Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, and unlike Dante, I’m not speaking metaphorically. Dusk was setting as I was riding the snowmobile behind the gamekeeper to the stationary blind where I was to wait for wild boar – my first big-game hunt in the whole 40 years of my life. Why did a born hunter like me take so long to even try it? That’s a long story – and it’s less about me and more about the how hunting in Russia is (and in the USSR was) organized.
In the USSR, if you wanted to hunt, you had to join a hunting club. All cubs were joined together into the All-Russian Hunters’ Union (only the Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior’s clubs were independent). Just about every square meter of huntable land in the civilized parts of the country was “assigned” to this or that hunting club. The clubs hired gamekeepers, improved habitat, did poaching control, built lodges and in generally were responsible for the management on the “assigned preserves” – or, at least, were supposed to.
The state controlled the clubs through a force of wildlife managers and game wardens. The state set the quotas for game that could be killed in each preserve, and the clubs wrote out licenses and tags to their members. There were, by the way, two kinds of big-game licenses: “product”, where the meat of the animals had to be sold through special stores, and “sporting”, where the hunters got to keep the whole animal.
Now, big-game hunting was a big thing in the USSR – because it was about meat. Strange to hear now, yes, but those were the days of food shortages and rations, so a chunk of wild meat was not to be sneered at even by the most highly positioned Communist bureaucrat – and even with “product” licenses the hunters usually kept the best pieces of the animal to themselves. Everybody wanted to go big-game hunting, even those who weren’t really keen on hunting. So the clubs faced a typical Socialist problem: what do you do if you are obliged to provide everyone with equal access to a resource, but the resource is in short supply?
The clubs found a typically Soviet solution.
First, they made big-game hunts a collective affair (truly Socialist, what?) – big driven hunts, and the tags went to a hunting team. The “collectives” were supposed to be made up of the “most worthy” hunters – and, well, sort of were. The chosen few were, firstly, the best hunters and shots in the club – those who could actually get game; then, there were “necessary people” (like the manager of a department store, who could sell you anything rationed or “deficit” out of the back door), and finally a few random hunters who’d agree to be perpetual beaters for a chance to be among the “guns” for one drive out of five or ten, and/or for a certainty of an equal share of meat.
If I wanted to write a novel about the last years of the USSR, I’d center it around a big-game hunting collective.
This was how it worked for the average citizen – the big Party bosses had their own secret playgrounds with different rules. But no matter how you look at it, big-game hunting was for the privileged. It also happened to absorb everything I hated most about Soviet life: back-rubbing, intrigues, and dysfunctional group hierarchy. And what would I gain in exchange? I was too good at math for my own sake: with 15 “guns” on the line, the probability of bagging an animal was 6.7%; figuring in the chances to become a “gun” reduced it to a statistical impossibility. This turned a Soviet style big-game hunt to walking all day around the woods in bad company for a piece of meat – didn’t sound too cool to me.
Funny how presumptions formed in childhood still influence us decades after.
Admittedly, I was underestimating my chances – a “collective” usually got at least ten tags, and (what I didn’t know) often killed three or four animals on one tag, especially with “product” licenses. But all these calculations were purely academic – by the time I’d got my first hunting license, in 1994 – 18 is the minimum legal age for hunting in most parts of the country – the USSR had been dead three years. Still, the new reality did nothing to convince me that big-game hunting was worth trying.
Now that I’ve tried it, I see I was wrong, of course.
I could write that in the USSR big-game hunting had been for the privileged, in the New Russia it was for the rich. But this would be too simple. The transition to new reality was long, painful, and not yet complete. It could go much easier if the Soviet hunting clubs were really clubs – public unions run by their members for their members. But they actually were nothing but extension of the Soviet state, means to control hunters and gunowners. Being a chairman of the club was an alternative to early retirement for mid-range Nomenklatura, often with KGB background, and the chairmen held nearly total autocratic power over the members. For some reason, few hunters realized the power they ultimately held over the clubs and questioned the status quo.
