Cossacks and Clowns and Bears, Oh My!


Arts & Culture

Galina Brezhnev.

One cold March day in St. Petersburg, I paid a visit to Vladimir Ignatievich Deriabkin, whose apartment does double duty as the Museum of Gramophones. Above me was a gramophone wearing red and white clown shoes, perched on a unicycle. A samovar walked a tightrope across the room, holding a stick to help it keep its balance. Train tracks stretched across the ceiling. Brightly painted, blooming wide, the gramophones were like a garden of enormous morning glories.

I was in St. Petersburg, the city once called the “Russian mirage,” doing research on criminal songs of the Soviet period. My investigations had already taken me to such exotic places as the St. Petersburg Record Collector’s Club, a set of subterranean rooms full of grizzled, toothless men in caps and striped sailor shirts. Escorted into the back room, where the head honchos were celebrating International Women’s Day by drinking cognac from metal jiggers, I suspected that I was the first woman ever to enter the building. One man asked me to marry him, saying that he didn’t want to live in New York but wanted to live as if he were in New York. This intriguing rhetorical turn was the central finding of that day’s research; the men were too busy celebrating to answer my questions.

A helpful friend had told me that Vladimir Ignatievich was someone I absolutely had to meet before I left town, and I hoped that my interview with him would be more fruitful than my trip to the record club. Armed with my dictaphone, notebook, and tattered map, wearing my too-thin, too-short New York coat and my cracked, leaking New York boots, I tramped through the drifts of snow. (The St. Petersburg city administration is lax in clearing the streets—but they do better than Kiev, whose mayor was said to have proclaimed, “Let whoever put the snow down clean it up!”) The Museum of Gramophones was clearly marked and above ground, just off a major thoroughfare, and from the moment I entered it was clear that there was no risk, as with some of my previous research subjects, that I would be invited to consume multiple liters of vodka in the course of my interview.

But though Vladimir Ignatievich was more polite and better groomed than the record collectors, he was no more engaged by my carefully prepared research questions. Like so many of my interview subjects, Vladimir Ignatievich declared my topic to be vulgar, irrelevant, and absurd. And so, fixing me with his pale, cold blue eyes, he launched into a worthier topic: the story of his life. This was probably more interesting than my research questions, because Vladimir Ignatievich is not only a gramophone connoisseur, he is also a famous clown and bear trainer.

Bears have a complex cultural history in Europe. The French historian Michel Pastoureau has written about how in the eighth century, Charlemagne ordered bear massacres to help eradicate the bear-worshipping nature cults that were then widespread; the antipagan campaign also involved cutting down trees and diverting streams. While the Church generally frowned on animal-related rituals, they made an exception for bear training, which was a public humiliation of their rival; the awe-inspiring animal was chained and muzzled, reduced to pitiful imitations of human behavior. Bears are good at devouring but bad at playing the accordion. By the late medieval period, the mortification of the bear was complete.

Bears were not so systematically terrorized in Russia, and in Siberia they retained their sacred position in shamanic religions. As Russia approached the Petrine period of forced enlightenment, however, bear-related activities came under attack. In 1648, Peter’s father, Tsar Alexei, banned jesters and ordered their bear companions killed. The ban was not a success; in the eighteenth century the authorities made repeated attempts to ban the baiting and training of bears. These, too, were failures, as bear enthusiasts took their animals underground. Even Empress Elizabeth couldn’t resist: though she prohibited bear training in 1752, a year later she ordered that two bear cubs be trained for her personal entertainment.

Though the practice of bear training strikes many as cruel and degrading, it remains popular in circuses, perhaps nowhere more so than in Eastern Europe. The circus enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union and was used to convey Soviet ideology to the masses. Soyuzgostsirk, the Union of Government Circuses, trained circus performers in the basics of Marxism, and clowns, acrobats, and bears alike helped indoctrinate the public. In the seventies, the USSR had seventy permanent circus companies as well as an official circus academy. At times, the circus world even brushed up against the Soviet elite: Brezhnev’s notorious daughter, Galina, married first an acrobat and then a conjurer, before her disapproving father married her off to a KGB officer. But the incorrigible Galina soon betrayed her new spouse with a certain Boris the Gypsy, who shared her passion for illegally obtained jewels. He and members of the Moscow Circus, and probably Galina, were involved in a major diamond smuggling ring. Boris died in prison under mysterious circumstances, after being arrested for stealing the jewels of a lady lion tamer.

