An Outline of the History of the Borzoi


The Historical Period in Russia

Turning to the historical period of existence of the borzoi and of the hunt using the borzoi in Russia, I am struck by the extreme paucity of sources in this regard. The information that we have is so slim and so poor in content that it is almost impossible to extract anything clear and positive from it.

The long-haired dog obviously has never been considered a serious matter among us and has almost no literature devoted to it.

Our czars who were considered excellent hunters are all but unknown, unless one counts Vladimir Monomakh, Aleksei Mikhailovich, Peter the Second, and Elizabeth Petrovna.

Vladimir Monomakh also wrote a few words about hunting, which have come down to us in his will. Aleksei Mikhailovich, who left us his book Ulozheniya Sokol'nich'ya Puti [The Codes of Falconry], only deals with hunting with game fowl. It is with good reason that we have come up with a hunting saying: "A czar's falcon hunt, a baron's long-haired dog," and that our czars and grand knights and grand dukes never engaged in falcon hunting.

It seems to me that in this case the religious beliefs of our forebears regarding the dog played a big part; the dog, the "stinking cur," was always considered an unclean, outcast animal that boyars and princes did not admit to their chambers. Consequently, we have no special saints who are patrons of dogs and hunting, such as Saint Humbert in the West, and a dog that runs by chance into a church is considered to have desecrated it. Even now the common man has some prejudice against people who live with dogs at kennels, considering them to be unclean and to be profaned by their job.

Understandably, of late all these views on the dog have ben expressed even more sharply, especially with regard to such persons as our grand dukes and czars.

Consequently, in view of the almost complete illiteracy of our ancestors, the absence of written records of our hunting is not surprising either.

Wealthy boyars, although literate, considered it demeaning to themselves to write anything about dogs. Given our vast distances and their complete illiteracy, the common gentry hunted in their own domains, conducting this activity by tradition, and did not need any memoirs or works in this regard.

Thus, those few written data that we have pertain to the most recent period of the borzoi's existence.

I am convinced that in many old noble families valuable documents concerning hunting with borzois will be found; but it should be said, unfortunately, that we have a more careless and indifferent attitude toward various family archives than anywhere else.

In this case, the correspondence of some two friends or relatives communicating to each other their hunting thoughts and innovations may be more interesting and valuable than entire modern works in regard to the forms that the long-haired borzoi should have.

But enough of this; let us try to penetrate the darkness that surrounds us on all sides as soon as we try to press into the past of Russian coursing.

Before turning to written sources, let us see to what ancient Russia was similar, and which animals lived there. From modern sources, we already see that a large part, or more accurately almost all, of European Russia was covered with impassable, dense forests.

What was there in more distant times?

Then there probably was almost no place free of forest, and Russia in no way differed from impassable Eastern Siberia.

In the historical period we still find the following in Russia: bison, elk, deer, urus, wild boar, bear, and wolverine.

There were many of these animals, and they were hunted everywhere; we do not know the exact truth, of course, but we can only hypothesize that hunting was conducted by roughly the same methods, excluding of course firearms, as today in Eastern Siberia, but with the difference that the abundance of animals was incomparably greater than in the best area of this part of Asia.

Did the inhabitants of the historical epoch have the borzoi? Probably so, and I suppose it was the same borzoilike form that was cited by the Aryans and whose remains have been described by Mr. Anuchin.

We would not err, of course, if we said that that borzoi was the direct relative of our long-haired borzoi. I shall go beyond that and say that even now we can see a similar type of this dog in the large, borzoilike dog of the Siberian natives, from which the long-haired borzoi must have formed.

One of our young travelers, N. L. Gondatti, was so kind as to give me a complete and detailed description of this breed of dog, which he had occasion to observe during his journey to the Samoyed people, in Northwestern Siberia, in 1885.

Apart from the usual reports to be found in any description, my personal acquaintance with Mr. Gondatti afforded me the opportunity to ask him several purely hunting questions, from the answers to which I came even more to the conclusion that the large working dog of Siberia is a relative of our long-haired borzoi.

Let us examine it from two sides; first I shall describe in detail its external appearance, and then the purely hunting features of the borzoi dog.

N.L. Gondatti describes it as follows: the dog is very large, and arshin9 or more at the point of shoulder, and is covered with thick feathering of various colors, gray-brown predominating. The color of the muzzle is always darker than the rest of the head; the feathering on the neck forms a collar and in general is in two forms over the entire body: thick and warm everywhere, forming a decorative feathering, lighter than the other color on the neck and sides, and the carraige on the tail, which the dog never bends into a circle but always holds up, except when it is in an excited state - then it slightly raises the tail and holds it almost horizontally.