It ended up with the club chairmen more or less appropriating the clubs and preserves, running them as their private business. Naturally the big-game tags went to the highest bidder, but this was mostly done undercover – in the early to mid 1990s, very often, if you wanted to hunt big game, you had to have not only the money, but also connections to find the person who’d be willing to take it. No, seriously. I know clubs still had quotas, but I didn’t know anyone who got a tag; I heard that the tags were only for the rich, but I never saw any ads or price lists. It was more like “How about moose hunting” – “What moose hunting?”
In any case, I was a poor student and legal big-game hunting was out of my budget; as for poaching (which nearly everyone did at the time) I’ve got a natural intolerance to it. It was easier to convince myself that I was but a bird hunter at heart, and big-game hunting was not my thing. I convinced myself so successfully that I completely missed out additional opportunities as things began to change.
First, private shooting preserves began to emerge. Some were a personal toy of a wealthy hunter or an exclusive club, others tried to be a business. It turned out, though, that it’s hard to make a shooting preserve pay in Russia (unless you do canned hunts), so a lot of successful preserves today are somewhere in-between: their primary function is to provide their owner(s) with sport, and they also sell out some of the hunts to offset the costs. Still, until a few years ago these preserves were out of my budget, and I have nothing to say about it, except that they only enforced my conviction that “big-game hunting isn’t my cup of tea”.
More changes, however, were coming in the “hunting for the masses” department.
The Constitution says that all natural resources of Russia belong to the People (somehow, it’s mostly people like Roman Abramovich, but that’s another story) – and wildlife is a natural resources. So, by Constitution, the Government has to provide equal access to it to all people, and/or use it for common benefit.
So, the first question asked in this respect was why were hunting rights tied to club membership? This was considered unconstitutional, and a state Hunter’s ID was introduced, first as an alternative to club membership, and a few years later as the only document confirming the right to hunt.
The Hunting Department was singled out in the Ministry of Natural Resources to handle the ID cards and in general all hunting and wildlife management related issues, including hunting on the so-called Common Access Hunting Grounds – huntable areas which were not “assigned” to any club or preserve. The law required to ensure egalitarian access to hunting on the areas for a nominal fee, and no less than 20% of huntable lands in any administrative regions being CAHG. The first CAHGs were the lands that nobody wanted, so a stereotype formed that CAHGs are bad for hunting – no organization, no game.
Now, as I’ve discovered, it is not true. Both the organization and the game are there.
Still, old-fashioned hunting clubs faced a problem. They used to have a source of easy cash in annual fees that hunters paid simply to keep their hunting rights – now they were losing it, with hunters turning to free state Hunter’s ID. Then, the clubs used to get their “assigned” preserves for nothing. But the Soviet practice of “assignment” had no legal basis under it – the “assignments” were only executive orders, and the new legislation implied that the government leased out hunting rights for a fee. With the fees and minus the membership dues, many old-fashioned clubs and also new-fangled hunting preserves discovered that they could no longer make ends meet, and returned their areas to the government.
By early 2010s the Hunting Departments, in many regions, found themselves with more and more hunting grounds on which to provide hunting – and with the same problem with big game tags: too few animals, too many takers.
You’d expect that a hunting club would find a fair and transparent way to distribute a limited number of tags among its members, and a Russian government body to do it in a crooked and corrupt manner? Wouldn’t you?
But in the real world, paradoxically, it’s the other way round.
Wake me up in the middle of the night and I’ll tell you that the current system of running this country is corrupt, inefficient, wrong and needs change badly. But to be honest, I have to say that in all my dealings with the officers of Hunting Department, I’ve met with competent and hardworking people set on performing their duty to the people.
If you want better evidence – here goes: the Hunting Departments across Russia are adopting more and more fair and transparent methods of distributing big-game tags. In particular, they’re abandoning the old “first come first served” methods and turn to random draw, like in the U.S.A.
