Ivan the Bear

A native of Macedonia who became an American citizen in 1924, STOYAN CHRISTOWE covered the Balkans for the Chicago Daily News in 1927 and 1928 and utilized his knowledge of Eastern Europe when he served as Adviser on Balkan Affairs for our Military Intelligence in 1942-1944. Since the war, Mr. Christowe has been living at West Dover. Vermont, whence came his volume of American reminiscences, My American Pilgrimage, which was published in 1947 under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.


PERFORMING bears in the Balkans come from the Carpathians, but about Ivan, the biggest bear ever seen, it is said that he comes from the Urals. Now, in the villages, nobody knows exactly where the Urals are, but the name Uralski Planini has something awesome about it, suggesting mammoths and behemoth.

And a mammoth of a bear is Ivan. His body, standing up, looks like the charred trunk of an oak with two spurs at the top. It is a wonder, the bigness of Ivan the bear. Yet, to many, the bigger wonder is that the huge animal is led by a puny man, a swarthy little man with a jack-o’-lantern face, whose name is Marin and who both looks like a gypsy and doesn’t. Straight black hair comes low over his forehead, and long black mustaches divide his face into half-moons. But he is formidably girt by a strong leather belt from which dangle two heavy chains, like the ones loggers use. The end of one of these chains is hooked to the iron ring which hangs to Ivan’s nose like a padlock to a door; the other chain is fastened to the brass-armored halter which encompasses Ivan’s enormous head and muzzles his snout.

Thus the great bear is doubly bound to the little master. Nevertheless Marin holds, scepter-like, a dogwood staff thicker than his hand can grasp and twice his height. At the conclusion of every dance he hands the bear the staff - perhaps in commendation, perhaps as a token that the power which the staff represents, in figure and in fact, is his, Ivan’s, and he, Marin, holds it by virtue of his superior knowledge and for Ivan’s own good. “You’ve danced well and proper, Ivan,” says Marin.

Staff upon the shoulder in the manner of a shepherd’s crook, the bear nods his stump-like head and rocks his trunk, suggesting, no doubt, that holding the staff is much more to his liking than dancing at his master’s bid. Then, giving back the staff, he takes from his master the tambourine to pass it on to the housewife in whose dooryard he has just performed. In a moment the housewife returns with the tambourine half filled with flour, and Ivan takes it with a bow and hands it to Marin, who empties it into one of the flour sacks tied to the mare’s packsaddle.

That done, Marin turns to the lemon-pale child who’s been clinging to the woman’s skirt and says, “Bless him, the little one, is he subject to ailments of diverse kinds?”

“He screams in his sleep in the night,”the mother replies, “and he is a ready victim of any pair of evil eyes.”

” Fear not, my little one,” heartens the little bearmaster, “ Ivan will banish the evil things.”He takes the shy child in his arms and, petting him and otherwise reassuring him, tries to place him astride the bear’s back. But the child shivers and screams, and the crowd of onlooking youngsters draws back. The big bear is doubly secured by the muzzle and the nose ring, and Marin holds the staff; still the youngsters keep at a fair distance from the bear. They do not know what the bear-master knows: that Ivan is held to his tameness not so much by the staff and the chains as by his own fear, by his not knowing his own strength, by his not knowing that only an inch of his own gristle separates him from his freedom.

“Fear not, my little one,” says Marin, having placed the child upon the bear’s back. With one hand Marin holds the child and with the other leads Ivan about, giving the little one the bear-ride cure.

“This will outfear the fear in your heart,”the bear-master says. “ And you’ll scream no more in the night, and a strong and fearless and free man you will grow up to be.”The child stops sobbing and his pale face blinks into a smile. He has ridden a bear. What fear can there be for a child who has ridden a bear, and that bear Ivan!

But one thing more. A tuft of Ivan’s hair for the child to wear at his throat. The big bear’s rump is bare as a monkey’s, for the hair has been clipped from it tuft by tuft for young ones to wear as charms against sickness and evil. If the spell of evil eyes may be broken, and ailments of diverse origins may be averted by talismans of hair from ordinary bears, as anyone will tell you, then how surely by that of Ivan, the mightiest of bears.

The grateful, trusting mother hopefully clutches the hair as though it were the health and well-being of her young. Neatly, carefully, she will sew it into a piece of cloth dipped in molten beeswax and hang it at her child’s throat. But now she must hurry and put some more of her scant supply of flour into the tambourine.

