Winter. Hunting. Freedom.
by Aleksei Morozov.
Condensed translation into English by the author.
Allow me, dear reader, to take you on an imaginary Russian hunt as it used to be 200 years ago. No, we shall not go coursing with borzoi dogs like the noble heroes of Tolstoy and Turgenev. We are going to hunt like the people who comprised 80 to 90% of Russians two centuries ago: the serfs.
I believe that Russian peasants began hunting with guns very early, in XVII and probably even XVI century – even though it’s hard to find direct evidence for or against it. There’s a sort of a dark age between VIII-XV centuries, when hunting was the second most important activity for Slavs and is given considerable attention by history books, and XIX century, when Russian classic literature unanimously describe a peasant hunter that hunts with a gun, for pot and for sport in equal measure, as part of the natural course of events. It is generally supposed that Russians were introduced to shooting game in the early XVIII century, through the nobility that was Europeanized by Peter the Great. But this practice could begin much earlier.
Serfs had an inalienable right to own personal chattel, including guns, and a flourishing civilian market for inexpensive guns existed, at least, since the late XVI century. In Russia, hunting was always treated as everyone’s natural right, and constraints imposed by the government (e.g. seasons) were few and mostly ornamental. In short, there was nothing to prevent a Russian serf from hunting with a gun since the late XVI century.
My final bit of circumstantial evidence is the fact that red and roe deer became nearly extinct from Central Russia around the XVII century. This could hardly be caused either by new agricultural practices or by nobility’s hunts. Yet, considering that these animals have the most valuable meat and are easiest to hunt with guns, widespread practice of shooting game among Russian peasantry easily explains the decline in the red and roe deer numbers.
But let’s finally go hunting, shall we?
What we’re going to hunt is a matter of luck. Russian peasant hunter was highly opportunistic: a flock of migratory crane landed on the field? Let’s stalk them! Snow fell and melted, leaving hares in their winter fur easy to see? We’re out for the woods. Woodcutters found a bear’s den? Just let me get some bullets and sharpen the spear…
Our methods of hunting are unsophisticated but efficient. A serf can’t invest heavily in preparation, like spending days on the marsh, in the heat of fieldworks, to train a pointing dog. If we did have dogs, it would be the kind that require little or no training. Still, dogs can die, get eaten by wolves, they can help but we must know how to do without.
In the winter we have two hunting seasons. The first one – mainly for small game – was between the setting of autumn frosts until enough snow is fallen for sleigh ride. This is not only the time when a peasant has little to do, but also helps preserving the harvested game. The preferred quarry is the wood grouse – easy to kill, and highly valuable at the marketplace. The second place goes to capercailzie, for the sheer size of the bird. Hares were not universally considered proper eating – the Bible prohibits consuming non-hoofed animals – but a skin has value nonetheless, making it a desirable trophy too, along with the squirrel and other fur-bearers such as marten.
The “sleigh way” put a pause on hunting – in no other season could a Russian go about with such speed and ease, so trade and visits got priority. But after Christmas the big-game season began. Hunting bears in their dens was dangerous, but brought about double benefit: aside from meat and skin you got rid of an undesirable neighbor. Many hunters, however, found it more profitable to sell the hunt to a wealthy sportsman. But the most prized trophy was moose – Russian peasant hunters chased them on skis when thick crust covered deep snow, impending the animals’ movements.
The closer to the north and the east, the less fertile the land, the more peasants turned into semi-professional and professional trappers. Income from the hunt was important for a serf from Central Russia too. Hunting was appropriate only as long as it was the best alternative investment of time and effort. That’s why in the more fertile regions with denser population and scattered wildlife peasants sometimes treated a hunter as the village idiot.
But who says that serfs hunted only for profit? Perhaps we used the price of a wood grouse only to rationalize the drive to hunt? Is it an accident that since XVII century the Russian word for hunting – “ohota” – means literally “a strong desire”? Did we hunt for fur and feather, or for a chance to escape, at least temporary, the routine of breaking two backs in labor, one for ourselves the other for the lord? What was there for us in these barren woods?
The perpetual dream of a serf – freedom?
 It was unthinkable for Russians to kill a denned bear in its sleep – the animal had to be fully awake and out of the den before one could shoot or spear it.