The head is wedge-shaped and covered with short, smooth hair; the eyes are large, dark, and bulgy; the ears are small, semiprick, with bent ends. The body is short and massive, is reminiscent of the wolf, and has a belly; the chest is broad; there is a small peak; the neck is short and thick. The forelegs are perfectly straight and wideset; the hindlegs are not bow-shaped but short; the dog stands on its nails and claws when it walks across a hard surface.

These dogs possess some speed and have "bounce" for catching an animal. Their scent is little developed, and if they have to track an animal, they do so more by sight. Upon seeing the animal, they silently jump it with great ferocity and hold onto it firmly; they never bark while attacking, and indeed in general bark almost none at all; some are kept on a leash because of their ferocity. When they do occasionally bark, they do so with a short, broken bark, like that of the borzoi.

These dogs are used only in the forest terrain of Siberia, and are not found in the northern tundras. When this dog becomes unusable for hunting, it serves the natives as a draft animal. The same breed occurs throughout all of Siberia, both Western and Eastern.

Mr. Cherkasov, in his Zapiski Okhotnika Vostochnoi Sibiri, says nothing new and only leads us to believe that various dogs are found: some are suitable for one game animal, and others for some other animal; referring to a special variety of Siberian dog, he says: "In general, Siberian dogs are very spirited and strong, especially the current Mongolian breed, or as they say here, the 'Mungal dog' (here the 'squeezers' of China, but on the other side of the Arguni and Onona rivers they generally are called 'munguls'). The dogs of the Mongolian breed are extremely tall, strong, and shaggy; they usually are black, and thus are reminiscent of Newfoundlands. Many of them will alone attack wolves and put them down without difficulty."

It is a pity that Cherkasov is not a hound hunter; his words in his description of the dogs therefore are somewhat inconsistent; he says that the dogs are of different breeds, but does not give us a detailed description of these breeds. Speaking of the Mongolian dog, one may suspect that it is indeed a real native dog, and although he compares it to the Newfoundland, but at the same time he speaks of its ability to strangle a wolf, which must first be caught, and the Newfoundland cannot do that.

This means that the native dog must have speed, and good speed at that, to catch and strangle a wolf alone.

In describing hunting of various animals, Cherkasov mentions several times the speed of the native dogs. For instance, in a fox hunt he says: "If the place is clean and the fox is taken while eating, or better yet at the lair, Sobolka, my experienced, slight dog, will certainly kill it in short order, especially if the master hastens to cut off the fox's path and hence does not allow it to evade the dog to the side." Further describing the hunting of foxes with dogs, he mentions cases of which any dog hunter will speak: the same drives, the same deception of a young dog by the tail - the "pipe." All this proves just one thing: that the dog described by Cherkasov is capable of catching as well as a borzoi.

Describing a rabbit hunt, he says: "In the Transbaikal area there is no rabbit hunting by dogs; of course, I wouldn't call it a long-haired dog if, rarely, working dogs are thrown out after a hare and tear apart the poor thing as thoroughly as borzois would." But is this really not coursing? Apart from the foregoing, according to the very same Mr. Cherkasov, all animals, whether it be wolf, fox, hare, elk, Manchurian deer, roebucks, common deer, or wild boar, can be caught easily by a working dog; but all these animals have good speed and it is nothing at all for a hound, a sporting dog, or a guard dog to catch them. Even a borzoi must have good legs to do anything.

Further evidence of the speed of the working dog is that all hunts are done on horseback and not on foot, which would be more convenient in dense forest, without any roads or footpaths.

Marco Polo mentions that same dogs on his journeys, in a description of the northern countries and the method of customary travel there: "They trained to pull these sleds," he says, "special animals which are similar to dogs and which could even be given this name, although they are the size of an ass. They are very strong and have grown used to pulling sleds."

Marco Polo obviously did not see these dogs, and heard exaggerated tales about them, of course, but the dogs of which he speaks undoubtedly were large and powerful.

Mr. Cherkasov also mentions a wild dog living on the Amur, but he does not give any information about what kind of dog it was; it would be extremely interesting to learn the details as to what kind of animal this was and whether it had anything in common with the native working dog.

It seems to me that something positive can be derived from the foregoing: that the Siberian working dog differs almost not a whit from the the hunting borzoi in external appearance or other purely hunting traits. It is much cruder than the borzoi, does not possess its elegance, but the essence, the foundation, is the same. If one takes account of the time and the dog's ability to change in external forms, the kinship of the working Siberian dog and the long-haired borzoi becomes obvious.

Even the very character of the hunt, which is believed to have been identical in ancient Russia with hunting in Eastern, or totally forested, Siberia, does not allow us to admit other forms.

It is understandable that subsequently, when such animals as the bison, aurochs, and wild boar or the bear began to be encountered less often and hunting became something of a diversion rather than a profession or a means of existence, the shape and traits of dogs had to change. Lighter and faster dogs but dogs that were not heavy or massive and were suitable for hunting large game came into demand.

