Cannibalism occurs more frequently among bears than among any other animal group. The world’s largest terrestrial carnivore 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 28 highly curved claws that are impossible to retract, the bear strikes without notice and eats his victim completely.
I’ve spent weeks stalking bears in Russia’s Taiga region alongside professional hunters. They are tough men, and they don’t sit around the campfire spinning bedtime stories devised to frighten children. The bear is far more preoccupied with wielding ultimate power over his domain than with developing strategy. “Do not pay attention to his facial features,” the huntsmen warn. 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.
Long ago, before Vladimir Putin came, Russia’s distant ancestors 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 celestial configuration of Ursa Major, enjoyed exalted status.
The Russian language has a word for bears that become extremely savage and ruthless: shatoon. Tsar Ivan the Terrible was fond of setting shatooni on his subjects 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 noblemen of Old Muscovy and distant ancestors of Putin’s now panic-stricken oligarchs, indulged in the practice of pouring alcohol into muzzled shatooni to observe the result. A special breed of dog was later bred to hunt the bears in the wild depths of Russia’s northern winter.
Shatooni inhabit the Kremlin, too
Some might now suspect this is the stuff of folklore, because bears hibernate in winter. Not the shatoon. The beast is not pursued for sport or by sportsmen. It’s stalked and killed at great risk by specialized hunters to ensure the survival of the isolated villagers the bear would feed upon. I’ve witnessed their havoc with my own eyes.
The shatoon is a bear of such dementia that it’s unwilling to hibernate; the word is also employed as a cautionary noun to describe the centuries of ruthless Russian leaders and crooked businessmen who inhabit the Kremlin. In the great taiga, Russia’s vast subarctic forest, and now in Ukraine, the stories of shatooni rising from apparent death to devour their executioners are not myth. To the bald eagle, le coq, and bulldog: believe differently at your peril.
A. Craig Copetas is a journalist and the author of Bear Hunting with The Politburo: American Adventures in Russian Capitalism