While I was dining with Nikita Khrushchev several months ago in the company of former Governor Averell Harriman, the Soviet premier criticized one of my personal friends. I took exception, and a slight wrangle ensued. But then, as Khrushchev is apt to do at the height of an argument, he suddenly became all smiles and asked solicitously: "What is your profession, Mr. Thayer?"
Slower than he to cool down, I answered curtly: "I fish." Khrushchev said he disliked fishing, and to head off another tussle Governor Harriman added quickly: "But he also hunts."
"Why don't you hunt in the Soviet Union?" Khrushchev asked.
"Because every time I try I am refused a visa," I answered.
March 14, 1960
"You are invited," Khrushchev said, unabashed.
A few months later I returned to Moscow with my wife to take up the invitation.
It was not the first time I had hunted in the Soviet Union. Before the war I had shot woodcock in Moscow's suburbs, duck along the Volga at Kazan, antelope on the desertshores of the Caspian and pheasant in Dagestan in the eastern Caucasus. But in those days all my shooting had been very much improvised and without the benefit of a Kremlin patron. I was, therefore, uncertain what to expect from Mr. K's invitation.
Thus, when my wife and I arrived at the Moscow airport, we were prepared for everything from snipe to Siberian tiger. She had a double-barreled Belgian .35 caliber rifle with a four-power scope. I had an old Model 54 Winchester .30-06 with a similar scope and both 150- and 220-grain ammunition. Later the Winchester Arms Company sent me a new Alaskan Winchester Magnum .338. We also had shotguns, binoculars, fur caps, fur boots, fishing boots, stalking boots and enough winter clothing to outfit an arctic expedition.
A VERY DIFFERENT RUSSIA
During the years I had been stationed in the American Embassy at Moscow before World War II the importation of firearms and ammunition was strictly forbidden by Soviet customs. The regulation still exists but Mr. K's Russia of 1959 is very different from Mr. Stalin's of 1935. The numbers of my rifles were registered by the customs authorities, but my shotguns were ignored altogether. Only an aluminum case of fishing rods aroused any curiosity, and when I showed its contents to an inspector he simply shook his head at the odd Americans.
True to Mr. Khrushchev's word, Intourist, the Soviet travel agency, welcomed us and promised to arrange the "household" aspects of the trip. The Ministry of Agriculture, under Vladimir Matskevich, promised to handle the "technical" side of the hunting. It was suggested we go first to the Crimean State Game Reserve to shoot stag. From there we could go on to explore the Caucasus Mountains and the Transcaucasus for trout fishing. Then, they said, there would be some moose shooting in northern Russia. Finally, if all went well, there would be bear hunting.
There are several types of game reservations in the Soviet Union. The most carefully controlled are the State Game Reserves (Zapovedniki), which correspond roughly to our national parks. The forests are left in their natural state and no lumbering is permitted except to clean up windfalls and other obstructions. Shooting of all sorts is strictly regulated, and even hikers must have permission to enter the reserve.
Another type of reservation is the Timber and Hunting Domains. These are large forest areas where selective lumbering and hunting are carried on. The government also maintains game sanctuaries where certain types of wildlife are protected. Other areas are assigned to hunting societies, with shooting limited to members. Finally, there are "free areas" where anyone can hunt and lumbering is unrestricted. Practically all of European Russia consists of one or another type of restricted area, whereas almost all of Siberia is "free area."
The Crimean Game Reserve, where we were to go first, was originally the private hunting ground of the czars. At the time it consisted of about 25,000 acres. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 it was abandoned, like most other czarist institutions. But in 1923 it was re-established and its area increased to 75,000 acres, though the herds of red deer for which it had been famous had been decimated and only a few hundred animals had survived. By the time the herds were back to their original numbers, within 20 years, World War II broke out and the reserve was overrun by the Germans and infested with Soviet Partisan troops in the forests. The herds were again annihilated, and by 1945 only about 750 head remained. But today, what with strict measures against poaching, forestry officials estimate there are once again more than 2,500 head of deer in the reserve.
The Crimean red deer is of the European variety (Cervus elaphus). It closely resembles the American wapiti, to which it is related, but it is somewhat smaller. The Crimean strain is considerably larger than the western European red deer both in weight and in the strength of its antlers, which may weigh up to 10 or 12 pounds. Near by, along the Sea of Azov, the Crimean deer have interbred with the Siberian deer or maral, and the cross has produced stags with antlers weighing up to 20 pounds.
