An Outline of the History of the Borzoi
The Historical Period
The closer we come to the present, the more
the role of the borzoi diminishes in the West, and stylized
riding with hounds and rifle hunting with various breeds of
sporting dogs begin to predominate. This becomes understandable
if one takes into account population growth and the subdivision
of land ownership.
I mentioned above borzoi breeds in the West.
In the Middle Ages there were three breeds: the large bearded
variety, the English wolfhound, and the greyhound. The large
bearded variety is beginning to disappear more and more, and
is used only in wolf hunting and only then with the aid of large
coursing dogs grouped under the name "allanes," which
does not argue in support of the ferocity and speed of borzois,
far inferior in qualities to our Russian long-haired borzoi.
Among all peoples at this time the first palm
in hunting should be given of course to the French, with respect
to both the quality and number of breeds of hunting dogs and
with respect to their extraordinary training. Hunting literature
has existed in France since time immemorial and is striking
in its diversity. In it we find works in prose and verse; even
kings did not balk at working with their dogs and wrote whole
treatises about hunting.
From the 16th to the late 18th centuries, hunting
in France stood at its highest level of perfection. Everyone
engaged in hunting, from the king down to the lowest nobleman;
even the clergy took part, and all participated not as mere
amusement but as a serious matter.
On the basis of all the foregoing, I shall
adopt France as the present model for the hunting world in the
West. Everything done there also was done in the rest of Europe,
but with the difference that in France everything pertaining
to hunting and dogs was done better than in other countries.
Someone might say to me that I am too much
taken by the French as hunters and that I am forgetting the
English. To this I would reply: the English as hunters are incomparably
inferior to the French; they are perhaps more skillful dog breeders,
but in no way are they hunters; all breeds of English dogs are
no more than French breeds modified, and most of them came to
England with the Normans, once again from France. Some of them,
such as the hounds, have been ruined rather than improved by
the English, having lost the magnificent voices of their French
We are given a better picture of hunting in
France in these three centuries by Baron Noarman in his work
History of Hunting in France, where he writes: "The
16th century in France begins under the reign of a hunter king
who is a big dog-lover; Louis XII writes in his own hand a biography
of his dog 'Riole,' which served him, truth be told, for 30
"Francis I had detailed knowledge of and
remembered the traits of every dog in his pack, and personally
called by name those with which he wished to go hunting. He
built a magnificent kennel at Fontainebleau. He and his son,
Henry II, personally engaged in breeding to improve the breed."
The work on hunting by Charles IX proves to
what extent he engaged in the upkeep and raising of dogs.
Henry III had about 2000 dogs.
Henry IV also personally observed his dogs,
which can be seen from his extensive correspondence with various
Louis XIII slept with his dogs.
Louis XIV, although he did not work with his
dogs, nonetheless loved them very much and hunted constantly.
Louis XV personally kept a list of his dogs,
and personally kept diaries during hunts, working on this much
more than on affairs of state.
While kings spent this much time on and so
enjoyed hunting and dogs, the nobility spent even more time
on them, both out of their personal taste for hunting and out
of imitation of the court.
The French hunting literature, which began
in approximately 1394, continues to the present, and offers
a broad, detailed picture of everything concerning hunting and
various breeds of dogs and game fowl. One can see from these
sources that all kinds of dog breeds from Europe, Asia, and
Africa were brought to France. Beginning in the reign of Charlemagne
we encounter in France Indian, Russian, Tatar, and other dogs.
All that could be had in this regard was had.
For example, Saint Louis, on returning from his imprisonment,
brought with himself a pack of eastern hounds closely similar
to our Russian hounds of old. Charlemagne obtained dogs from
Denmark, Russia, and what was then the Far East, from Caliph
Alrashid, from Baghdad.
Analyzing the role played by the borzoi dog
in the West during the Middle Ages, we will note readily that
it never held the same place as among us in Russia; in the West
it served more as an auxiliary animal in coursing with hounds,
by the stylized method, especially the large bearded borzoi
used in coursing of wolf and wild boar.
In describing medieval borzois, I shall allow
myself to quote verbatim, in translation, all that Baron Noarman
writes aout them in his book: "No single breed of dog was
used in the Middle Ages for such diverse purposes as the borzoi."
They were used to hunt all kinds of animals,
from deer to rabbit, even in falcon hunting, when the falcons
knowcked down large birds such as cranes, herons, or great bustards
(Otis tarda), borzois were released to assist them.
"The large borzois designated to fight wild boar, the wolf,
and other large animals were called 'pack borzois' ('levriers
d'estric'), 'lateral borzois' ('levriers de flane'), and 'greeting
borzois' ('levriers de fête').
"The first of these were released to chase
after the animal as soon as it emerged onto the edge area. Lateral
borzois were released laterally and greeting borzois were released
head-on. The largest and strongest always were chosen as greeting
borzois. Heavy, mongrel house dogs were used more for hunting
of wild boar.
