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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

INSIDE RUSSIA: The Russian Hunt

When 15 big game hunters spent a recent weekend in a forest outside Moscow, they were taking part in a centuries old rite of Russian manhood.

A forest track somewhere near the town of Fryazevo, 60 kilometers north of Moscow. It is now Sunday afternoon. We have spent the last two days standing in forest clearings like this one, straining for signs of our prey.

So far, we have not fired so much as a shot.

The boredom is excruciating. In temperatures as low as minus five degrees celsius, you must stand absolutely still because the slightest movement can alert the prey to your presence. The only distraction is the pounding headache from last night's vodka and the nagging conviction that your big toe will fall victim to frostbite if you do not get indoors soon.

This, then, is the Russian hunt. In one form or another it is the favorite outdoor pastime of the Russian male. It was the preferred leisure activity of Russia's tsars. The Politburo made many of its most important decisions while out hunting. Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev after him, entertained foreign leaders by taking them to the forest to shoot big game.

Even now, when President Boris Yeltsin can get away from the Kremlin, he takes his gun and goes hunting on his well-stocked Zavidovo estate outside Moscow. His second-in-command, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, has shown a weakness for bear hunting.

Hunting is the activity extolled by Lev Tolstoy in his great works "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace." Pushkin and Lermontov waxed lyrical about it. Turgenev devoted a whole tome -- "Notes of a Hunter" -- to the joys of the Russian hunt.

But a bone-chilling weekend with a pack of 15 hunters fell far short of Turgenev's idyll.

Half of our party were experienced hunters. Sergei Kovalyov, the boss of a Moscow garbage removal firm, came with his sidekick, Igor Babikov, for two days of manly relaxation before he ran for election to the local council. Kovalyov was running "purely for practical reasons," he explained. There was Nikolai Chipurnikh, a professional driver with a taste for purple cigarettes tipped with gold, and his friend Mikhail Drozdov. The veteran of the group was Ilya, 72, a legend among Moscow hunting circles who stalks his prey in an ancient white smock and felt boots.

The rest were amateurs. Alek, an ethnic Azeri who claimed to be someone important in the Russian Foreign Ministry; Vladimir, a middle-aged air force lieutenant-colonel who brought with him a team of five fellow officers; one journalist; and finally, a Dutch photographer who had been looking distinctly nervous since he saw that his fellow hunters had each brought with them a crate of vodka for the weekend.

Saturday was spent staking out a plot of forest. Air force officer Vladimir had been standing motionless for three hours when a family of moose stumbled upon him. He hesitated and let them get away without getting off a shot. Another attempt to flush out the moose Sunday morning ended without result.

By Sunday afternoon, the hunters were getting impatient: They had yet to fire a shot, let alone make a kill. Dusk would fall in three hours and we would have to go home to Moscow empty-handed.

The night before, recriminations had already started to fly. After putting away his second bottle of vodka, Kovalyov blamed the smokers in the party for scaring off the game.

"I walk behind you and I can smell the nicotine coming off you," he scolded Chipurnikh. "And as for the moose, they can smell you from miles away."

The unfortunate Vladimir drew criticism, too, for his mistake the previous day. His colleagues, all of whom work together at the air force headquarters, defended him. But even among them you could detect a certain resentment. Vladimir walked around with a haunted look on his face.

Back to the hunt. Kovalyov, in his bloodstained white hunting outfit, stood with his gun cocked. Twenty yards away from him, Chipurnikh had at last put out his cigarette and now peered into the forest in front of him.

Calm descended. The only sound was the distant yapping of dogs in a village beyond the horizon. Five minutes passed. Then the calm was broken by dogs barking furiously. Not the village dogs this time, but hunting dogs driving the prey toward our guns.

The barking grew louder and louder. A volley of shots rang out away to the left. Then a secondvolley. Someone shouted the command, "Ready!," which in hunting parlance is the signal for shooting to stop, and the hunters spread along the track to make out for the spot from where the firing came.

Some 20 meters into the forest, Chipurnikh, his face even more flushed than usual and his eyes dilated, stood over the steaming corpse of an adult female moose.

Blood welled around a hole half an inch wide in its right front flank. The bullet later showed up in the animal's aorta. Vladimir Akimov, the hunt master, concluded that the animal had died instantly.

