It was there that the real bear Aika walked more than 40 years ago, as it lived in the family of the Norilsk cameraman Yury Ledin. His animal documentaries rank among the best along with Cousteau and Darrell. Around the Tundra, Polar Bear, Northern Fur Seal and dozens of others took the most prestigious prizes at film festivals. Each of his films was bought by hundreds of countries around the world. Bought without preview. Only because they were filmed by Yury Ledin – a Leningrader by birth, a Norilsk person by spirit.
The films of Yury Ledin were made by two people only – Yury himself and his faithful companion, assistant and wife Lyudmila. Each film was half a year of autonomous existence in the Arctic. This was constant overcoming, meeting with the wild world, shown uncut, no matter how cruel the truth might be. A lot was filmed for the first time ever: the behavior of a polar bear under water, the voices of unhatched chicks, the tears of a hungry bear cub.
In 1975, after the expedition to Champa Island (Franz Josef Land archipelago) to study the life and habits of polar bears, the Polar Bear film was released. This film, where the main character was the Aika bear, brought worldwide fame to Yuri Ledin.
By the decision of the State Cinematography Committee the Polar Bear film was shown in the country’s cinemas. That was the only time that a documentary made in a television studio was shown during a whole year. The excitement was incredible. More than a hundred countries bought the film – Ledin became the most bought author in the country.
Here is what the director himself told about the idea of the legendary Polar Bear:
“In 1974, we conceived a film about polar bears, we prepared thoroughly, we even planned to take a camera for underwater photography. The difficulty was that I didn’t know if the bears would want to star. I could not send them an invitation. And then I accidentally saw a program where they talked about the birth of polar bear babies in the city of Nikolaev. The older one, the boy, was bitten by the mother-bear, and the cleaning lady took the other, a 380-gram bear cub. I came to Nikolaev in order to buy it out. Oh, they didn’t want to give it to me, but I managed to persuade them and bring the bear to Norilsk. Up to five months old, Aika lived in our three-room apartment on Metallurgov square”.
Then the Ladin family – Yury, Lyudmila and their six-year-old daughter Veronica – flew by plane to one of the uninhabited islands of Franz Josef Land. We settled in a trailer, prepared the equipment. But for a whole month, not a single polar bear appeared around. Therefore, all that time, Aika was the main character of the filming.
“I shot her this way and that. Then the plants bloomed there, the snow turned pink, and Aika was rolling on it. I filmed my daughter playing with her, they looked like a brother and sister. An adult polar bear Matilda (as we called her) with two babies appeared unexpectedly… and settled next to us. Aika needed to be fed, and one day I shot a seal. Matilda brought it to our home. I was very happy filming the bears all night. A week later, Matilda left with the cubs. Aika followed them. We were scared that we would not see her anymore, Veronica sobbed. But Aika came, together with Matilda. We lived like that for four months… The bears had nothing to eat – we gave them all our supplies: two pigs, 300 kilograms of halibut… Believe it or not, but at that time I filmed the cub crying from hunger and tears dripping from his eyes”.
The expedition was over. The film group and the grown 80-kilogram Aika were safely delivered to Norilsk. To that very apartment on Metallurgov square. Many Norilsk residents remember Yury Ledin walking with Aika, and what a stir her appearance on the balcony of the Ledins’ apartment caused!
“Aika herself could open the door, go out to the balcony and admire Norilsk”, said Yury. “It was hard, of course, to keep her in the house, but very joyful!”
Although later a special house was allocated for Aika, it was time to attach it somewhere. Ledin was categorically against to give the bear to the zoo – “to a Soviet prison”. He asked a famous journalist Vasily Peskov to find a decent foreign zoo. They agreed with Professor Dato, director of the Berlin Zoo.
“So I went to Moscow. I went up the ladder to TU-154, Aika followed me. We passed to the end of the cabin under the eyes of the passengers. A drunken deputy minister of non-ferrous metallurgy approached us with a bottle of vodka and tried to push it into Aike’s mouth. She did not like it very much, and hit the official with her paw. I just laughed”.
At the Moscow airport they went down the ladder in the same order: Ledin, followed by Aika. There they were met by the van of the zoo association, which was engaged in the sale of animals. The bear was taken away for a month’s quarantine.
“It was Aika’s end”, tears came to Yury’s eyes. “I know that she screamed for a week in quarantine. Then she was taken to Berlin. And died there. I still don’t know why. I think this was my fault. You see, bears live with their mothers for two years, and Aika was only a year old. If only she spent a year more with us… She just could not stand it. Maybe the psyche? The zoo keepers came, and saw her dead. Dato told me that Aika had fallen off a cliff. Am I a fool to believe this? A bear would never fall. This is how our Aika was gone.”
Text: Dmitry Donskoy, Photo: Marina Lystseva and archives of Norilsk residents