Winter Bear Hunt as a Part of Russian Folk Culture

"The main pleasure of Russian people is hunting"
Herberstein, diplomat, traveler, historian
"Hunting is one of the best pleasures"
Nicholas II

Since prehistoric times, man has been hunting to survive. With the development of society, goals, methods and tools of hunting changed. Hunting was the main occupation and the main source of nutrition in the primitive society. Closer to the Middle Ages, it acquired the character of rites and rituals.
There were folk traditions of bear hunt in Russia from the ancient times. A bear hunt was set off in the early spring, when the bear lost two-thirds of its former strength from winter slumber. The most ancient and dangerous method was often used - hunting for a bear with a bear spear with an iron pike – the so-called “rogatina”.
A fearless hunter get to took up into almost hand-to-hand fight with the animal. Of course, several hunters went hunting together. A spear that was thrust into the den waked up a bear. Hunters tried to shoot at the same moment when the predator’s head started protruding outwards. In case the shots were unsuccessful, one of the hunters held the beast with a spear (or the dog distracted the bear) while others reloaded their guns. People hunted a bear with a single spear, which required great courage, dexterity and strength.

In general, of all methods of hunting, it was in the bear hunting that tested one’s courage, composure, restraint, determination, lightning-speedy reaction, dexterity, accuracy, adroitness and selflessness.

Cigarette-case with the scene of the Russian winter bear hunt
Mechanical pocket watch “Bear Hunt”
Diorama model " Winter bear hunt with a spear". Photo album

Court hunting in Russia used to be a popular leisure pursuit only from the middle of the 17th century. The excitement of hunting, a duel with a strong and cunning predator, competition with other hunters in dexterity and the quantity of trophies transformed hunting from plain catching nutrition into the entertainment and art. Tsar's hunting was notable for the variety of ceremonial. It obeyed its own rules and traditions.
Bear hunting came in fashion among the representatives of the highest court only under Alexander II. It usually took place in Bolshoe Lisino, near Torbino.

Sculpture "Lisino Bear", Nikolay Lieberich, 1865

Bear hunting was organized according to the strictly defined scenario. Imperial hunting was a cretinously thought out ritual. In addition to the customary preparations, a detailed plan of action was worked out, a list of participants was drawn up and a detailed report on the trophies of each participant was made upon the hunt completion.
The choice of hunting location depended on the total quantity of game at the site. The participants movement patterns, precise time and place of carriages and coaches parking, etc. were indicated in the scenario. Each participant received such program together with the personal invitation. Usually, the Emperor, the Grand Dukes, generals from the retinue, honored foreign guests, representatives of the diplomatic corps took part in the imperial hunt.

Enumeration of trophies was very strict. It is known that during his life Alexander II killed 150 bears personally.
Hunting trophies often served as diplomatic gifts. Stuffed animals and carpets were manufectured and presented to the representatives of diplomatic corps and political elite.
Thus, the French ambassador, Count de Morny, the Spanish ambassador, the Duke of Osuna, the Grand Duke Karl von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and the Duke of Edinburgh received stuffed bears as gifts from Alexander II. Bearskin rugs decorated the parlors of the Emperor and the Empress in the Winter Palace.

A gala dinner usually finalized hunting. All trophies were taken to the palace and arranged in a certain order. Trophies obtained by the Emperor occupied the first row; trophies of other participants were displaced in the next row. Lists of all outstanding trophies were made. Later some trophies were distributed between the participants of the hunt, other – were given to the anatomical museums of the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Arts and universities.

Bear hunting was not only interesting and exciting for the Emperor, but sometimes dangerous, and even tragic...
In 1863, on the eve of the New year, several hunters of Moscow and Vladimir province invited Alexander II for a bear hunt - in those days the manners were penny plain. The Emperor gave his consent, despite the fact that completely unfamiliar people organized the hunt. Accompanied by his retinue, he headed off for a bear hunt near the village of Golovino.
The house of the property owner Grinkov was renovated for the Emperor reception, 29 peasant huts were cleaned, furnished and decorated for the retinue and hunters. The Emperor with his retinue arrived on December 10, 1862. Bonfires and burning resin barrels lighted the road from the railway station Pavlovo to the village of Golovino that was about 20 kilometers away.
The hunt took place in the morning. Hunters were not disappointed - the bear was raised from the den and directed strictly to the Emperor. Alexander II struck him with one shot. His shot ended the hunt.

However, sometimes the scenario differed, and hunting was very dangerous.
Thus, in January 1872 a bear was cornered near Torbino station not far from the town Malaya Vishera. Alexander II arrived, accompanied by his retinue. The Prussian ambassador, Reis, was also invited. Hunting began at 9:30 am on January 3, 1872. A huge bear was raised from the den. He immediately rushed to the beaters and two of them were seriously wounded. Alexander II took a shot, but only wounded the bear and made the beast angrier. The bear turned in the direction of the Emperor. It was within four steps from him. Two hunters defended Alexander II. One of them shot immediately after the Emperor, and the other drove the spear into the beast’s chest. Prostrated beast fell at the Emperor’s feet. Everyone stopped dead ...
Nevertheless the Emperor was unruffled and cheerful...


1) "Imperial Hunting in Russia" - essay on the history of Russian hunting. The study covers the Tsarist and Grand Prince hunt during the period from the Xth century up to the reign of the Emperor Alexander III. The author is Colonel Nikolai Kutepov, head of administrative department of the Imperial Hunt. 4 volumes (6 books), 1896-1911.
2) "Magic Ring of Hunting", А.V. Chekhovskikh, Moscow, 2013.

The compiler of the article: Irina Vershinina