As Chipurnikh, with shaking hands, lit up a cigarette -- yellow this time -- we heard shouts coming from the forest road.

Aspiring politician Kovalyov had wounded a bull moose as it sprinted across the track. The injured bull had turned about face and run off in the direction from which it came. A party of five hunters set off in pursuit, guided by the sound of dogs barking.

Two hundred yards into the forest, at the far end of a frozen lake, the bull was floundering in a hole in the ice. Zig-zag tracks led from the near shore to the spot where the animal fell through.

We scrambled down the bank and onto the ice to get a closer look. Harried by two hunting dogs, the bull paddled frantically to keep its head above water. At intervals it lifted its feeble forelegs out of the water and onto the edge of the ice in a bid to drag itself out. But every time it slipped back into the water.

Ten minutes passed. The moose grew tired. Its efforts to climb out became less frequent. It rested its head on the ice, its breathing labored now and much slower.

Sergei, a local forester hired to help with the hunt, appraised the situation. "F**k, he's sinking," he said. "If he does that, then what the f**k did we run around after him for? I nearly had a heart attack."

Hunt master Akimov sent for a rope with which to haul the moose out of its ice hole. He did it not out of compassion: If the moose died in the lake, the corpse would sink to the bottom, depriving the hunting party of some 150 kilograms of choice meat. At the butcher's that would cost several hundred dollars. If the hunters could pull the moose over to the bank and finish it off there, its carcass could be salvaged.

After another 15 minutes a young man arrived from the nearby fish farm with a coil of rope. Sergei and his colleagues tried to lasso the bull around its horns but instead the rope slipped around its neck. "You'll strangle it," someone shouted. But no one paid any attention. We started pulling on the rope from the shore.

The bull struggled weakly at first. Then, as the rope tightened around its neck, it stopped moving completely. Lying on its side, it glided motionlessly across the ice and stayed immobile as we dragged its front quarters onto the bank. Perched at the top of the bank, the hunters waited. To shoot now would breach the rules of hunting etiquette: They must hold their fire until the bull gets up onto its feet. That is considered giving it a fair chance.

Slowly, the moose spluttered back to life. It staggered drunkenly onto its front legs and then pulled its hind legs up from underneath it. This was the moment that Alek had been waiting for.

He had not had a very good hunt so far. When he was out of the room, the other hunters dismissed Alek as a city slicker, with more money than hunting instinct. They mocked him for carrying two rifles around with him when everyone else made do with one, and for his expensive all-in-one hunting outfit and top-of-the-line galoshes imported from France.

This was Alek's chance to show them all. Kneeling at the top of the bank five meters from his prey, he shouldered his rifle to finish off the moose. One volley, and a crimson broth of blood and saliva erupted from the animal's mouth. Two more shots, and it dropped to its front knees. All the time the moose was impassive; it did not make a sound. Another two shots, and it keeled over onto its side.

The hunt master's assistant Pyotr Semchinov let his two dogs off their leash and they threw themselves at the moose, ripping clumps of fur from its belly. This was their reward for the afternoon's work.

Back up on the bank, Mikhail Drozdov sat on a tree stump. Drozdov, a veteran hunter and deputy head of the Moscow Hunting Dogs Society, was not impressed by the spectacle. "It's bloody murder," he muttered.

Hunting is not the glorious sport that it used to be.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, it was the domain of the aristocracy. And while they did not show particular mercy to the hundreds of serfs roped in for each hunt to work as yegory, or hunt helpers, it was a matter of pride that the animal died an honorable death.

Even after the Revolution, that tradition stayed alive. Most of the Soviet leaders were cultured hunters. Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin was a keen hunter, but he was said to spare the prettiest foxes. Another such figure was Marshal Georgy Zhukov, chief of the armed forces and the man credited with defeating Hitler on the eastern front.

"Georgy Konstantinovich [Zhukov] visited us many times," 80-year old Hussein Zalikhanov, yegor to a succession of Politburo members, said in an interview published in the Izvestia newspaper recently. "He was a daring but discriminating hunter. Not once did he ever shoot at a sow with its piglets, or at a female bear with its young."

Now, though, hunters from the old school lament that the age of hunting chivalry has passed. In the spring of 1997, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin caused outrage when Ogonyok magazine revealed that he had commandeered bulldozers, helicopters, Volga cars and agents of the Federal Security Service to hunt down a mother bear and her two cubs.