Followed by the entourage of fascinated youngsters, Marin moves on to the next house, and the next, repeating his performances. His bear dances, does tricks, treats the sick, bows like a bride, kisses the hands of men who hand him coins, passes the coins to his master, and then shambles on behind him. Slowly and heavily shuttle the paws, the broad mane trembles, the whole gigantic mass tumbles on behind the little master like a bumblebee behind an ant.

In the dooryard of the next house, Marin thumps the tambourine and sings out his ditty about the bandits who rob the poor peasant folk. Slowly the bear’s forepaws rise up and presently the whole shaggy bulk, balanced on the powerful haunches, begins to rock and shake like a tree in the wind. Nothing is heard save the voice of Marin and the sound of his tambourine. All the dogs of the village, who welcomed Ivan with loud protestations, have disappeared into their holes.

The dance over, the housewife tells Marin what the whole village knows. With sadness in her eyes and hope in her voice she tells how her husband has been ill these many months, how Grandma Shimba has tried all her magic cures on him, and all her herb potions. The grains of salt she tossed into the fire sizzled and popped and the old woman did sneeze and yawn languidly, which was a good omen. The priest, too, read from his sacred books, smacked the sick on the forehead with the bunch of basil soaked in holy water, and walked about the house chanting divine words and sprinkling holy water over walls and furniture and shaking puffs of incense smoke from his jingling censer. Everything thereafter smelled chastened and exorcised but still the sick man, laments the w ife, is unable to rise and yoke his oxen and plow his neglected fields.

“The man’s a victim of magics, opiates, and quack doctoring,” says Marin. “He needs not the priest’s prayers but the bear’s paws. Come, Ivan, let us deliver the man from these terrible evils.”

With a deep groan, which delights the youngsters, the big bear leaps across the threshold. Once inside he sniffs in this corner and blows in that, growls here and grumbles there, sweeps the floor with his furry paws and shakes his woolly trunk like a mummer on New year’s Eve, till he comes to the corner where the sick man lies on a mat under a coarse blanket. The bear scents the covered form and gives out a low, sustained, and frightening roar. Then he lifts one mop-like paw, then another, then another, and thus cumbrously, but cautiously, as though danger lurked beneath, he paws and treads and kneads. Upon the back of the suffering man, upon the shoulder blades, upon the aching thighs and outstretched limbs, the bear rubs and presses while muffled groans issue from under the blanket. If the evil things do not escape through the chimney and the man does not rise to yoke his oxen, it is none of Ivan’s fault.


AFTER making the rounds in the upper quarter, bear and master, still escorted by the retinue of fascinated children, tramp over the little wooden bridge to the lower quarter of the village. Ahead, just beyond the bridge, lies the grassless plaza, flanked on one side by the church and the schoolhouse and on the other by the riverbank with its row of droopy willows. In the shade of the willows, on wooden benches, sit several village loafers with the two local gendarmes. The sight of the bear, taking the width of the bridge like an overloaded haycart, causes the men to bestir themselves. One of them, looking up to the opposite end of the plaza, sees a lone figure approach. “Hey, here comes Boyko,”he says.

“Sure enough, it’s Boyko the wrestler and no mistake,”says another man. “He must have heard about the bear. Maybe he wants to wrestle him.”

Crook in hand and skin bag over his shoulder, Boyko strides down toward the bear troupe. A giant of a man, fearsome as any bear, he summers his sheep in the highlands of the mountains and winters them in the lowlands by the sea. Bears and wolves and other beasts of the forest are no strangers to him. And he is the greatest wrestler since Koka Trash the Albanian.

Presently, children and grown folk form a ring about Ivan the bear and Boyko the wrestler. Wrapped, as always, regardless of weather, in his bearskin coat, the fur on the outside, and upon his massive head the bearskin calpac, Boyko looks like a man-bear and is thrice the size of Marin the bear-man.

“Wrestle him, Boyko,” voices urge the big shepherd, who leans on his crook before the bear. Some dozen youngsters hurry toward the houses to shout, “Quick! Come! Boyko the shepherd will wrestle Ivan.” And they hurry back breathless as soon as they have heralded the event.

