An Outline of the History of the Borzoi
The Historical Period
The first historical reports that we have date
to Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian monuments on which pictures
of dogs used in those days for hunting were made fairly well.
In general one cannot say that hunting of fast-running
animals was in full swing. Nearly all pictures of hunts show
us big animals such as the lion, tiger, bear, wild ass, and
so forth. We think we see on Egyptian statues pictures of a
dog reminiscent of the borzoi, but a somehow strange borzoi:
almost without loins, with enormous prick ears and an upright
tail fully bent into a loop onto the back; the dog was smooth-haired.
To judge by the Assyrian and Persian monuments,
one ought not to think that the borzois were in full swing there;
all pictures of hunts show skirmishes with lions and in general
with large animals, and the dogs involved in these skirmishes
have nothing in common with borzois, but are reminiscent of
crude coursing dogs, something like Great Danes or mastiffs;
in antiquity these dogs were brought from India and called "Indian
coursing dogs," which Xenophon mentions in his writings
According to the first written data, we see
a mention of the dog as early as in the Bible [and]
in the books Veda and Zend Avesta, where the
dog is man's companion and friend, a completely domesticated
The first detailed report on hunting that has
come down to us was written by Xenophon; he was the first to
give us some integral view capable of giving us an understanding
of hunting in ancient Greece. But once again he says nothing
about hunting with borzois, and the borzoi dog apparently was
unknown to ancient Greeks for a very long time, although all
of Xenophon's writings about hunting pertain to rabbit hunting.
That hunting with borzois did not exist in those times is clearly
visible from the following words of this ancient writer: "The
dog rarely surpasses it [the hare] in leg speed, and if the
hare is caught, this occurs by chance and not out of the design
of its body, because of all animals having a size identical
to it, none compares with it in running." Before this,
he says that a good dog on the trail of a hare should spin its
tail, and having driven the hare from its lair, the dog should
chase it with its bark; this directly indicates a hound and
not a borzoi.
Describing deer hunting, Xenophon mentions
Indian dogs, saying: "For deer Indian dogs are needed;
these dogs are strong, tall, fast afoot, and not without fervor,
and with these traits they are able to work"; but here
too we are not dealing with borzois, for later, in describing
the hunt, he says that these dogs are able to catch a doe but
not an adult. Not much speed is needed to catch a suckling!
In boar hunting, [Xenophon] mentions Indian,
Cretan, Lockrisian, and Laconian dogs, but here too there is
nothing about borzois, since hunting using these animals was
not practiced without nets, traps, and snares.
In general, one may note that in those days
nets, snares, and traps played the primary role in the hunt,
and dogs were used only to find the animal and, with the help
of a person, they drove it into the nets.
Coursing dogs, with a borzoilike appearance,
which were known in antiquity, were used only as being able
to enter into battle with an animal when the animal, tired by
the chase, was coming to a stop.
The best dogs were obtained from Epeirus and
were called "molosses"; information on them that has
come down to us is as follows: this dog was of enormous height,
and in appearance was quite similar to the "allanes"3
used in tracking down wild boars in Western Europe in the Middle
Ages. They had a prick ear and long feathering, chiefly on the
shoulders and neck, in a sort of lion's mane; it may be conjectured
that this was a large sheepdog, since the portrait just described
by me closely approaches our Russian sheepdog, which exists
throughout southern Russia; in any event, this dog was a coursing
dog and not a borzoi.
To what extent coursing with borzois was little
practiced by and nearly unknown to the ancients is clear from
the work of Ariane, who cautions modern hunters in their manner
to take an animal by cunning, using nets and traps, and not
by open force; he openly says that all these traps and nets
only prove the unfitness of dogs and that, if one has good Gaulish
borzois, one does not have to use either nets or snares, since
no animal can escape their speed.
In the Roman Empire we see that hunters had
dogs - Gaulish, German, and Scottish; they all were renowned
for their speed and, to judge by the descriptions, were true
In all likelihood their type was quite similar
to bearded Scottish deerhounds and Irish wolfhounds, but had
nothing in common with our long-haired Russian borzoi. In general,
under the Roman emperors the breeds of dogs were quite diverse,
since the power and majesty of the empire allowed them to be
brought from everywhere. All these breeds interbred, and one
cannot say that the Romans had any breed that they developed
and adapted for local hunting in Italy. To judge by all available
data, the ancients did not have good hunting dogs.
