THE THING TO REMEMBER about bear-baiting is that, like “reality” television, there is very little about it that is real. This cruel spectacle, enjoyed by English kings and commoners alike for nearly 800 years, always weighted the odds heavily against the bear. Had they not, there would have been no one to bet on but the bear. Mastiffs and Bulldogs are fearsome beasts, but neither of them could last five minutes in a fair fight with an angry bear.
The bear simply had to be handicapped. Accordingly, the baiters took care to chain the bear by the leg, or the neck, to an iron stake driven into the middle of the bear-pit. They were also careful to set more than one dog against the bear. Sometimes, to be absolutely certain that the dogs had a fighting chance, the baiters would pull the bear’s canine teeth and pare-back his lethal claws.
Thus was the uncertainty of the encounter heightened, and the range of outcomes upon which to place a wager multiplied. How many dogs would the bear be able to kill or maim before he was brought low? How long could the chained and defanged creature hold out? One hour? Two?
King Henry VIII enjoyed the sport so much he had a bear-pit constructed at his Whitehall palace. It is not recorded how much the sovereign won or lost betting against the bears.
Sad to say, sovereign powers are still engaged in bear-baiting. The bear in question may be the symbolic representative of Russia, but the principle is the same. De-fang it by stripping away all the territories you can trick or bribe into abandoning their homeland. Pare back its claws by means of economic sabotage and diplomatic chicanery. Chain it unfairly behind indefensible borders. And then send in your dogs.
And were there ever dogs so vicious as the dogs of the West? The dogs of NATO? Poor Mikhail Gorbachev: bedazzled by dreams of a democratic and de-militarised Eastern Europe; intoxicated by the idea of a free and mutually supportive association of nation states stretching all the way from the North Sea to the Pacific Ocean; he foolishly neglected to get in writing President George H. W. Bush’s guarantee that NATO would not advance “one inch” beyond the River Elbe.
How could he have forgotten the old Russian proverb that no less a person than Ronald Reagan had quoted to him (in passable Russian) Doveryay, no proveryay: “Trust, but verify.”
Ah, but those NATO dogs are cunning fellows. Thirty-two years after Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, gave their word to Gorbachev, they snarl at the Russian bear: “Where’s your proof that NATO ever offered such a guarantee? You have no proof. You lie!”
The Western Media, a dog whose teeth are every bit as sharp as NATO’s, gleefully inserts the word “contested” whenever the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, repeats Gorbachev’s claim.
In this baiting game, however, no dog is more gangrel, greedy or vicious than the puppet-regime purporting to represent the people of the Ukraine. Installed by the Americans in 2014, after their armed gangs of self-avowed fascists had driven the elected government from power, Kyiv’s humble servants have kept a very useful small-war smouldering on Russia’s border for 8 years. Their signature on the Minsk Protocol as worthless as all their subsequent protestations of peace and goodwill.
It is certainly fine sport, this high-stakes game of bear-baiting. Ukraine’s dog goes in first, hackles raised, teeth bared. Close behind sidle NATO’s new members – Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States – jaws slavering, US-supplied fangs gleaming. While all around them, wild and eager, the newshounds of the Western media bark and bark and bark. Only France and Germany hang back. They’ve baited this bear before and know from bitter experience how sharp are its teeth, how dangerous its claws.
But, what is this? What has happened to the chain that the baiters were at such pains to reassure the gamblers remained firmly fastened around the bear’s neck? And surely those claws are much longer than they should be? Dear God! That Ukrainian dog has ventured much too close – can someone not pull him back beyond the reach of those powerful arms?
We have wagered everything on NATO’s dogs. How could we have missed the Russian bear’s nuclear teeth?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 February 2022.