Echoes of old Russia

By ALEXANDER SUSHKO (Ph. D.) University of Chicago.
"Life's but a walking shadow."
[ BD this is the essay accompanying the portfolio Portraits of Borzois exhibited by the Imperial Society of the Royal Court of Russia 1874-79 by N. A. Martynow. ]
This link takes you to scans of some of the prints in the Martynow Portofolio.

decorative letter H HUNTING pursued by the Palaeolithic man as means of subsistence, had in Neolithic times become the distinctive employment of men who were possessed of most leisure and wealth. In historical times it appears as a prerogative of kings and nobility, and in modem times, it is the privilege of the "beati possidentes. "

The dog was trained by man as a hunting animal very early. But the most astonishing fact is this, that "borzoi" [BD note this is the use of the word "Borzoi" as equivalent to "windhound" or "gazehound"] has - been the king among the hunting dogs since remotest antiquity. Fine, slender breeds of dogs of the distinctly greyhound type of warm yellow colour, are depicted on monuments of ancient Egypt, and it is by no means impossible that the fine, smooth-coated breed, with large erect ears of Arabia in the East, and of the Balearic Islands in the West, are the direct descendants from the Egyptian aristocrats. The former are highly praised in Arabia, Persia and Afghanistan, and are well known under the name of "Salukis". However, they differ from the European breeds in having heavy, pendulous ears. The "RAMPUR" of India, an exceptionally powerful type of greyhound, is probably a descendant of that "Saluki."

Is Europe the primeval home of characterization of the "borzoi"? It is highly possible. Arrian, a writer flourishing in the second century of our era, has left us a vivid description of the "Gaulish dog", a breed which very much recalls the modem greyhound-both respecting it's physical characteristics and the methods of hunting with it.

Ovid (43 B.C-A.D. 17) and Martial (40-102 A.D.) mention the same breed calling it "canis gallicus." It's Spanish name was "galgo." It doubtless was the greyhound. According to the testimony of Strabo (c. 200) the Britons also bred fine hunting dogs.

It is almost certain that the ancient "gaulish greyhounds "were brought into the Western Europe by the successive waves of the enigmatic " Cimmerians", who occupied the limitless plains of Central Eurasia, i.e. Eastern Europe, and Western Asia, from time immemorial. The passionate partiality for chase manifested by the ancient Gauls, Franks, Teutons and Slavs, the direct descendants of the mysterious inhabitants of the prehistoric Central Eurasia, is abundantly verified by the historical sources. But it is worthwhile to notice that while the hunting with dogs, hawks and falcons was one of the noblest recreations of our mutual ancestors, the greyhound was always the gentleman's preferred hunting animal.

Strongly but lightly and elegantly built, with long, narrow but flat head; with elongated, muscular and powerful limbs, broad breast and a gracefully curved bushy tail, the Russian "borzoi" possesses beautiful large and soft eyes, with a fine golden fawn in their colour. It's coat is long and silky, usually of superb ivory hue, with occasional dark spots on back or head. Its ancient, pure, and most precious breed, once known in Russia as the "Greyhound of Kurland," is today extinct. And I doubt very much whether the once famous greyhounds of Poland, and particularly of Ukrainia, so passionately bred in the past ages by the Polish and Ukrainian grandees, still exist...

It can be safely said that the present day Russian "borzois" possess a substantial admixture of blood of the Asiatic "Salukis" and of the western breeds as well. Yet they still are a very noble race-in spite of the ironical criticism just recently pronounced by the "Old dog" of Ireland,- no wonder also that they are carefully bred in our days in some very particular places of England and of Northern America as well.

The "borzois" hunt entirely by sight, though their sense of smell is well developed, too. Their speed is remarkable: a good "borzoi" can easily compete with a fast train for the period of one hour. [BD - I suspect this is an exaggeration, the question is just how fast was a fast train in the 1890's? Endurance running dogs such as racing sled dogs can run 30 miles at an average speed of 17 mph, modern Borzois can trot and lope behind a trotting horse for hours but no modern windhound can run at a full gallop for 30 miles at 30 mph.]

