Quite a few hunters in the West assume that if Russia in the days of Czars was an aristocratic society, and the USSR – a totalitarian state, then the average person never had a chance to own a firearm and to hunt. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, about 2% of the Russians have hunting permits and own guns – which is less than in the US or Scandinavia, but more than in Germany – and in the past the proportion was definitely much higher.
For the tribes who practiced slash-and-burn agriculture in the unbroken woods of Eastern Europe, and identified themselves as the Rus’, hunting was the second most important activity. Moose and visent (bison) meat allowed not to kill domestic cattle. Furs were a major trading commodity, furs paid taxes to the Viking princes of Kiev, furs were used as currency. In fact, almost a third of the first Russian code of laws, dating back to XI century a.d., deals with hunting rights. Sable skills urged Russian conquistadores to explore and subdue Siberia, laying the foundation for the colonial empire.
Until the oil crisis of the 1970s, furs were one of the main sources of hard currency for the Soviet government. That, along with the importance of hunting as military training, explains why hunting in the early USSR was not only discouraged, but actively promoted. ”Promyslovik” (a professional fur hunter and trapper) was the focus of Soviet hunting industry and press, and “promyslovoye ruzhyo” (“trapper’s gun”) – a cheap, strong, durable weapon to be used by the promyslovik – the primary objective for the sporting gun manufacture and trade.
The number of promyslovik, however, was not really high. After the WWII, there were no more than 8,000 people officially employed by the government as professional hunters, and perhaps some 20,000 more hunted furbearers for a living individually or in cooperatives, making professionals less than 1% of Russian hunters. This is true for many aspects of Russian life – the exception is foregrounded, and the rule passes by unnoticed.
The limited number of trappers explains why, if they mostly need rifles, the focus of Russian gunmaking was mostly on shotguns. There the interests of the industry and professionals coincided with the interest of the general public. Hunting in Russia was a people’s thing, more important for lower classes than for upper classes. The demand for a cheap serviceable shotgun is almost universal.
Russia is a shotgun country. The easy explanation for this is legal barriers – since gun laws were introduced, rifle ownership was invariably more difficult than owning a shotgun. But in fact laws follow practice. Excepting the regions where professional fur trapping was possible (and where the gun laws were easier anyway) most Russian hunters couldn’t afford more than one gun, and hunted small game rather than big game.
This may come as a surprise for someone well read on hunting stories about giant bears of Kamchatka, Caucasian mountain game, etc. etc. etc. But in reality only a small per cent of Russian population inhabits the areas where you can freely hunt big game animals. Most Russians today live in or near big cities, where wildlife in general is under big pressure from agriculture, urban recreation seekers (the type who go “out to the nature” and leave behind square miles of plastic bags and broken beer bottles), and impoverished rural population who is often forced to ‘live off the woods’. Excepting expensive private shooting preserves, in the regions where most Russians live, all game is scarce and big game especially so.
This is to say that, contrary to popular belief, Russia is not a hunter’s paradise. In terms of nature preservation Russia today is, perhaps, where the US was after the Great Depression. Near big cities nature is under urban pressure. Far from the cities, game is cleaned out by market hunters. Isolated spots nearly untouched by human hand and abundant in wildlife exist, but are few, far between, difficult to access, and people who know about them keep silent about them.
The peasant hunter who supplemented their meager and uncertain agricultural incomes with a bit off the wood and river, was the rule for Russian hunting. They hunted when there was little work on the farms, shooting wood grouse in October by calling them up, squirrels treed by laika dogs, and hares and foxes over scent hounds. The first thaws, leaving a layer of curst over deep snows, meant moose could be easily chased down on skis. In spring, capercailzie and black grouse leks offered an easy chance, and migratory ducks could be shot over live decoys. After Easter, when the Lent was over and the true Orthodox Christians could eat meat again after 40 days of abstinence, gourmets would pay a pretty penny for these delicacies. Game and skins were sold to peddlers, who went from village to village in horse-drawn sleighs, and later to a trading cooperative. Before WWII, these hunters included my maternal grandfather’s ancestors, peasants from swampy and wooden ‘poorlands’ between Ryazan and Vladimir.
Hunting was not only for the peasants, of course. The nobility enjoyed the sport almost to a man, from lavish large-scale borzoi dog coursing complexes to modest bit of shooting over pointing dogs with a shotgun. In the aristocratic society, where the class barriers were often impenetrable, hunting united the rulers and the ruled, as you can tell from Russian classics, such as Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, or Tolstoy’s famous borzoi coursing scene in War and Peace, where the master of hounds (a serf) almost strikes his master (a count) with a whip for a missed chance on wolf, using such violent expressions that Tolstoy’s publisher replaced them with a long dotted line – and gets away with it; the count almost apologizes. But the class struggle was always there – hunting rights was actually one of the issues the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 promised to resolve. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most important issue, but the fact remains that the third decree signed by Lenin after coming to power was “On Hunting”, giving the Russian citizens a constitutional right to hunt.