When I first heard about that my region was adopting the lottery system I went “Hey, there’s a story here!” I talked it over with Mikhail Krechmar of the Russian Hunting Magazine, and he liked the idea (the story, in Russian, is here). But in a sudden fit of perfectionism I decided that it would be better if I get some personal experience with the system, and applied for a wild boar tag.
I didn’t expect to win.
But I did.
You could’ve knocked me down with a cat’s hair. I have no rifle, and no big-game hunting gear, and my lifelong partner in hunting – my wife – said she wasn’t interested: a boar was too big and intelligent an animal for her to kill.
So I put it off and off, excusing myself with lack of time. Boar season in Russia today is generous, running from July 1 to February 28 in case of my region, but I missed the summer “crop protection” season, and the autumn season of driven hunts, and the early winter season of shooting boar with laika dogs. But came New Year, and I could put it off no longer, and there were the national holidays, which in Russia run from New Year’s eve to the Orthodox Christmas (January 7), so there wasn’t even an excuse left.
I found the number of the local wildlife manager, who put me through to the gamekeeper that could arrange my hunt. They both were very helpful, but this could be due to the fact that I decided to take the easy way and introduced myself as a writer for a national circulation hunting magazine. But while you can imitate helpfulness, you can’t imitate competence, and they both were very competent. They explained that the only option for me was hunting from permanent stands, set up over feeders, and the gamekeeper said he had three for me to choose from.
So that’s how I found myself upon a forest dark, sitting inside a treehouse with a small window overlooking a feeder. There were yesterday’s boar tracks all over. And darkness. And the trees that were rocking with the wind. And the cloud-covered sky with snow falling out of it now and then, making me wonder if I’d be able to see the boar when they do come. And the sounds of someone’s munching that I kept hearing – or was it a hallucination? – that made me fight with temptation to switch on the tactical lantern on my shotgun. But what if I spooked the pigs that were just about to come there?
Unbeknownst to me, the biggest snow storm in 30 years was coming over the area. Down in my little patch of wood everything was relatively smooth and quiet, and I mean both the animals and the weather. But out there, hell was rising over, and I wish old Dante was there to see it. My wife, who was coming to pick me up at the gamekeeper’s house, said she couldn’t see three steps beyond the hood, and was seriously concerned about being blown over somewhere.
To make matters worse, I couldn’t reach the gamekeeper on my mobile. My wife could reach me all right, but as I tried to dial his number, I kept hearing the robomessage about the subscriber’s number being disabled. Here I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a few kilometers of steppe that it would be really dangerous to cross on foot in that blizzard, and my wife sounded more and more like a non-human Inferno character.
As you can guess, it ended out well, except of my not shooting a boar. My wife found the gamekeeper at home, and the ride back on the snowmobile could be among the most extreme things I’ve seen in my entire life, except that I had to cover my face with the scarf all the way including the eyes a minute into the steppe.
Still, I was very much satisfied with the hunt. I could never have said that simply a hope of an animal coming in could keep me happily immobile, with adrenaline pumping up each time a twig broke, and down as I realized it wasn’t yet under the hoof of an animal. Three hours went in a flash; the stand was well-positioned and comfortable. The feeder was obviously well cared after, and full of stuff. The gamekeeper was helpful without being subservient, and obviously took his job seriously. All in all, I could not see how things could be improved if I went to an expensive private preserve for the well-to-do.
But there’s one fine print point.
It looks like the CAHG I went to used to be one of the first private “personal playground” preserves, set up by a local fur king way back in the 1990s. It wasn’t a secret that his business was going down lately, so apparently he could no longer keep his toy, and gave the land back to the government. So, both the gamekeeper, and the permanent stands, and everything, could be leftover from the days of affluence. In this case, the question is – how long will the government body be able to keep it running as well as it used to be under private eye?
I’ve got to come back there and investigate.
Besides, there’s a pig out there that has to be shot before February 28.