In the presence of the shepherd, big and shaggy like himself, the bear paces about nervously, his four paws treading a clumsy pattern, his enormous body wobbling and jingling the chains. Now and then the bear’s back shivers, causing the hair to bristle and stand on edge like the quills on a hedgehog when touched with a stick. The small shifty eyes, like knots in a brown stump, turn for a brief instant on the mountain man in whose own gray eyes, as he stands there, are friendliness and sympathy, as if they pitied the big animal because of the iron ring and chains. Under the eave-like brows t he shepherd’s eyes lose their meekness and compassion and narrow up with contempt as they shift from the big chained animal to the swarthy little animal who has chained him.

“No, I’ll not wrestle the bear,” says Boyko. “But I’d like to wrestle the little fox who holds the chains.”

Derisive laughter bursts on all sides.

“No, Boyko, the bear you must wrestle.”

More people gather in the plaza, bringing traces of the work they have left behind — the men, chaff in their ears and straw in their hair; the women, flour on their headkerchiefs and dough on their hands.

“I wrestle no man or beast.” Marin knocks the earth with the bottom of his staff. “My bear Ivan will wrestle with any man or any beast, for any stake.”

“The bear, Boyko, the bear,” an old man urges. “There’s no strength in the bear-man.”

“If I wrestle the bear and down him, I get the bear,” says Boyko. “If not, I’ll give the fox a sheep. Those are the stakes.”

“Fair enough,” some men shout, though others look askance at the oddness of the stakes.


MARIN now unbuckles the bridle from Ivan’s head, and holding the animal by the nose-ring chain alone, he says to him, “Be you a wrestler, Ivan. With Boyko of the mountain match your strength.”

Boyko too takes off his furry calpac, unslings the skin bag from his shoulder, but keeps on his bearskin coat. As he steps up, the big bear shies away, pacing as in a cage, his body trolling, the soles of his feet slapping the earth.

“Rise up, Ivan.” Marin clanks the chain but the forepaws do not lift.

“It’s the bearskin,” says Marin. “Take off the bearskin.”

Removing the wrap, Boyko now stands naked from the waist — or not quite naked, for his broad chest and shoulders are tufted with hair. Hulking and defiant, again he steps forth, his strong arms spread in a wide arc, his deep chest heaved out.

The paws now stop treading, and the two black knots in the brown stump turn like gimlets upon the half-man, half-animal shape.

“Stand up, Ivan.” Again Marin clanks the chain, but this time he gives it a slight, measured pull which forthwith lifts the forepaws from the ground. Slowly now the behemoth trunk rises, forepaws hanging limply, chain dangling from the nose, hind feet treading alternately to steady the towering mass.

Nobody stirs. Some hold their breath, watching intently. For an instant the distant, solitary bark of a dog breaks the hush. And then in the ensuing silence Boyko’s widespread feet grind the dirt, sidling his body toward the standing bear, stolidly waiting to meet his mountain strength.

A few feet from the bear Boyko charges; his powerful arms clutch at the furry trunk, which reels and staggers but is quickly steadied, rocks a little and is steadied again. Like one possessed, Boyko heaves at the unwieldy form; he breasts and shoulders, and lunges, summoning strength from every bone and muscle to throw the bear in one mighty heave.

And the bear Ivan! All he does is keep from falling. To do this he simply dances, a tread-like, slow, and ponderous dance.

To the onlookers it seems Boyko is trying to uproot a tree by sheer human push. The man is possessed of great strength and he repeatedly gathers concentrations of this strength and heaves them at the bear, but the bear is planted deep in his own strength, and though he yields and staggers a little and rocks a little he remains standing, his furry surface wrapped about the struggling man.

Now everybody knows Ivan is a trained wrestler as he is a trained dancer. And Marin of course knows it, for it is he who has done the training. He knows better yet how to conduct a wrestling match between his bear and a man. All the people must be given due entertainment for the coins they are expected to drop when Ivan passes the tambourine around after the match. So Marin hops about on his short legs, accommodating his chain to the bear till he is ready to give him the signal. The people may think that Boyko is wrestling with the bear. He is, in truth, wrestling with Marin the bearmaster, who holds the bear’s strength in his hands.

Sweat pours down Boyko’s back as he digs his heels into the ground and once again pushes at the bear with all his might. High above him the bear rocks his head from side to side, keeping time with the feet which pedal the earth to keep his body standing. In the small black eyes where Marin can read the different moods of his bear, he now sees a curious amusement, as if Ivan were merely playing with another bear, whom he does not wish to hurt.

Now, thinking the moment has come, the bearman jingles the chain and taps the earth three times with his staff. Presently Ivan’s arms will close in without strangling, his broad chest will press down without crushing, his great weight will bear down without hurting. Slowly and surely Boyko will be pinned to the earth, limbs extended, shoulders and back touching ground all along.

