BBC's investigative Panorama programme on Monday (25 Jan 2016) looked into allegations of corruption against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Brave or meek, sensationally revealing or we-knew-it-all-along, it left quite a few questons unanswered.
One of them, with which non-Russian friends bombarded me, was about the nickname that is allegedly referring to Putin in coded conversations — 'Mikhail Ivanovich.'
One friend asked, all right, Mikhail Ivanovich, I get it, but what is his surname?
Without thinking, I replied: Toptygin (Топтыгин).
Mikhail Ivanovich Toptygin is one of the many affectionate, or not very affectionate folklore names for the Bear. The bear in Russian imagery is always the biggest of them all; he can be stupid, funny, clumsy, threatening; he can be a secondary character, or the main character, the Big Boss. Russian dictionaries have numerous entries on the bear and his nicknames. And the name, Mikhail-Michael, is quite common. Gorbachev is Mikhail Sergeevich. Kutuzov, the Russian army commander in history and in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace,' was Mikhail Illarionovich.
In 'War and Peace', Pierre, Anatole and Dolokhov get drunk, borrow a bear from the gypsies for fun, and, when a gendarme arrives, they tie them back-to-back and push the two in the river. The Bear appears in Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin' chasing Tatiana in her dream (see in English here, Chapter 5, XII, Russian text here). Saltykov-Schedrin, the great 19 Century satirist, has a tale of three bears serving as governors of different regions with the rank of Major. One of them, the cleverest, even gets promoted to Colonel. Each of the three have the same name Toptygin: Toptygin I, Toptygin II and Toptygin III. And at least one of them is Mikhail Ivanovich (Ivanovich being the patronymic, or middle name, with the stress on A). Chekhov wrote a one-act comedy sketch 'The Bear' (summary in English and text in Russian) in 1888, in which a burly land-owner challenges a young widow to a duel, after which they fall in love. The play was made into a film by Isidor Annensky in 1938.
The image of Russia as a bear, both in the West and in the East, is so strong that it merited a separate Wikipedia article. President Putin himself described the Bear as the master of the forest in October 2014.
But Mikhail Ivanovich the Bear, is he as strong in the Russian mind as Mikhail Ivanovich the Boss? Yes and no.
On top of Mikhail Ivanovich there is also the cute Mishka, the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot, and there is also a Mikhail Ivanovich the 'Chef' in the popular 1969 comedy 'The Diamond Arm' by Leonid Gaidai (summary in English on Wikipedia). Thanks to Valery Adzhiev for the reminder!
In fact, the film is so popular that the actual name of a character in the film, Mikhail Ivanovich the police officer, a Captain later promoted to Major, shifted to the wicked smugglers' ring-leader, the Chef. It must be thanks to the scene, when one of the gangsters disguised as a cab driver, learns that the police are on their trail and rushes off to call the Chef.
'You mean, Mikhail Ivanovich?' asks the main character.
'Yes, yes, him!'
This is how 'Mikhail Ivanovich' travelled from the Bear to the Boss.
'I must call Mikhail Ivanovich' scene from 'The Diamond Arm' -
Vladimir Putin on the Master of the Taiga forest (from RT YouTube channel) -