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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016


It wasn't the height that made me feel weak. It was more the pungent smell of bird droppings fused with rotting hay that forced me to pause halfway up the ladder.

On Tuesday, I went to visit Vladimir Kokanov on the roof of the Taganka Theater to look at his pigeons. First we scaled the rickety ladder to the nesting boxes. Then we crawled through acres of soggy sawdust as Kokanov pointed out his Perm yellows, his high fliers, his carriers and his Kursk butterflies.

"Here, hold a baby pigeon," he said, thrusting a miserable bundle of beak and feathers into my hand. It attempted a halfhearted struggle before a stream of black sludge dribbled out of its tail feathers and onto my jeans. "Isn't he beautiful?" Kokanov said.

Ever since he was 12 years old, Kokanov has wanted to keep pigeons. His father's uncle was a professional carrier pigeon racer at the beginning of the century. When he died, he left his grandnephew a pair of blue-gray racers.

"They were stunning," Kokanov said, "but they didn't last long. My neighbor shot one of them on his potato patch the following day. He thought it was wild."

After leaving school, Kokanov joined the army, where he picked up the trade he still practices today. Since 1985, he has worked on set construction at the Taganka Theater. "I'm a top-class welder, but pigeons mean more to me than my profession," he said.

The year Kokanov arrived at the theater, the director put on a production of Maxim Gorky's "Vassa Zheleznova." Among the cast were six pigeons who flew around the stage as Zheleznova lamented her lot.

"No one looked after those poor birds," Kokanov said. "They just left them in a box on the roof to perish." So Kokanov took them under his wing and built them a makeshift cage out of bits of scenery. Now he has over 100 pigeons on wooden shelves on the roof.

Ten years ago, Kokanov used to train racing pigeons. "No one really knows how they find their way back," he said. "We'd take them off to Smolensk, to St. Petersburg, to Kursk, and days later they'd be home again."

These days he says he is too old for professional racing, although he does it occasionally for fun. "I took a bird to my sister's at Pushkin last month," he said. "We released it and watched it fly toward the capital."

But three weeks down the line, the pigeon still hasn't returned. "I blame all those radar signals," he said. "They confuse the poor pigeons. I know it will never come back now."We crawled on past speckled, mottled, paisley and tartan pigeons dozing quietly in their boxes. "This is my favorite, Vasya," said Kokanov, holding out an elderly bird in what looked like a pair of feather moccasins.

I left Kokanov scraping Vasya's breakfast off his shirt. "I can't understand it," he muttered. "After all I've done for the damned bird."