got that sort of business mind-set yet. Communism is still uppermost in their minds.”

The whole country is covered in trash. The locals are in the habit of tossing it straight into the river. Apparently, there used to be a river flowing through Priština, but it became so polluted that the authorities had it cemented over and built a housing development on top of it. This does have its good sides. Throughout my time in Kosovo, my hay fever disappeared. There aren’t many trees, and the grass is rather sparse too. The typical landscape is a big pile of trash, a mile or so of scrap heaps, and another pile of trash.

column of army trucks and two amphibious vehicles

“What does Memed think about the Serbs in Kosovo?” “He can tell the difference between criminals and regular people. Wars are not fought between races. They’re fought between criminals from one side and the other. He understands that.

“The power station has no chance, because nobody’s in the habit of paying for electricity here. In the days of Yugoslavia they didn’t have to pay, and now it’s very hard to teach them to do it. The owner of the apartment I rent is a lawyer. When I show him the electricity bills, he just laughs and says: ‘Mir, mir—all right, all right.’

“At the same time, everyone buys a small generator. Every little store, every barbershop or café, has one. When they switch off the electricity, all over town you can hear a constant trrrr. It costs far more than the electricity bills. But you can’t persuade anyone otherwise.

I was in Albania recently. As soon as they have a bit of lake, a hundred people immediately start dealing in fish. If there’s a stream flowing down from the mountains, a hundred boys will be standing by the road to wash your car. But in Kosovo they just sit on their butts, waiting for help to come to them of its own accord. And it does. These people don’t have to do anything for themselves—they live on aid from humanitarian organizations and from their cousins in Germany. The Serbs here are maintained by the government in Belgrade. It gives them money as long as they don’t leave the place. Have you been to Štrpce? Several thousand Serbs live there. The hospital in a town like that should employ at most thirty people. It employs over three hundred. Half of them don’t even go to work, and their salaries are three times higher than for the hospital workers in Belgrade. But even so, the UN is the worst of all.” “Why?” “They overpay for everything. A relative employed at the UN can calmly support a family of ten. If they can do that, why bother to farm the land? Take a look, it’s all lying fallow. Nobody feels like doing it.” “You’re exaggerating. They have 70 percent unemployment here. Most people live on one euro a day.” “Those are statistics. But they don’t even bother to grow parsley for themselves.”

What do we need all this capitalism for, all these American cheeses, juices, and chocolate? You can’t even buy normal milk anymore—it has to be in a carton, because that’s how it is in America. I think, ‘O Christ, take me off to my dear Stalin. Take me away from this world, because I can’t bear it here any longer.’”

“Nowadays they say he was a bad man. But in the archive we have pictures of him planting apple trees in the summer. I think a bad man would have been beating someone up or killing them, not planting trees. You have your views. That he murdered millions. But there’s no proof of that. All the documents were faked by Beria. Stalin only made one mistake—he was too good. He put too much trust in others.