Soviet planned economy could never quite match people’s income with supply at the stores; one or the other, and sometimes both, would always be missing. My Grandma still recalls one story from the days when Grandpa was dating her, around 1949. He dropped by one day, and was invited to stay for dinner. The only dish on the table was boiled potatoes. Grandpa declined politely, ran off for his single shot, made for the Volga bottom which began right after Grandma’s back yard, shot a few ducks, and came back with them as a present. My Great-grandma told my Grandma, as they were plucking the birds, “One thing is for sure – if you marry him, you’ll never want anything”.
But around 1960s the balance was found, and it was finally proved what Aksakov’s classic book stated as far back as in 1830s. British sporting writers of the day often claimed that only Anglo-Saxons have a sporting instinct, and all other ‘races’ hunt only for the pot. However, Russian hunters have the sporting instinct too. When, following Stalin’s reforms, a larger part of population migrated to cities, and hunting became for them an item of expenditure rather than a source of additional income, it turned out that quite a lot of people continued to go out with guns.
In fact, good peasantry has been looking down on hunting and hunters for centuriest. “Fish and grouse – loose the days” went the saying, indicating that the loss of valuable time for agricultural purposes was greater than the gains from the chase. And yet, every village in the most developed parts of the country had at least one hunter. This person was often scorned, and the phrase ‘a village hunter’ sometimes was used almost in the meaning of ‘a village idiot’. But there was something else in it. In the feudal Russia, the hunter was perhaps the most free person on the estate.
All other hands, whether working on the fields or at the manor, were constantly overseen. Any degree of individual freedom was lost to the group pressure, and any conflict with the group meant trouble. By contrast, a hunter spent his days walking through wilderness, unobserved and unsupervised. He had to report on the powder and shot spent per unit of game, but as any hunter knows, this control is difficult to enforce, especially if the controller has no idea about hunting. Muzzleloading shotguns offered additional possibilities in this respect. Fifteen full loads per dozen of wood grouse does not sound too much – and if the hunter claimed that, but actually used 12 half-loads, he would have as many as 9 full loads for his own use. Too often, ‘own use’ meant swapping extra game for drink in nearby inns, but the freedom was there.
In the dark days of Stalin’s terror, the freedom provided by hunting was even more important. At work, people faced constant thought control; at home, they often had no privacy either – forced urbanization and many houses destroyed in the war meant that a family which had a room to itself was considered lucky. Even soldiers and officers returning home from the WWII complained that they felt freer and more at ease in the trenches under enemy fire than at home. Afield, they found themselves in the open with the gun again, and that probably, helped them to cope with PTSD as well. It is probably no accident that hunting reached perhaps the peak of its popularity in the USSR right after the end of WWII.
By mid-1960s industrial development and high-intensity agriculture began to take a heavy toll on the country’s nature. Eyewitnesses reported, for instance, how mineral fertilizers were stored by heaps, uncovered, next to the fields; grouse mistook the pellets for the pebbles they swallow to help with digestion, and were poisoned by thousand. Communist authorities, however, wouldn’t admit responsibility or change their practices. Instead, hunters were appointed scapegoats for all environmental problems, and an aggressive anti-hunting propaganda campaign was launched. For a while, it was not a good idea to admit that you were a hunter in public. Someone would always rushed at you with charges of cruelty and nature destruction, while others would stand around pretending to be shocked. The numbers of hunters decreased, to which the tightening of gun control contributed greatly.
Much of that changed with the collapse of Communism, which exploded the society, scattering people in all directions. For some it brought about the ability to order guns from best makers and hunt anywhere in the world. Others were reduced to the utmost of poverty, and had to survive by market hunting, or, to be more precise, poaching. Yet, in spite of all the changes, most Russian hunters still live and hunt like their fathers and grandfathers.
They hunt for the pleasure of hunting, to honor their family traditions and to satisfy the ancient instincts – in short, they hunt for sports. They have the family budget to reckon with, and while hunting almost never pays its way, the interests of the pot are not to be neglected. Russian hunters still need an inexpensive and hardy weapon, and in spite of the availability of various imported brands, many still find domestic guns to better fill this need. In fact, take any Russian hunter, be it a billionaire fresh from an African safari, or a native of a poor village in the most remote corner of Siberia, you can safely bet three to one that in their homes you’ll find at least one Russian hunting shotgun.