"Large pack borzois were mostly long-haired,
and were gray, black, or red in color. They were not considered
to be so beautiful as the smooth-haired dogs, but they were
more persistent and easily tolerated cold, wet weather.
"These dogs were supposed to have a head
longer than wide, large eyes full of fire, a long neck - a sign
of speed, a long shoulder, a wide peak, strong and muscular
ribs, a straight pastern, a lean and wiry leg, a small paw,
and hard nails."
The best of the pack dogs were obtained from
Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, and northern Europe.
The Irish wolfhound was considered the best
and largest throughout all of Europe. Goldschmidt says that
he saw many of these dogs, the largest of which was 4 feet tall
(27 1/2 vershoks6) and was equal in height to a yearling
The borzois of Sir Betam, which were not forbidden
to enter the dining hall, extended their heads over the shoulders
of those sitting at the table.
To judge by some skulls found in Ireland, the
dogs to which these skulls belonged could have been from 36
to 40 English inches (about 21 vershoks) at the point of the
shoulder. In Ireland, where wolves disappeared in the 18th century,
these dogs were called "wolf-dogs." They were covered
with stiff feathering in small curls, mostly iron-gray in color.
This marvelous breed, quite rare in the last century, has been
lost entirely of late.
Scottish deerhounds were similar to the Irish
ones, differing only in having a smaller height and weaker extremeties.
Hare hounds always were considered the noblest.
They all were smooth-haired, short, and lighter in appearance.
Their colors were various: there were black dogs, dark mottled
dogs, and white dogs, but the white ones were preferred over
Gas de la Bigne describes for us in a poem
the short-haired hare hound:
A muzzle like that of a wolf,
Ribs of a lion, neck of a swan,
A falcon's eye,
White in color,
Ears like those of a snake,
Lie on the head;
The shoulder of a wild goat,
The sides of a wild doe,
Nails of a deer, tail of a rat,
Hare's haunches and a "cat's paw."
Gaston Feb, who only transposed into prose the poetry of Gas,
adds that "a good borzoi should have a long head, somewhat
thickish and similar to the head of a pike; good canines and
good teeth that do not push past each other, i.e., that are
not in an overshot bite; straight pasterns, unbent, as on a
bull, and the space between thighs with a good clearance.
These elegant beasts were inseparable pets of the nobility
and noble ladies of the Middle Ages. Adorned with magnificent
collars and heraldic cloth, they slept with their masters on
their beds and accompanied them in all their movements and on
their journeys. The Berryan nobility, which consisted of a society
of knights with the goal of mutual love and support, adopted
as its emblem the image of a borzoi whose collar bore the inscription:
"All as one" ("tous un!"). The dogs of Brittany,
Picardie, and Champagne and dogs imported from England, Spain,
Portugal, and the East were considered best for hare coursing.
Mainly in the 14th and 15th centuries Gaston Feb, The Hunting
Books of Herzogs d'Orleans, and Philippe de Comin praise
Brittany dogs, with which they hunted for hare in the same way
as with "pack dogs." Haubert's work of 1599, Hare
Hunting With Borzois, highly praises the borzois of Picardie
and Champagne, which "glide like the wind."
In the hunting books of Henry IV, hare hounds are shown to
have been imported from Champagne, and since then they have
constantly gone by this name in the royal hunts.
Selyankur says: "In France the best borzois come from
Champagne and Picardie, provinces that abound in open fields
where the hares are faster than elsewhere, and make it necessary
to keep more purebred dogs of extraordinary speed and strength."
English wolfhounds became famous in the 14th century. In the
memoirs of Frewasar, the duke of Lancaster sent as a present
to the king of Portugal six English wolfhounds "suitable
for any game." Louis XI received the same gift from Lord
Hosting and Marshal Vielville from Lord Dudley in 1550.
Selyankur notes that the English surpass other hunters in the
breeding and raising of wolfhounds and other dogs.
Spanish and Portugese borzois also were highly esteemed; there
were two varieties of the latter: one variety, used for hunting
on the plains, was considered the fastest in Europe; the other
variety, for hunting in moutainous terrain, was distinguished
by a shorter body and was sharper and faster on short runs.
Under Louis XII and Louis XIV, borzois became rare in France,
so that they were purchased for royal hunts in Constantinople
and other eastern countries.
A letter from the Marseille consul Pierre Bon to Charles IX
mentions that the Algerian king had sent him horses, barbarian
mares, lions, bears, and dark mottled borzois. These borzois
probably were the famous "salukis," which breed is
held sacred by the Arabs and with which they hunt jackals, gazelles,
Selyankur says that the borzois also include greyhounds, which
are used to course rabbits.
