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‘Old Proverb’ States That ‘Russian Bear Never Dies’

Mike Pence

Mike Pence

U.S. vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party

"There’s an old proverb that says the Russian bear never dies, it just hibernates."

False record of any such folk saying

Pence made the assertion in a discussion about Russia during the October 5 vice presidential debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine. It was Pence’s setup line to discuss what he described as the “feckless foreign policy” of Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama, which he claims emboldened Russian military action in Ukraine and the Middle East. To date, no evidence has been unearthed that this alleged “old proverb” comes from anywhere other than the mouth of Mike Pence himself. Buzzfeed, Vice News, and other media outlets have noted that Internet searches turn up no trace of any such proverb.

Buzzfeed found a record of Pence referencing a similar version of the alleged “old proverb” in a March 2014 article published by the National Review. That quote is also metaphorically confusing, suggesting that not only does the Russian bear hunker down for the winter, but its ambitions do as well.

“History shows the Russian Bear’s ambitions never die, they just go into hibernation,” Pence was quoted as saying.

Russian linguists were perplexed by Pence’s latest claim as well. The bear indeed plays a prominent role in Russian mythology and folklore, and the Russian language has numerous aphorisms involving the animal as well.
These include sayings involving the mortality of bears, including “Don’t sell the bear’s skin until you’ve killed it” -- a Russian version of the English proverb “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

But Irina Levontina, a prominent Russian linguist, told that she found no evidence of a saying similar to the one cited by Pence when she searched in prominent Russian reference collections. The entry for “bear” in one of the most famous of these works, the Explanatory Dictionary Of The Living Great Russian Language, by renowned 19th-century lexicographer Vladimir Dal, lists dozens of proverbs involving the animal, but does not mention the word “hibernation” once. (It does include the phrase “Two bears don’t live in one cave” -- the Russian equivalent of “Two of a trade never agree.”

Vladimir Slavkin, a linguist and a journalism professor at Moscow State University, told the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency that there are “different understandings of the Russian bear.”

“But the one that (Pence) delivered in his speech, I don’t know where he got that. It’s not a proverb or a saying,” Slavkin said, adding that other languages are “unlikely” to have such an adage either.

Levontina told that the only “undying bear” she’s ever encountered is in the popular first-person-shooter computer game Far Cry. The fictional animal is valued by Far Cry players for its “undying bear leather” -- which one probably shouldn’t sell until the beast is killed.