Like a jester before monarchs little Marin frolics about, giving his bear plenty of chain, but a whole long minute passes and there’s no sign the bear is taking the hint. He still dances rather than wrestles, his eyes still have the calm and bemused look.

Again Marin jingles the chain and again he sounds the earth with his staff. Still the bear holds back, his arms hang limply over the struggling man’s back.

One thing Marin can’t stand is disobedience in his bear. Whenever that happens, anger flames up in him like a firebrand and he cannot restrain himself from using his power — the chain and the staff. In a sudden rage he gives the chain an unmeasured pull and the metal ring digs into the gristle; but he is not appeased, and before he realizes what he is doing he rams the pole into the bear’s back.

From the depths of the animal the wildness comes in a thunder-like roar, in a savage blazing of the eyes and a stiffening of joints and muscles. The tree which Boyko has been trying to push down is beginning to fall upon him with all its crushing weight, and the man’s painful moans, though drowned by the bear’s roar, are heard by Marin and bring him to his senses. He knows now what he has done and he knows that pulling at the chain again or using the staff would drive the beast farther back into the wild rather than return him to his tameness. In a flash, like the wise bear-master he is, he unhooks the tambourine from his belt and, striking it with the flat of his hand, sings out his ditty about the bandits who rob the poor peasant folk. And just as suddenly as the bear takes flight into the wild because of the tear in his nose and the blow in his back, he is summoned back to tameness by the music of his master. The stiffness drops from the bear, his arms loosen, his strength withdraws, and the whole frightful bulk lilts away from Boyko before it has crushed a single bone.

Breathing a deep sigh of relief, Marin announces that the match is over and that it is a draw. And nobody questions the wisdom of Marin’s decision, not even Boyko, who is shaken but unhurt.

But the match is not over— not between Marin and Boyko, nor between Matin and Ivan. That night, as is his wont whenever his bear takes temporary flight into the wild, Marin purges the beast of his tendencies towards disobedience and rebelliousness. When the moon comes up and sheds pale light upon the threshing lot at the outskirts of the village where Marin and Ivan camp, the bear-master takes up the long dogwood staff. As the little figure, holding up the big pole, casts a grotesque silhouette upon the moonlit camp site, Ivan, a black mass chained to the stout threshing post, sits up and sends forth a low, imploring cry. The bony mare, too, tethered near-by, scrapes the earth with her hoofs and makes a rattling noise with her lips.

The sinister figure in the moonlight takes a stand beyond reach of the chains but within striking distance of the pole. The man’s short legs are spread apart and his feet are hard-pressed upon the ground; both hands hold the pole firmly to prevent its slipping away or being seized by the bear. Presently the uplifted pole’s elongated shadow bounds weirdly across the floor and for a brief moment is foreshortened as the far end of the pole itself lands on Ivan’s shoulder. A deep, bottomless, terrifying bellow issues from the beast. He rears up now, beats the air with his forepaws and stomps the earth, but the little master is not stayed. He raises the pole again and again and brings it down upon the bear with all the strength of his tough little body.

The wakened villagers feel sorry for poor Ivan. Even a bear’s painful cries can evoke compassion in the human heart. Some dogs, too, perhaps in fright, perhaps in sympathy, howl in the night. And the moon-robed mountain, itself a gigantic crouching animal looming above the rooftops, must hear the bear cries.

Once again the pole poises in mid-air, but this time it does not strike, for now Boyko’s huge shadow falls athwart the moonlit lot. His manly arms reach up from behind and his powerful hands seize the pole and send it hurtling to the edge of the lot. And then under the blinking eye of the moon and to the accompaniment of clinking chains, a strange little drama takes place, to be revealed by the dawn to the village folk, who are astounded to see chained to the threshing post not Ivan the bear but Marin the bear-master, and no bear in sight.

Human nature being what it is, the same folk who pitied poor Ivan the night before, now at dawn feel sorry for Marin the bear-man. Only a few folk, and they dull-witted and callow, conjecture that Ivan, big that he is, could break the chains with one mighty desperate pull of his Ural strength and escape into the mountain. But why did he not kill his master first? And how did Ivan manage to put his own chains around his master’s throat ? Howbeit, these few puzzled folk soon read something in the faces of those wiser than themselves, and then the truth dawns on them, and they, too, nod their heads knowingly.