They were called greyhounds only in France and Italy, which
is in all likelihood their homeland. In England they are called
In southern France yet another variety of borzois was used
in the recent era. It is believed that this variety came from
interbreeding of borzois with hounds, and it is called the "charnegre
borzoi," but it is something midway between borzois and
hounds and may not be considered a true borzoi.
From 1844 hunting with borzois was finally banned in France,
and this variety of these noble animals disappeared almost entirely
Speaking of the borzois of Western Europe, I must not fail
to mention some coursing dogs of that time, since they were
quite similar to borzois in both appearance and function.
As I stated above, these dogs were called "alanes,"
had a borzoilike appearance, and smooth hair but nearly the
head of a bulldog, and were used for hunting bear, wild boar,
and wolf; in the last case they were used together with borzois.
The alanes were distinguished by their strength, height, and
ferocity, so that they had to be kept constantly in muzzles
except on the hunt. Their dirty-white hair color, small yellow
eyes, and rosy nose do not force us to conjecture borzois, bu
probably something quite close to modern bull terriers, except
of enormous height - about 21 vershoks at the point of the shoulder.7
If we look closely at hunting with borzois in the West, we
are struck by the minor role that there befell the borzoi compared
with its role among us in Russia. In the West all attention
is focused on hounds, and indeed the training of hounds reaches
there the extreme required in strict stylized riding. Without
such training, the hunter would almost always return with empty
But the long-haired dog, as it was practiced among us in Russia,
did not exist in the West and could not even have existed with
those types of borzois that the hunters there had.
Hare hunting with borzois was carried out on horseback with
short-haired borzois not of the size that ours are. Foxes were
not hunted at all; even hounds that hunted fox well were considered
flawed and not to have fine scent.
I shall not undertake to describe the wolfdogs of that day,
but I shall better describe a method of wolf coursing that gives
a vivid idea of their speed and ferocity.
Howl-hunting8 and coursing of a whole family of
wolves was not known. Young wolves usually were hunted with
hounds, while adults first were surrounded by means of a "steamed
dog" ("limier"), then the "island"
was encircled either by a cordon or with nets, leaving only
one place where the animal was directed toward the borzois.
When all was ready, the pack was unleashed on the animal's
trail, and the cordon began to cry, trying to direct the wolf
toward the packs. There usually were four packs of three dogs
each: as soon as the wolf bounded out of the "island,"
one pack took up the chase; then one pack came from each of
the two sides, and finally the fourth pack was released head-on.
But it often was the case that even against 12 dogs the wolf
escaped unharmed, as male dogs refused to take female wolves
in heat; as a result, an effort was made to have several ferocious
bitches in the packs. Many works on wolf hunting advise not
to include in packs other than the first pack, the pack unleashed
on the chase, borzois or the aforementioned allanes, or a crossbreed
between them and borzois, in the belief that in this case the
first pack has only to slow the animal a bit in order to give
time to catch up to the coursing Great Danes, which were already
making short work of the wolf better than the borzois.
It seems to me that the description of wolf hunting just given
clearly proves the insubstantial character of the borzois of
that time. They obviously possessed neither speed nor ferocity.
Hunting a single wolf required so many preparations and entailed
so many difficulties and costs. At least 12 borzois were needed
to take a single animal; if they had had real borzois, they
would not have needed anything like that many.
How far this hunt is from the dashing hunt that we have using
real, fast, ferocious dogs, when the pack rushes forth on sight
and the in-field borzoi handlers skillfully receive the full-grown
wolf out from under one or two packs of borzois! What movement
and what a rich take in comparison with Western hunters!
There is a whole throng of people and packs of dogs triumphally
return home after tracking down a single wolf! Among us, in
contrast, the hunt returns home having taken a whole pack, including
full-grown wolves, yearlings, and newborn pups!
One need not keep either Great Danes or alanes; our dashing
long-haired giants do it all, and so crack the hare in the chest
that its paws just hop to and fro, and will take a full-grown
wolf without a hitch, and even if the animal is larger, such
as a bear or elk, they will show it no quarter!
What is surprising is this complete inability to "howl-hunt"
wolves in the West, even though wolves were in great abundance
there in the 16th and 17th centuries.
More than once the government had to take steps to eradicate
them, because of the threat to the safety of not only livestock
but humans as well.
Special governmental hunters called "capitaines lauvetiers"
were established in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. They
were given the duty of ridding the state of wolves by all possible
methods; but despite this, wolf hunting in the form practiced
then and now here in Russia is mentioned nowhere.
Where we should give full credit to Western hunters in general
and to the French in particular is their surprising training
Separate packs were kept for each animal; packs for hare did
not chase any other animal, but only that for which they were
An animal, once roused, was not abandoned by the dogs, even
if exactly the same animals turned up right before their eyes.
They only chased the first animal, and dogs who strayed from
the trail, once adopted, were systematically culled from the
packs and, their other good traits not withstanding, were not
allowed to breed.
Period in Russia >>>