In the late stages of the empire, hunting finally
disappeared and was considered too tiring an activity for the
effete patricians; it was replaced by simple chasing of various
animals in the circus, and not hunting dogs but coursing dogs
of various breeds were used. Here what was important was not
their hunting traits but simple strength, height, and the ability
to fight with large predators released into the arenas.
We find the first clear indication of borzois
in a description of the hunt among the Gauls by the Roman writer
Ariane; according to him, the Gauls conducted the hunt just
as we do; an "island"4 was surrounded with
packs of borzois, which were unleashed on an animal chased by
Ariane calls these borzois "vertragi,"
and praises their speed. According to him, these were very beautiful
dogs, among which some were single-color and others skewbald;
they later were called "veltres leparari,"
They evidently were used only to course hares,
as writers of the day were noted for their accuracy, such as
Ariane, do not mention the coursing of any animals other than
More detailed information on the borzois of
the Romans is not available, although one letter by the Roman
prefect Simmach of 364 A.D. has come down to us. In it he thanks
his brother Flavius for sending him some Scottish dogs ("canes
scotici"), which he exhibited in coursing at the circus
and which frightened the public with their size; but to what
breed these dogs belonged and to what they were similar are
unknown. One may only conjecture that they were Irish wolfhounds,
which are known for their size.
The Germans, good hunters, had roughly the
same borzois as the Gauls; we can assess their dogs on the basis
of Frank laws that set fines for theft or killing of various
dogs. A fine of about 1000 rubles in our money was paid for
stealing or killing a borzoi; among the Burgundians, moreover,
the thief had publicly to give the stolen dog a kiss under the
Although this does not give us any idea of
the appearance of the borzoi, it does prove how highly it was
esteemed among these peoples.
Among the Franks we find properly organized
packs of hounds, but hunting was fully developed only under
Charlemagne, who, according to the ancient chronicles, had countless
packs of dogs: hounds, borzois, and Great Danes for fighting
bear, bison, and elk.
As far as we can judge by available data, all
large borzois of Charlemagne belonged to the bearded group and
came from Ireland. The chronicler Saint Gill, an old monk, writes
the following of the strength and ferocity of these dogs: "In
reciprocation to the ambassador of Baghdad from Arun-Alrashid,
who brought to Aachen an elephant for the emperor, Charlemagne
sent him borzois. Having learned from ambassadors that these
indomitable animals enter into battle with any beast, the next
day the caliph went hunting for lion, taking with him the Franks
who had arrived with their dogs. The dogs fearlessly chased
the lion and seized it so fiercely that the Franks had to come
galloping up and take it with their swords." Of course,
I cannot vouch how accurate these reports are, but it should
be assumed that the dogs probably were large and vicious. As
we approach the Middle Ages, the varieties of borzois in the
West becoming increasingly defined and clarified; at length,
it is clear, we may note there were three kinds of borzois:
A large bearded dog used in hunting wolves and big game
- The smooth-haired borzoi, which is entirely similar to the
modern one and which was used for hunting of hare; and
- The Italian greyhound, which was kept more by ladies and used
in coursing rabbits.
In general, in the Middle Ages the dog is first
in the life of the court of the day; only falcons could compete
In all works on hunting of that period, the borzoi
is mentioned as a house dog that was allowed to climb everywhere,
even onto its master's bed. In some poems one can see that ladies
complained of their husbands' borzois; upon their return from
the hunt, dirty dogs crawled onto the furniture and beds, soiling
both. Borzois were adorned with expensive collars made of gold
and silver; special covers were sewn for them from the most costly
materials embroidered in gold. Poets wrote verse in their honor,
praising their speed and beauty.
Just how beloved dogs in general and borzois
in particular were at that time can be seen from contemporaneous
descriptions of the life of the noblemen of the day.
We know that Saint Louis ordered that his dogs
be beaten to forewarn him thereby of his mother's arrival when
he was in the room of Queen Margarita. The king's pack usually
slept on his bed. This proves how close these animals were to
their masters. Dogs were considered the very best gift.
Louis the Eleventh agreed to release from imprisonment
the noble German knight Wolfgang von Payagein only if he could
receive borzois of the Bossu breed, and Wolfgang long refused
to pay this ransom, preferring to sit in captivity rather than
to part with some of his borzois.
Not only men loved their borzois to this degree:
ladies had their own hunts and their own beloved borzois who lived
with them. For instance, the mother of Francisco the First always
had her pack of eight borzois with her.
At the start of the 16th century the hunt in
Western Europe took a different direction; big game such as the
bison, bear, elk, and so forth vanished, and deer, the wild goat,
the wild boar, the wolf, fox, and hare remained; hunting with
borzois also is falling into decline and only stylized riding
with hounds remains.
