A lot of people from my “Legendary Russian Hunters” list will be from the Far East, for a good reason – the best way to become a legend is to hunt dangerous game, and in no other part of Russia are there so many tigers, leopards, and bears. But my next hero, a native of this land, never hunted big cats – for the indigenous peoples of the area it was a taboo.
Dersu Uzala was a trapper and a market hunter. He introduced himself as Nanai, but modern ethnographers, from certain traits of his culture, lifestyle and biography, identify him as Udege. He served as a guide for Vladimir Arsenyiev, a Russian Army cartographer and surveyer, accompanying him in a number of expeditions across the Primorye in 1902-1907. Later Arsenyev reworked his logs into a series of extremely popular travel and adventure books, where Dersu is portrayed as the ultimate woodsman. His bullets never missed, his knowledge of nature was comprehensive, and his power of observation and deduction rivaled that of Sherlock Holmes, making Dersu the ultimate tracker.
Dersu and Arsentiev formed a deep friendship, so when Dersu started to have problems with eyesight, Arsenyev invited him to come and live with him in Vladivostok. But Dersu couldn’t adapt to life in a big city, and left for the taiga. On his way, he was murdered by unidentified bandits. In 1975 the story was made into an Oscar-winning movie by the great Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa.
It’s hard to say whether Dersu’s image in Arsenyev’s books is mostly factual or somewhat fictional – but it entered the Russian collective consciousness, and “Dersu Uzala” has become an idiom for a perfect hunter, of unsurpassible woodcraft, for whom the wilderness is a natural environment. If that doesn’t make a man a legend, then what does?