Recently Crimean deer herds have been increasing so fast that they are in danger of outstripping the available food supply and degenerating, as their cousins in western Europe have done. However, to the annoyance of Soviet conservationists, sentimental nature lovers backed by academic scientists in Moscow have persuaded the powers that be that hinds must be protected and only stags shot off. The result has been that the balance between sexes has been upset, leaving only one stag for six or seven hinds. This, the conservationists argue, puts such a strain on the stags during the mating season that the herds are in danger of losing their vigor. They hope that soon they will be able to convince the Kremlin that the scientists are talking through their hats. Meantime they are limiting the shooting to about 300 stags each season. High Soviet officials and their guests, as well as foreign paying guests, are the only ones allowed to shoot. It was here that Khrushchev brought Tito to hunt during their historic reconciliation in 1956.
While we waited for the final arrangements for our visit to the Crimean reserve to be completed we visited the Moscow Hunting Society, which had just celebrated its 100th anniversary. (It is thus more than twice as old as the Communist regime.) Its president, Mr. Belyaev, told us over a bottle of wine and a bowl of fresh fruit that anyone may hunt in the Soviet Union provided he passes a simple test and joins a hunting society. The membership fee plus a government tax amounts to about $3 a year. In the sparsely settled areas of Siberia, where hunting is a business, even these formalities are not necessary.
Every hunting society is assigned a special territory for itself where it "carries on the struggle" against poachers. Although Soviet officials are always reluctant to admit the existence of lawbreakers, it is apparent that poaching is a serious problem throughout the country. More than a million dollars in fines are assessed each year against poachers, and jail sentences are given for repeated offenses. Members of hunting societies are required to serve several days each year as voluntary game wardens. In addition, the government maintains a force of about 3,000 gamekeepers or j√§gers to patrol the forests, and a law just passed required all foresters and lumberjacks to enforce antipoaching laws.
President Belyaev of the Moscow Hunting Society was most enthusiastic about the new trend to promote hunting and conserve game. "Every marsh hen praises her own swamp," he admitted but, even allowing for the old proverb, it is a fact that the wildlife in Moscow Oblast (province) has increased substantially in recent years. Moose, red deer, boar and bear are now quite numerous in some areas of central Russia because of the protection they are enjoying. The same is true of small game. Hare and grouse shooting have had a spectacular revival in recent years. This is partly due to the fact that hares have been set out from other areas and gray grouse have been flown in special planes from Tannu-Tuva, 2,500 miles east of Moscow on the Chinese frontier.
Partly, too, the increase in game has been due to the extermination of predators. Until recently foxes were protected in the Soviet Union because of the income the state derived from their skins. But now the conservationists have managed to put through legislation declaring them harmful and even providing bounties for them.
A PLAGUE OF WOLVES
The same is true of wolves. During the war the wolf population in European Russia increased fantastically because hunters were too busy shooting Germans. For a decade after the war the animals did enormous damage both to domestic cattle and to wildlife. Special extermination teams were organized and generous bounties given for all wolves, including cubs, which were killed. Today, Mr. Belyaev said, there is scarcely a wolf left in Moscow Oblast and the extermination teams are virtually unemployed—the only instance of unemployment I heard of in the Soviet Union.
The Moscow Hunting Society, which Mr. Belyaev heads, is the biggest in the Soviet Union, with 45,000 members. It maintains a number of hunting camps, employs its own gamekeepers and also keeps a kennel of 150 hunting dogs. It is also the richest hunting society, with an income of about $120,000 a year (at the tourist exchange rate), which it derives from dues, entrance fees to its dog shows and the profits from a factory of hunting and fishing equipment—everything except the guns and ammunition themselves—which it operates. It also runs, at a handsome profit, a sporting goods store known to foreigners as "The Moscow Abercrombie & Fitch."
A few days after our arrival we took off from Moscow airport for the Crimea. We were about a hundred pounds overweight, but when the ticket agent noticed the guns and learned we were hunters he waived the surplus baggage charge.
We landed at Simferopol in the heart of the Crimean peninsula and motored across the mountains to Yalta on the coast of the Black Sea. Next day, after a brief visit to Livadia Palace, once Czar Nicholas II's summer residence, where President Roosevelt lived during the Yalta Conference in 1945, we set out by car for the Crimean State Game Reserve.
The road led steeply up into the mountains behind Yalta, twisting and turning around sharp switchbacks. Ten miles from Yalta we were stopped by a barrier tended by a sleepy-looking peasant. Our chauffeur shouted, "Guests of the government" (a magic formula throughout the Soviet Union), and the barrier was hastily raised to let us pass. Beyond the barrier the road continued its steep climb through a forest of Italian pine and other Mediterranean vegetation. After driving for another 25 miles we crossed the divide, at a height of 5,000 feet. We had passed the tree line, and for miles around there was nothing to be seen but brown, dried-up meadowland.
