IRES Institutet för Rysslands- och Eurasienstudier

From Russia with (Bear) Love


In April 1685, King Charles XI of Sweden received a polar bear as a gift from the only 13-year old Tsar Peter I of Russia. In return, as diplomatic relations continued to develop, the Swedish king sent a white and brown fighting dog called Turck (‘Turk’) to the young Tsar.

There are precedents from earlier times of this kind of exchange. Skeletons of large dogs similar to Borzoi sighthounds have been found for instance in Iron Age burial sites with boat graves in Vendel and Valsgärde near Uppsala in Sweden. They are considered to be diplomatic gifts between magnate families, perhaps arriving from the East Slavic territories (now Russia).

The exchange of animals as gifts between rulers or giving animals as gifts to royalty (and more recently, presidents or prime ministers) is a long-standing tradition not only between Sweden and Russia. In history all kinds of exotic or special animals have been sent or given away, including giraffes, elephants, big cats and naturally, hunting dogs or fine specimens of horses. This custom is still practiced in Europe. When Vladimir Putin visited Bulgaria on 13 November 2010, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov handed over a big Karakachan puppy, an impressive breed used as a livestock guardian dog by herdsmen in Bulgarian mountain massifs, as a gift to his obviously surprised but delighted Russian guest. The dog was later named Buffy and is now living in the home of the Russian president in Moscow.  

With Russia as an important and powerful neighbouring country, Sweden and in the recent past also Finland have been eager to keep up diplomatic relations. These relations have been manifested partly through animal gifts, with more animals arriving from Russia than the reverse. Exotic and unusual animals are still given as a diplomatic gesture, today however on a smaller scale and usually less exotic than previously in the face of changed social attitudes and protection laws. In modern times, presidents Urho Kekkonen and Mauno Koivisto from Finland have received horses, including the rare Orlov breed, during visits to the Soviet Union, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. President until 2012 Tarja Halonen, who is a well-known cat-lover and whose both cats had died recently, received a Siberian kitten from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedyev and his family in 2013.

A Russian Bear in Stockholm

Back to the historical polar bear, however. This seventeenth-century bear, which became a popular sight in Sweden, originated from the island of Novaya Zemlya. It was brought to Sweden by the commissary Christoph von Kochen and was kept at the royal stables on the island Helgeandsholmen in Stockholm. A special building (“Biörnhuus”) for the bear was built close to the royal stables. The bill for the construction materials is still preserved.

The polar bear could be conveniently observed from the windows of the royal chambers and also people passing by could watch it. The priest and Member of Parliament Olaus Bodinus saw in 1686 the polar bear swimming in Lilla Norrström. It was fed with fish and impressed the public, because it could stay for a long time below the water surface.

The polar bear was alive in the autumn of 1686, but when it died is not clear from the sources. The dead polar bear was stuffed and preserved in the Armoury and it was also painted by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl. The painting is still kept in Strömsholm Palace in Västmanland.

 Sabira Ståhlberg and Ingvar Svanberg