As with so many other subjects in Russia, discussion of bear training turns quickly to the soul. “I was the first to treat bears as actors,” Vladimir Ignatievich told me. “I didn’t just teach them to do tricks. I looked into a bear’s eyes, into his soul, and I asked, what role can this bear play? Is he Baba Yaga? Or a romantic hero?” He went on to tell me that his grandfather was a Cossack who defended the tsar. It might seem that a ferocious mounted warrior is an unlikely antecedent for a bear-training clown, but the path from Cossack to circus performer was once a rather well-traveled one. After fighting on the wrong side in the Russian Revolution, many Cossacks had to flee the country. Short on marketable non-steppe skills, many earned their living by working as trick riders in circuses. (A few Cossacks even performed at Madison Square Garden, receiving bad reviews and being arrested for drinking on Sunday, but persevering until they made it to Hollywood.)

The circus Cossacks have always struck me as tragic figures, even sadder than White Russian aristocrats driving Paris taxis; to be confined to a circus ring after roaming the steppe seems a bitter fate. But Vladimir Ignatievich loves the circus. He lives for the circus. He may have the greatest job satisfaction of any person I have ever met. In his apartment I saw a framed photograph of a bear in plaid shorts, boarding a flying saucer, the black-and-white image so overexposed that it looked like an X-ray. This was his masterpiece, he told me—the bears in space. Another photo showed a young Vladimir Ignatievich smiling blissfully at the camera, a muzzled bear reclining in his arms.

Vladimir Ignatievich presented me with a DVD showing the high points of his career, and later that night I watched the routines from the photos I’d seen. In the movie, Vladimir and a bear “hurry to work” at the circus—both on their hind legs. Bears in tutus roller-skate around the ring. Bears run on their hands and ride tricycles and scooters. A bear makes timid advances on a lady sitting on a bench; when she rejects him in favor of Vladimir, the bear lies down, puts a newspaper on his face, and pretends to go to sleep. A bear Indian chief kisses Vladimir on the lips, then steals his glass of whiskey. A bear sailor spins the wheel of a model ship, looking desperate.

Vladimir Ignatievich is now retired, but his son carries on his life’s work. In one clip I found online, his son can be seen standing on a Tatarstan road with a bear dressed as a traffic cop, stopping cars and inspecting their trunks. “We’re looking for narcotics,” he tells a reporter. “Bears have a very good sense of smell.”

Man’s control of bears has always been tenuous and always will be; bears never truly stop being wild animals. In 2009, an ice-skating bear lost his temper and killed his trainer at a circus in Kyrgyzstan. In 2010, four circus bears on a road trip from Irkutsk to Vladivostok went into hibernation, despite the copious amounts of strong tea and chocolate provided by their trainer. Global warming makes bears cranky; one video from the Filatov Circus, famous for its bear routines, shows a bear moaning and thrashing as his trainers poke him and try to force him to rehearse. These days it’s too hot for bears to dance in Volgograd. But none of those were Vladimir Ignatievich’s bears. On the DVD, I saw him singing his bears a special bear lullaby.

“People thank me for making a gramophone museum,” Vladimir Ignatievich told me as I prepared to leave. “They say it’s a good alternative to the Hermitage. I don’t like art museums. People shouldn’t try to go up into the sky.” He tapped his high forehead, pointing heavenward. “People should be close to nature. Sunsets! Fields! Girls!”

But what about lions and tigers and bears? I wondered, as I set out, again, into the snowdrifts.

Sophie Pinkham is a student of Russian literature who lives in New York City.