As we dropped back to the tree line on the northern slope of the mountains, the vegetation became quite different from that on the warm southern slopes. Beech trees had already turned a copper-red. Oaks in their golden autumn foliage and tall white pines and spruce replaced the Mediterranean shrubbery. We circled around a gigantic bowl in the mountains, the rim of which was broken only by a narrow valley leading northward. Frequently we passed signs exhorting visitors to protect their natural heritage. Almost everywhere were notices forbidding smoking; however, here and there we passed small clearings with a few simple benches and above the benches signs reading "Place for Smoking."
Less than two hours after leaving the coast we reached what our hosts called the "hunting base." We had expected a small cabin or two and were unprepared for the elaborate village which had just been finished to house hunting guests. Ten cottages stood in a large clearing. Each had two double bedrooms, two baths and a wide porch overlooking the valley beyond. Just below them a glass rotunda housed a restaurant, and still farther below, in the woods, were other cottages for the camp personnel.
The manager of the camp welcomed us and explained ruefully that the diesel engine which operated the lights and the water pumps was refusing to start. "But we'll have it going in a few minutes," he promised. He introduced us to the director of the game preserve, Filip Petrov. An older man, he was dressed in a dark-brown military rain cape with epaulets adorned with several gold stars and crossed oak leaves, the insignia of the State Forestry Service. With him were the chief game warden and two gamekeepers, dressed in brown military tunics and slacks trimmed with green. They wore the regular Soviet military cap, and their footwear consisted of light street shoes.
Accustomed as we were to the cocked hats, green breeches and heavy stalking boots of the j√§gers of Bavaria, where we do most of our shooting, the peaked military caps, the slacks and street shoes of these Soviet huntsmen seemed rather odd. However, we were to discover even odder things about our hosts. After the introductions I explained that my wife's binoculars were out of order and asked if she might borrow those of her guide. The director and his staff stared at me blankly till I noted that none of them had binoculars or even a gun. Later we found that some did not even carry hunting knives.
It was already past 4 in the afternoon, and without any further preliminaries we set off. My wife, with a guide and our interpreter, went down the mountain; I, with the director and the other gamekeeper, clambered into a green-painted GAZ—an oversized, canvas-topped Soviet version of the jeep—and started up the slope.
For several miles we followed a well-surfaced gravel road, but then abruptly we swung off onto a logging track that led straight up a steep hillside. The GAZ roared and clanked as the four-wheel drive grappled with the slippery mud, and one would have thought that any game within a mile would have taken to its heels in terror. The director, however, assured me the stags were accustomed to the noisy vehicle.
At the top of the hill we stopped, and the little gamekeeper and I started down the opposite slope on foot toward a clearing where, he said, stags often came to make love in the evening. The gamekeeper lit a cigarette and chattered cheerfully as we hiked through the forest at a brisk clip. Accustomed to the slow, silent stalking of the Bavarian j√§gers, I suggested we be quieter, but the gamekeeper airily ignored my advice. Not until we approached the clearing did he slow the pace and drop his chatter to a whisper.
It was the middle of the rutting season. Across the valley a stag roared belligerently. Another answered from our side, perhaps a half mile away. I suggested we go after him but the gamekeeper said it was too far.
We circled back around the hillside and then headed up the steep slope back to the car. I was wearing a heavy knee-length shooting coat, woolen breeches and heavy stalking boots. It was a warm evening and I was soon gasping for breath and wet with sweat. I began to wonder whether it had been necessary to weigh ourselves down with all our heavy equipment and glanced enviously at my companion in his light tunic and bell-bottomed slacks. When I stopped to catch my breath he saw my predicament, and with a faintly amused smile took over the shooting coat.
Halfway up the hill we paused to rest. Everywhere around us I saw the fresh, deep hoofprints of deer. Some of them, big and round, suggested heavy stags.
Just as the gamekeeper lit another cigarette, he glanced over my shoulder and froze. Cautiously I screwed my head around. Thirty feet from us, in a thicket of birch, a hind was staring at us nervously. We sat motionless for several minutes, waiting for whatever stag was currently courting her to make his appearance. My twisted neck began to ache painfully, but I was determined to show my Soviet companion that I knew the stalking business. Then the wind shifted, the hind caught our scent, turned and trotted off into the thicket.
When we returned to the car, Director Petrov, who had been watching us approach, scolded the gamekeeper like a schoolmaster for moving too fast. "The gentleman is not a horse," he said. Later he explained to me that the professional hunting staff of 30 jagers had only recently been recruited and that many of them were new to the fine points of shooting. He himself was an experienced hunter from Kamchatka, where he had made a name for himself as a bear hunter. Proudly he showed me his hands marked with deep scars where a wounded bear had bitten him. "It'll take a year or two to train these young fellows," he said.
We drove along a ridge for a mile or two and then we alighted again. This time Petrov sent me off ahead to stalk alone while he followed 30 yards behind.
