Good Pheasant Hunting, Brezhnev-Style

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KGB agents in scuba gear used to swim under Nikita Khrushchev's boat, putting fish on his hook. They used to chain wild boars to trees so Leonid Brezhnev could blast them with his hunting rifle; they used to hide behind trees to throw furry little rabbits out for Brezhnev to peer at through his thick eyeglasses and gun down.

More recently, Viktor Chernomyrdin was once chauffeur-driven along a newly lain road to a den of sleeping bears, so he could shoot a rousted mama bear and cubs, hand his rifle to someone and get back in his car. When Boris Yeltsin came to Karelia to fish, terrified local officials airlifted in 10,000 extra fish for the old tsar's pleasure.

I love these stories -- I've mentioned them before in this space. They seem so perfectly illustrative of life under totalitarianism: When there are no laws and no rights, only the Dear Leader and his whims, then everyone goes to hysterical and demeaning lengths to keep the Dear Leader cheerful.

And as for the Dear Leader, he's so used to sycophancy he doesn't even notice it -- doesn't notice how ridiculous it makes him look.

Of course, Russia was no longer a totalitarian state by the time Chernomyrdin was being flown in to deliver his kontrolniye vystreli to bear cubs, or Yeltsin to shovel fish into his boat (he had no scuba divers working the hooks, as far as we know). But the Soviet-ingrained reflex to bow and scrape obsequiously before the chief remained. Or at least, so my theory goes.

Other stories I like -- and these too I've mentioned from time to time -- are events that occur in America to zero comment, but would have provoked all sorts of dire comment if they had occurred in Russia instead. (For example, when George W. Bush encourages people to exercise, he's applauded; when Vladimir Putin does the same, everyone groans about Soviet-style forced calisthenics.)

Which brings us to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who took Air Force Two last week to an exclusive Pennsylvania club for some sport -- Brezhnev-style.

No boars chained to trees, no trembling pages clutching trembling rabbits to chuck like grenades into the line of fire. Just hundreds of clueless, farm-raised ring-necked pheasants, all held under nets until the vice president and his Texas Republican friends (investment bankers, a senator, former Dallas Cowboys football star Roger Staubach) are in position.

Then the nets are lifted, the birds started and the gunfire opened. Cheney bagged more than 70; hundreds all told were killed. A senator who participated joked it was more like working at a poultry-processing plant than hunting. An outdoor writer compared it to "going to the grocery store and buying chicken."

Animal rights activists called it slaughter for fun. The editor of Field & Stream shrugged, "I don't think it should be confused with hunting."

But whether it's Cheney or Chernomyrdin, hunting this way is quick. Cheney's birds were plucked and vacuum-packed in time for his flight that afternoon to Washington (where, the official story goes, they were given to the poor).

Cheney had no comment for the press, but you could easily imagine him echoing Chernomyrdin: "I was happy that I had an opening in my schedule for this. I love hunting. There is no other recreation that I can afford. I am always short of time."

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. [www.thenation.com]