Though we often don’t think about them in this way, dogs are really about people — those long-ago (or, sometimes, not so long-ago) figures who developed particular breeds for particular tasks. Some breeds — like the Doberman Pinscher, Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, and Cesky Terrier — owe their existence to just one visionary person. Other breeds were brought into being by specific cultures or classes of people.
If civilization is the intersection of a group of people with their environment, so too are their dogs: With coats that evolved to survive the local climate, body styles developed to navigate native terrains, and characters that fit into the social mores of the day, our purebred dogs are living, breathing moments of history, reflections of the far-flung cultures that developed and nurtured them. Through them, we rediscover our globe’s cultural diversity and heritage.
Each week, without even leaving our couches, we travel to a different place and time to meet the people who developed the snoozing bundles of fur at our sides.
Animals can be powerful symbols. Just think of the majestic bald eagle, its powerful wings outreached on the Great Seal of the United States.
Dogs, of course, are no different. Over the centuries, many breeds have become indelibly linked with a certain country, ethnic group or social class. But when political or social turmoil strikes, those associations can threaten the very existence of the dogs themselves – a harsh reality that almost led to the extinction of one of the most aristocratic and aerodynamic breeds on the planet.
As strong as it is swift, the Borzoi was bred for centuries to course fox, boar, hare and, famously, wolf – hence its moniker, the Russian Wolfhound. These aristocratic Sighthounds, with their flowing coats, curvy silhouettes and chiseled heads, became synonymous with Russian royalty.
Since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 15th Century, Russia’s nobles maintained Borzoi in the hundreds and even thousands, passing these booming kennels from generation to generation. Great attention was paid to the feeding, breeding, and training of the dogs, and hunts lasting several days were arranged as competitions between blue-blooded kennels.
But in 1861, with the emancipation of Russia’s serfs, the feudal system that had provided the cheap labor to maintain these sprawling estates collapsed. Many of the large parcels of land were divided and sold, and the kennels emptied.
The Most Spectacular Borzoi Kennel in the World
Sometimes, however, old fruit trees give their most bountiful crops before withering away, and so it was with the Borzoi in Russia. In the late 1880s, even as much of Russia’s nobility retreated to the cities and the great estates were evaporating, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, purchased Perchino, about 125 miles from Moscow, and set about making it the most spectacular Borzoi kennel in the world.
Sending his kennel manager to search out dogs from the remotest corners of the country, the Grand Duke sought to re-establish the “ancient type” of coursing hound that had been diluted since the collapse of the old kennels.
At its peak, Perchino (pronounced “Perchina” with a roll to the “R”) housed 130 adult Borzoi, as well as 60 puppies; 15 English Greyhounds; 100 other dogs, including Fox Hounds and Harriers; 87 horses, all a similar shade of strawberry roan, and 78 employees to tend to them.
As strong as it is swift, the Borzoi was bred for centuries to course fox, boar, hare and, famously, wolf – hence its moniker, the Russian Wolfhound.
The Grand Duke maintained eight kennels based on color and pattern, from brindle to white, each assigned two hunters and a kennel boy who lived adjoining the kennel. White and lighter marked Borzoi were said to be favored because they appeared more aristocratic, and complimented the white leads and gloves of the huntsmen. A ninth kennel was the Grand Duke’s svora, or pack, comprising the crème de la crème of all the others. This personal pack had at least three dogs of each color, so that when hunting they could be leashed together, adding to the visual spectacle.
Did Borzoi Really Hunt Wolves?
As much about pageantry as the capture of prey, wolf-hunting in Russia was an elaborate and ritualistic endeavor with almost medieval overtones. At Perchino, huntsmen wearing the Grand Duke’s signature green livery and mounted on padded Cossack saddles departed the hunting lodge, each with a trio or pair of leashed Borzoi – two males and one female, or one of each, matched in size and color.
Their destination was one of the groves of trees that dotted the prairie-like steppe. Following behind was a pack of foxhounds of mixed English and Russian breeding, accompanied by whip-carrying huntsmen in red tunics.
When the huntsmen were positioned and the grove completely surrounded, the hunting horn was blown, and the cracks of whips urged the foxhounds into the underbrush. Inevitably, the wolf would bolt out, and the nearest horseman would spur his horse and release his Borzoi.
As much about pageantry as the capture of prey, wolf-hunting in Russia was an elaborate and ritualistic endeavor with almost medieval overtones.
Galloping furiously, the dogs would overtake the wolf, tumbling it to the ground. The goal was to grab it by the neck just under the ear, where the Borzoi held tight until the hunter arrived. Leaping from his horse, the hunter either dispatched the wolf with his dagger or proffered a short piece of wood with thongs on each end, which the wolf instinctively grabbed. The live wolf was then immediately muzzled, placed in an iron cage, and brought to Perchino, where it would be used to train the next generation of wolf-hunting Borzoi.
“The Finest Collection of Dogs”
Perchino produced many dogs, some of which were available for sale to those intrepid enough to make the long and remote journey. And in 1903, Joseph Thomas Jr. of O’Valley Farms kennels in Simsbury, Connecticut, did just that, hoping to find new breeding stock to improve the so-so quality of the breed in America.
Thomas stopped first in England to tour some of its Borzoi kennels, but after three weeks was dismayed at the mediocrity he found. Next, he headed to the tsar’s kennels in St. Petersburg, and was equally disappointed: Out of the 80 Borzoi there, he considered only two worth owning, with some “absurdly poor” in quality.
Undaunted, Thomas traveled to Moscow, took an overnight train and then bumped along in a horse-drawn carriage until he arrived at Perchino. Compared to the unremarkable Borzoi he had seen up until then, the Grand Duke’s kennel could not command enough superlatives, with Thomas proclaiming it “the finest collection of dogs of any one breed we have ever seen.”
Thomas left Perchino with the white-and-brindle male Bistri. Proceeding on another day’s journey to the equally high-quality Woronzova kennels of Artem Boladreff, he acquired two white females, Sorva and Atamanka. A year later, he returned with his brother Ralph, and took three more Perchino dogs and one from Woronzova back home to Connecticut.
The Borzoi in America
A little more than a dozen years after Thomas made his last visit to Perchino, the Grand Duke disbanded his kennel in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution. At the remaining estates, Borzoi that could not escape with their owners were given away to rural hunters, killed by revolutionaries or shot by the fleeing aristocrats so they would not fall into the wrong hands. In short order, the breed was practically extinct in the vast country of snow and steppes that had brought it into being.
In the West, however, the Borzoi thrived. The newly infused Russian blood invigorated Thomas’ O’Valley Farm line, which began to dominate the show rings and provided breeding stock for some of most successful Borzoi kennels in the United States. As the 20th Century careened on, the ever-elegant Borzoi became the darling of art-deco painters and sculptors, who were drawn to its sinuous lines.
And, coming full circle, eventually American exports were sent to Russia, helping re-establish the fearless and noble hunting dog that had so captivated the Grand Duke and those who came before him.