The hunting parties with "borzois" used to be conducted in Old Russia, as a rule, on horseback. Parties numbering hundreds of hunters, trainers, servants and peasants, would leave lord's residence early in the morning. The hunters were divided in the field in two parts: one group, accompanied by a band of setters (Krichany), would scare the game out of the islands of bushes into the plain, while the other part followed the running animal with the "borzois." The latter were kept on a "Swor" (a long leather band), not more than two or at the maximum three animals by one trainer. The hunting a la Anglaise was also very much popular in The Old Russia, especially in the second part of the nineteenth century.

The Russian sportsmen usually hunted hares, foxes and wolfs. However, not all "borzois" attacked wolfs. The finest greyhounds for wolf-hunting are, according to my estimation, the Ukrainian "Khorty." A superb picture of the Ukrainian hunting methods with "Khorty", employed by my forefathers is given by J. G. Kohl (c. 1830): Here it is:

"At those stations where the villages were panski , i.e. the property of one landlord, we were always sure to see a quantity of fine large greyhounds. They are called "barzi," and are almost the only dogs used for sporting on the steppe, where a good eye is of far more importance than a quick scent. The rich lords of the steppe, it is true, keep other dogs, and sometimes carry on their hunting expeditions on a very large scale. One gentleman, of the name of Skarzinski, who owns a chateau near Vosnessensk, is in the habit of inviting, every season, some twenty or thirty of his friends, together with all their servants and attendants, to a grand hunting party. When he sallies forth with his guests, twenty-five camels are put in requisition to carry tents, cooking apparatus, wine casks, and various other articles calculated to contribute to the comfort and enjoyment of the little sporting caravan. An orchestra of perhaps thirty performers is engaged to enchant the modish nimrods after the fatigues of a day's pleasure, and some two or three hundred peasants, huntsmen, and servants, accompany the expedition.

During the day, Skarzinski and his companions scour the plain. Towards evening they seek their tents, where a sumptuous banquet has been provided for them, and a portion of the night is spent in drinking champagne, and playing cards, or in listening to the harmonious strains of the band. In this way they hunt and feast their way to a place called Beisbairak, near Elizabethograd, where there exists a plain of some extent covered with brushwood, that serves as a cover for vast numbers of wolves, foxes and hares. To this point other sporting caravans are likewise wont to direct their course. On their arrival they join their forces to those of Skarzinski, and after a few weeks spent in hunting and carousing, the season is closed by a grand festival. The wolf-chase on the steppes is quite peculiar in its way. A thicket in which wolves are supposed to lie concealed is surrounded by nets. In front of these nets the hunters station themselves with their fowling-pieces, and behind them stand the peasants with spears and pitchforks. The drivers and dogs then enter the thicket to scare the wolves into the plain, and this they do with a cry which I could easily imitate (for the sound is one never to be forgotten), but which it would be vain for me to attempt to describe. These wolves that escape the tubes of the hunters, entangle themselves in the nets where they are spread and pitchforked by the peasants, and sometimes taken alive. The genuine Cossack of the steppe, however, uses neither musket nor pitchfork, but mounted on his trusty steed, depends only on his well plaited "nagaika" or whip, with which he rarely fails to cut down a wolf, as with a sabre."

As the famous Juliusz Kossak (The Senior 1824-1898) was hailed as the greatest master painter of horses and "khorty" in Poland and Ukrainia, and P. P. Sokolov (1821 - 1899), was universally acknowledged as the greatest among the Russian painters of the fine realistic genre-scenes, and particularly of hunts and characteristic horse-fairs in Old Russia, so now Martynow becomes known as one of the greatest Russian portrait painters of "borzois." This last fact we all owe to the blessed foresight and much laudable industry on the part of Mr. Alexander Root, himself a great lover of beauty.