Having attentively read the hunting memoirs of Mr. Cherkasov, you experience the positive notion that among the native dogs there are faster ones and less fast ones. This alone speaks to the possibility that, through selection, a very fast dog can be created from a local working dog, especially since, in the words of N. L. Gondatti, this dog has "bounce" - this inestimable distinguishing trait inherent only in one breed of borzois on eart: the Russian long-haired borzoi. "Bounce," I believe, must be developed precisely from coursing, or in general from the pursuit of game in forested terrain with clearings, primarily before open-field terrain. A dog, on entering an open space and seeing the game before it, instinctively rushed toward, trying to take it at precisely the moment when trees and brush could not interfere. Hence, "bounce" developed more and more as forests were cleared.

Even now we encounter in wooded terrain not continuous fields but clearings plowed up throughout the whole forest. In the primitive state of Russia, all fields probably were nothing but plowed clearings, and the huntsmen of that day could only hunt in these places by pursuing game through the forest, or by lying in wait for it when it appeared in open space.

Mr. Cherkasov mentions in his memoirs the scent of the working dog, while N. L. Gondatti says that its scent is little developed. For my part, I am inclined more to the view of Mr. Gondatti, on the following grounds: first, a dog pursuing big game does not need to possess great scent, and secondly, the method of taking the game does not require strong scent, since the game is quickly caught by the dog and is overcome not by fatigue but by speed.

Scent in itself intensifies or grows weaker through practice, and the presence of some scent in the working dog of Siberia does not break down my hypothesis of the origin of the working borzoi from it.

I have often had occasion to encounter borzois with scent who could seek out hares on a trail. Try giving the first borzoi that comes your way a strip of woods or a pasture, and in short order it will learn to track hares by scent. I recall that I had two borzois that, on their own, hunted constantly in the woods and a large forest as long as I did not lie in wait for them and did not block their way. One of them even chased a hare while barking, but at the same time the other one lay in wait to the side, trying to catch the game somewhere on a clearing or a road; then the one that was hunting appeared, and the friend amicably shared their take. It is understandable that working dogs must have some scent, otherwise they could not orient themselves in the woods, and, what is the main thing, could not recognize with what kind of game they would be dealing, but one cannot assume a scent equal to that of a hound.

It is a pity that all reports on working dogs of Siberia come down to us not from huntsmen, but rather from rifle hunters or simply from travelers who do not pay any attention to those aspects of the character of dogs that are of the most interest for comparing native breeds with borzois.

It would be interesting to verify, for instance, their speed and ferocity, and even changes in external forms, as the woods give way to more open terrain and steppes in Southern Siberia. There is no doubt that the forms and character of bounding of dogs should change, but for now this remains a surmise, no more.

In analyzing the hunting qualities of the Siberian dog, one must forgive its many sins from the standpoint of the huntsman.

The native is unable to have various dogs in hunting for various animals, and his dog must track all game and even fowl, from the bear to the woodgrouse of hazelgrouse. Only practice and nothing more can give it such abilities. That the natives make some selection in their dogs can be seen from the words of N. L. Gondatti, who directly states that only dogs unsuitable for hunting are used in harness; hence, dogs suitable and unsuitable for hunting are born in the same breed, and from this some selection is made during breeding.

In the writings of the same Mr. Cherkasov, we find reports that breeds are better and worse, that some hunters are renowned for their dogs for many versts around, and sell the pups from their bitches to other hunters for good money even before they are born, in the mother's womb. How high the value of a good bitch runs we can see in one tale by Mr. Cherkasov, where he recalls two hunting brothers who wished to part company after their father's death. Among other property, there was a famous bitch that the brothers valued at five hundred rubles and they began to cast lots to see who would get her. Five hundred rubles is a lot of money to a peasant who lives solely on his hunting.

If we look back a bit, we will be struck by the difference between our long-haired borzoi and the Western bearded borzoi. Why our long-haired borzoi has now made its way to the West, having incomparably better hunting abilities than the bearded borzoi, is utterly inexplicable. We see from all the foregoing how much the Western borzoi is decisively inferior in every regard to the Russian long-haired borzoi, but why the bearded borzoi did not have the same qualities as the long-haired borzoi I shall not try to explain, although in the remote past Germany and France probably were covered with the same kind of forests as Russia and Siberia.

Describing Gaulish borzois, Ariane, mentioned by "Xenophon the Younger," extols their speed, saying: "The Gauls engage in hunting not out of profit but out of passion; they do not use nets, since the speed of their dogs suffices to catch game." Then he talks of Gaulish borzois, likening them to the wind. These obviously were extremely fast dogs, but as to whether they were bearded borzois or some other variety we have no reports, since none of the Roman writers gives us a detailed description of the external appearance of this breed of borzois; we do not even know whether they were long-haired (shaggy) or smooth-haired.

9 Translator's note: One arshin is approximately 28 inches or 71 centimeters.

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