What the Dancing Bears of Belitsa Can Teach Us About Freedom

Cover detail from Dancing Bears by Witold Szabłowski

Editor's Note:

Witold Szabłowski is an award-winning Polish journalist. This excerpt is from his book, Dancing Bears, which takes a look at people in formerly Communist countries holding fast to their former lives. Here, Witold explains why trained dancing bears are similar to those with restricted freedom and those with newfound freedom, and why we fear a changing world.

The guy with the wacky hair and the crazed look in his eyes did not appear out of nowhere. He was already known to them. Sometimes he said how great they were, and told them to go back to their roots; if need be, he threw in some highly unlikely but madly alluring conspiracy theory. Just to get them to listen. And to give them a fright. Because he’d noticed that if he scared them, they paid him more attention.

They’d gotten used to him being there, and to the fact that now and then, with a totally straight face, he said something unintentionally hilarious. Sometimes he hovered on the fringes of political life, sometimes closer to the mainstream, but he was generally regarded as a mild eccentric.

Until one fine day they rubbed their eyes in amazement. Because the guy with the wacky hair had entered the race for one of the highest offices in the land. And just as before, here he was, trying to scare them again – with talk of refugees, war, and unprecedented disaster. With anything at all. He was also trying to pump up the national ego. In the process – in the eyes of the so-called elite – he was making a bit of a fool of himself. But he was also making big promises. Above all, he promised to turn back time, and make things the way they used to be. In other words, better.

And he won.

You know where this happened? Yes, you’re right. In our part of the world. In post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. In Regime-Change Land.

Regime-Change Land is the lava that began to pour from the volcano known as the “Soviet Union and its satellites” shortly before it erupted and ceased to exist. Our part of the world did of course have an earlier existence – the Poles, Serbs, Hungarians, and Czechs, for example, have long histories. But since World War II we had been living in the Soviet sphere of influence, put on ice by the agreements concluded at Yalta by Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, which had left us on the dark side of the balance of power.

The lava began to flow in Poland on June 4th, 1989, when the first (almost) free elections were held.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. And the lava really began to flow.

Soon after that, the Soviet Union came apart, and so did the whole post-Yalta order.

We became free. Not just the Poles, Serbs, Hungarians, and Czechs, but also the Estonians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Kirghiz, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and others. A large part of the world gained freedom, for which it was not prepared. In the most extreme cases it wasn’t expecting or even wanting it.

The story of the dancing bears was first told to me by Krasimir Krumov, a Bulgarian journalist I met in Warsaw.

For years on end, he said, these bears had been trained to dance, and had been treated very cruelly. Their owners kept them at home. They taught them to dance by beating them when they were small. They knocked out their teeth, to make sure the bears would never suddenly remember they were stronger than their keepers. They broke the animals’ spirits. They got them drunk on alcohol—many of the bears were hooked on strong drink forever after. And then they made them perform tricks for tourists — dancing, imitating various celebrities, and giving massages.

Then in 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, the keeping of bears was outlawed. An Austrian organization called Four Paws opened a special park in a place called Belitsa, not far from Sofia, and the bears were taken from their keepers and relocated there. Gone was the whip, the brutality, the nose ring that—according to the people from Four Paws — symbolized the bears’ captivity. A unique project began—to teach freedom to animals that had never been free. Step by step. Little by little. Cautiously.

The animals were taught how a free bear is supposed to move about. How to hibernate. How to copulate. How to obtain food. The park at Belitsa became an unusual “freedom research lab.”

As I listened to Krumov, it occurred to me that I was living in a similar research lab. Ever since the transition from socialism to democracy began in Poland in 1989, our lives have been a kind of freedom research project – a never-ending course in what freedom is, how to make use of it, and what sort of price is paid for it. We have had to learn how free people take care of themselves, of their families, of their futures. How they eat, sleep, make love – because under socialism world the state was always poking its nose into its citizens’ plates, beds, and private lives.

And, just like the bears of Belitsa, sometimes we cope better with our newfound freedom, sometimes worse. Sometimes it gives us satisfaction, but sometimes it provokes our resistance. Sometimes our aggression, too.

A few years after I first met Krumov, I went to the Dancing Bears Park in Belitsa. I wanted to know what a freedom lab was like. I learned that:

  • the bears are given their freedom gradually, in small doses. It can’t be given to them all at once, or they’d choke on it;
  • freedom has its limits. For the bears, the limit is an electrified wire fence;
  • for those who have never experienced it before, freedom is extremely complicated. It is very difficult for bears to get used to a life in which they have to care for themselves. Sometimes it simply can’t be done.

And I learned that for every retired dancing bear, the moment comes when freedom starts to cause it pain. What does it do then? It gets up on its hind legs and starts to dance. It repeats the very thing the park employees are trying their best to get it to unlearn: the behavior of the captive. As if it would prefer that its keeper come back to take responsibility for its life again. “Let him beat me, let him treat me badly, but let him relieve me of this goddamned need to deal with my own life,” the bear seems to be saying.

Guys with funny hair who promise a great deal have been springing up in our part of the world like mushrooms after rain. And people go running after them, like bears after their keepers. Because freedom has brought not just new opportunities and new horizons—it has also brought new challenges. Unemployment, which under socialism they never knew. Homelessness. Capitalism, often in a very wild form. And like the bears, people would sometimes prefer that their keepers come back to relieve them of at least some of the challenges. To take at least some of the weight off their backs.

While I was gathering the material for this book, I thought it was going to be about Central and Eastern Europe, and the difficulties of our emergence from Communism. But in the meantime, guys with wacky hair and a crazed look in their eyes have started to appear in countries that have never experienced Communism. It turns out that fear of a changing world, and longing for someone who will relieve us of some of the responsibility for our own lives, who will promise that life will be the same as it was in the past, are not confined to Regime-Change Land. In half the West, empty promises are made, wrapped in shiny paper like candy.

And for this candy, people are happy to get up on their hind legs and dance.

From Dancing Bears by Witold Szablowski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, courtesy Penguin Books. Copyright 2018, Witold Szablowski.