Moving from west to east, I shall remain silent
about Russia for the time being, as I shall consider the Russian
borzoi separately, and I shall turn directly to Asia, about which
we have the reports of Marco Polo and reports in translations
of the Chinese writings of the monk Ioakinea.
In 1286 the Venetian nobleman Marco Polo journeyed
through Tataria and other countries of the East; the reports he
made on dogs and hunting among eastern peoples are practically
the only ones that we have, and they all relate to the court of
the great Kubla Khan, who ruled nearly all of Asia and a large
part of Russia at that time.
The reports communicated by Marco Polo contain
one strange item, namely utterly complete silence about borzois;
the description of the hunts of the great Khan mentions hounds,
mastiffs, and bulldogs, even lions and lynxes used like borzois,
but borzois proper are not mentioned, although one must not suppose
that they did not exist in Khan's hunt, which was famous for the
splendor and abundance of game animals and fowl.
The reports of the monk Ioakinea mention, in
the description of Chibin Province, that that country bred large
dogs, and the following is reported later in the description of
Chesha of the East: "Chinese tropps penetrated into western
Turkestan, and then borzoi hounds, among other things, appeared
at the court."
As one can see, all these reports are direly
inadequate, and one cannot decide directly to which breed the
aforementioned dogs belonged.
One can only surmise that they all belonged to
the eastern breed of the borzoi.
One should not think at all that te same kind
of long-haired dog that have existed at some time in the east;
everything indicates this: the vast steppe spaces, the wide development
of the hunt with game fowl and cheetahs - all these factors indicate
that hunting with borzois was conducted there in the same way
as now, i.e., from horseback.
The breed of eastern borzois is extremely persistent,
occurs throughout all of Asia, and in all likelihood has existed
a very long time; one can say almost affirmatively that in ancient
times it was similar to modern dogs.
The hunts of the eastern rulers were distinguished
by their majesty and were for the most part directed toward big
game, as we see from the descriptions by Marco Polo, which talk
about hunts for bear, lion, wild donkeys, and so forth, but there
is nothing about hunting for wolf, fox, and hare; if such game
was pursued, it was with golden eagles and not borzois.
Today we do not see that among native peoples
hunting with borzois is conducted other than from horseback or
that borzois are kept in large quantity. Some peoples, such as
the Turkmens, highly treasure their dogs but do not keep many
of them. A Turkmen will travel 200 or 300 versts5 to
mate his bitch with a famous male, but keep three or four dogs
while of course strictly safeguarding their pure breeding. All
these dogs are distinguished by their speed and small size, but
they are not ferocious; in general, their purebred appearance
is quite apparent to the eye.
Whence the eastern borzoi acquired the characteristic
ear "under cloaks," as they say, is hard to decide,
but one may conjecture that it increased and hung because of lack
of practice in hearing, and indeed: hearing is not especially
well developed in all eastern borzois in comparison with vision,
which is distinguished by sharp-sightedness and, so to speak,
by the ability quickly to find game.
In Zapiski Okhotnika Vostochnoi Sibiri
[Memoirs of a Hunter of Eastern Siberia], Mr. Cherksov
talks about Mongolian dogs that have nothing in common, in terms
of appearance, with the eastern borzoi but which possess great
speed, ferocity, and strength; these dogs belong to northern China
and our Southeastern Siberia; I shall not discuss it now, since
it will fall under the special group of the Siberian dog.
African borzois, the "salukis," differ
from the eastern borzoi in their enormous height and semihanging
ears. In paintings Goras Vernet gives us a superb idea of this
breed; it is quite similar to the common thick-haired breed, but
is distinguished by its ferocity and height.
This breed is very highly esteemed among the
Arabs and is used for hunting gazelles, hare, and wild boar, which
thoroughly proves both its speed and its ferocity, although the
Arabs also hunt on horseback.
As I stated above, in all likelihood the "saluki"
is not of East Asian origin but more likely of European origin,
and entered Africa through Spain, during the Mauritanian dominion
- an assertion also proven by the fact that the best of these
dogs are bred in Morocco, and in general in countries to the west
on the northern shore of Africa. These dogs are so valuable that
in former times African sovereigns sent them only to the Spanish
and French courts, as royal gifts and only in limited numbers.
We have no reports at all on coursing in other
countries of the world, and in all likelihood it never existed
there, since we know nothing of the borzois of America and Australia,
which do not exist there, and probably never have existed. In
general, Asia is the cradle of the borzoi, as it also is of all
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