The genre of animal portraiture in Old Russia was not new in the days of Martynow. A well known officer of the Imperial guards, a certain P. V. N., who used to reside in St. Petersburg in the twenties of the past century, possessed a pack of hounds which were all portrayed by young artists of the metropolis. Many of those artists owed to this gallant "Ismailovetz" their schooling, and often all their career.

The number of the more or less passionate nimrods in Ancient Russia was enormous. About a hundred years ago they all had been overshadowed by a certain "Pamieshchick" (a wealthy country gentleman) who used to live in his immense country residence, situated in the government of Orlov, in a truly royal style. He was known all round especially as a great lover of hunting parties, in which hundreds of the neighbouring nobility and officials participated.

The residence of Mr. N. K-ij's, consisted of a number of large buildings excellently equipped for comfort and entertainment of over one hundred guests. The latter used to enjoy the hospitality of this eccentric for months.

Mr. N. K.-ij's hunting parties were remarkable. His packs of rare hunting dogs numbered several hundreds of excellent animals, and their masters, all well trained men, were gorgeously dressed. The lord preferred above all the pure "borzois" (the so,called "Chistopsovye" and "Gustopsovye"). The expedition was heralded in the early morning by "pozov," an impressive trumpet farfare roared by a stately band of horns. The line of hunters, guests, trainers, servants, etc., was a few miles long. It was headed by the landlord himself and while his friends were on horseback, others traveled in numberless carriages.

The collection of firearms of this remarkable "barin" (lord) was exceedingly precious. It consisted of more than one hundred pieces of such excellent makes as: Pur, due, Mortimer, Lancaster, and also of such old masters as Lebaide, and LePage, and even such rare workmanship as the Swedish Starbuck and the famous Spanish firearm master Lazzaro-Lazarini. Mr. K.-ij's personal gun has been especially made for him by the famous French master Gaston Renet. The latter spent on this masterpiece over ten years of hard work.

Such were the Sportsmen of Old Russia, and such were their gay hunting parties.

And even in my early manhood (1898-1910), 1 often participated in hunting parties that numbered over one thousand people.

Martynow was a child of those remarkable days which probably shall never come back again. He was a prominent painter during the reign of Nicholas 1, and even was considered then the leading draftsman of the Empire. As such he received a commission from the ministry of the State Treasury to make sketches of the old monuments of the Russian art and archaeology. The commission was accompanied by a salary of 3,000 rubles a year, a royal remuneration in those days. A precious album of his sketches made by him in his new capacity was treasured before the Great War in the Archive of The Society of the Lovers of the Ancient Literature in St. Petersburg. The rest of his sketches and drawings were preserved in the Historical Museum of the Archaeological Society of Moscow.

In spite of the fact that N. A. Martynow was really a great artist, enjoying the best reputation in the highest social strata of the capital, he was a man of remarkable modesty. Little has been known about him in the academical circles of the artistical world, and he passed away simply unnoticed by his fellow artists. His beautiful aquarells and drawings of superb "borzois," all royal animals owned by the members of the Imperial family and by the leading representatives of the most famous families of Russia of those days (1864-1879), were recently exported from Russia, simply unnoticed. . .

We believe that N. A. Martynow was the son of the celebrated Andrei Efymovich Martynow (1768-1826) a talented academician painter of the period of the Empress Catherine 11, and Emperor Alexander I.

The time when the grandees of Russia used to hunt on the limitless plains of the "Holy Russia" with hundreds of "borzois" and other fine breeds of the hunting dogs, belong to the past. It is, however, certain that the future generation of the New Russia will for many centuries to come tell their children and their children's grand-children the most wonderful stories about the strange past ages in Russia, in which their forefathers used to enjoy themselves in the boundless plains of their remarkable homeland, hunting hares, foxes and wolves, in company of hundreds of their friends and servants amidst the loud shouting and laughing of men and lustily yell of hundreds of superb hunting dogs ... And Martynow's magnificent Portraits now published in America by American born in Russia, will most assuredly find sometime a way into the soul of New Russia too, and doubtless will awake the memories of old days that like our youth shall never come back again.