Chernomyrdin was even forced to go on national television to defend himself. Meanwhile, financial magnate and Chernomyrdin ally Boris Berezovsky, who owns Ogonyok, threatened to dock journalists' pay for the next two months because of the article's publication.

Lower down the hierarchy, too, it is money, not etiquette, that increasingly calls the shots in hunting. According to Alexander Varnakov, an official with the Moscow Society of Hunters and Fishermen, Russia's nouveau riche flout all the rules of hunting because they know they can get away with it.

"He buys a gun, a foreign car, and thinks everything is accessible to him," Varnakov lamented, adding that there had been incidents in which a businessman would take his lawyer on the hunt in case the hunt inspectors took him to court. "He has money so he can buy himself off any charge," said Varnakov.

Whereas before only rank, or connections, could get a person the coveted membership card of a hunting society -- only card-holders are entitled to hunt -- now they can be bought for cash from one of the many private hunting societies that have sprung up in the last few years. About 600 rubles ($100) is the usual going rate.

To earn the right to hunt moose or wild boar, hunters once had to put their names on a waiting list several months long. Now, visitors with fat wallets are shown an exhaustive price list. The license to shoot one boar or moose cost on average $6 per kilogram; if a hunter bags a fully grown moose, the charges can add up to $1,000. Bear is the most highly prized prey. A license to shoot an adult male will cost the hunter up to $3,300.

Poaching -- the ever-present flip side -- is getting worse, too. Poachers are now equipped with night-vision goggles, fast getaway cars and police radio scanners so that they always know in advance if hunt inspectors are planning an ambush. And they always go out into the forest in gangs, so that the hunt inspector does not stand a chance. Brawls between poachers and hunt inspectors are commonplace.

For every bear killed in Russia by a hunter with a license, another three or four are hunted down illegally by poachers, said Maria Vorontsova, director of the Moscow office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In response, the inspectors are getting tough. Last year, in the Ramenskoye district outside Moscow, inspectors shot and killed a poacher as he sped away from the scene of the crime in his car. But with each inspector having to patrol as much as 150,000 hectares -- more outside the Moscow region -- the law is fighting a losing battle.

"People who have fallen to the very bottom of society are forced into poaching," said Varnakov. "What we have now is complete lawlessness, and it is very hard to bring under control."

The proliferation of poaching -- combined with pollution and the destruction of animals' natural habitat -- is beginning to threaten the existence of endangered species. In the European part of Russia, wild animals are still holding their own against hunters. Some hunting grounds even report that the animal population has revived in the last year.

But in Siberia and Russia's Far East, where the few hunt inspectors do not have a hope of effectively patrolling the vast territory under their supervision, some species are facing extinction, said Vorontsova.

"The situation with poaching is just monstrous ... particularly in the Far East on the borders with Korea and China," she said. "They will kill practically anything there."

In that region, Chinese and Korean poachers illegally cross into Russian territory and hunt down rare species. The body parts are then sold for use in traditional Chinese medicines.

Most at risk are leopard, tiger, white bear and the Asiatic moon bear. Asked if hunting could lead to the extinction of these species, Vorontsova replied: "That is very possible."

But for the men who spend their weekends and vacations in the forest hunting down wild animals, none of these imperfections matters. The essence of the Russian hunter is that he is a dreamer, an incurable romantic. Ask the most mealy-mouthed hunter what the activity means for him, and he will launch into prose so colorful it is almost poetry.

"It's about communing with nature," said Alek, the diplomat. "When you are in the forest, you notice things that normally you wouldn't pay attention to...When I am hunting with my dogs, I feel a link, a harmony with them."

After a few shots of vodka, Vladimir Akimov chimed in, "I'll show you real hunting. When there's just you and two dogs and you're chasing after the beast and shoot it. It's a battle for supremacy between you and the animal."

Varnakov, a stern, care-worn man, suddenly softens when he begins explaining his love for hunting. "It's not just about shooting the bear," he said with a faraway look in his eye. "The most important thing is that I have deceived him, I have shown myself to be more cunning than him."

Varnakov goes on, his eyes now filling with moisture: "It's not something that can be conveyed with words. You are literally absorbed into nature, you feel yourself a part of it."