I carefully picked my way along the path, peering through the young growth and listening for the roar of a stag or the click of an antler against a tree. But I heard and saw nothing except for the fresh tracks in the mud all around me. Eventually it became so dark I could no longer see. I waited till the GAZ caught up and then we started down the mountain again.
The driver opened the windshield in front and told me to be ready in case we came across game. I said I understood Soviet laws forbade hunting from a vehicle, but the director said it was only forbidden to chase hares or desert game in cars. Nevertheless, I made up my mind not to shoot from the car, though I kept wondering whether I would have the will power to live up to my resolution if a fine pair of antlers showed up.
The driver turned on a powerful spotlight and, driving with one hand, he swung the light from side to side. Suddenly he swerved off the road, bounced across the ditch and charged into a large meadow. On the far side we caught a glimpse of a group of deer disappearing into the forest. We swung back onto the road, but five minutes later we hurtled into another meadow with the same result. I suggested it was time to go home and the director agreed, but the driver ignored the proposal. He was in full control and in his element. It was evident that this was not the first time he had jacked stags from the car, and he was determined to show off his skill.
For an hour we plunged up and down hills, dashed through shallow rivers and bounced across meadows. Frequently we spotted the tails of a group of deer running from us, but no big antlers showed up in the beam.
Finally we persuaded the driver to turn homeward. It was 9 o'clock when we reached camp. I found my wife trying to read by the stump of a dwindling candle. The diesel, obviously, was still refusing to start. She told me she had seen several stags as well as two mouflon. But the latter were protected and she had not had time to get a good look at the stags' antlers before they moved out of range.
We picked our way across the newly made muddy lawn to the restaurant. It was supposed to be steam-heated, but with no water there was no heat, so we sat down in our overcoats. The chef, a gold-toothed, friendly young man, proudly invited us to inspect his new kitchen. His prize exhibit was an automatic shashlik oven with electrically driven spits to roast mutton. "Shashlik is my specialty, but there's no electric current," he said sadly. Nevertheless, he prepared an excellent meal, which was served by another young man in a dinner jacket and black bow tie.
When we returned to our cottage it was still lightless and waterless, though a large tile stove kept it comfortably warm.
"It's like a Rolls-Royce without a motor," my wife said as we crawled into bed.
We were up at 5 a.m. and ready to start by 6. Again my wife went down the mountain, and I and the director went higher. It was still dark and our driver soon had his spotlight on, operating it with one hand while he held the wheel with the other. Occasionally we spotted a hind darting across the road, but no stags. When it grew lighter we left the car and started stalking along the logging tracks on the mountainside.
Far ahead of us I watched a band of hinds dart across the track. Behind them a pair of large antlers appeared, waving above a thicket of young spruce. Cautiously the stag's snout peered from the trees, but his body remained hidden. Then, with a single bound, he was across the track.
I beckoned the gamekeeper and we started after him. A moment later we heard his challenging roar hardly 200 yards ahead. Because of the heavy brush we could not see him, but periodically he paused to challenge all comers in the neighborhood. We started up the steep hill and my lungs were soon panting and my heart pounding. When we reached the crest we stopped to catch our breath.
Suddenly a bellow broke the silence, so close to me that the stag seemed to be breathing down my neck. I saw a movement on a knoll to my right and gently eased myself behind a large beech tree. Peering around it, I saw the stag standing on the knoll not 80 yards away.
The gamekeeper whispered excitedly, "Bei! Bei! Bei!" (Fire! Fire! Fire!). I took a long look through the scope. I had traveled a far distance to shoot a good stag and I wanted to make no mistake. He was looking straight in our direction, as though he scented danger. One crown was concealed behind a bush, but on the other I could make out four powerful points.
As I watched he thrust out his big head, laying his antlers back against his withers, and roared a boastful challenge. In the cool morning air a cloud of steam belched from his throat and nostrils. He stamped the ground angrily and started to turn away. I decided to take the chance on the hidden crown. Aiming for his foreshoulder, I squeezed slowly.
As the shot went off the stag reared, wheeled and disappeared from the scope. Beside me the gamekeeper grunted enigmatically and took off across the ravine to where the stag had been. Leaping over logs and boulders, he scrambled recklessly up the knoll. I thought of the old Bavarian tradition of sitting quietly after a shot and smoking a cigarette before approaching your quarry. Even a mortally wounded stag can run several hundred yards before the bullet takes effect.
A TRIUMPHANT SHOUT
Obviously no such tradition exists in the Crimea. The gamekeeper reached the knoll and was looking about as I struggled breathlessly after him, wondering whether the shot had gone home. Then he shouted, unintelligibly but apparently triumphantly, and I knew it had.
When I reached the knoll the gamekeeper pointed to a shallow draw beyond it. At the bottom the stag lay lifeless. From his big head two magnificent crowned antlers spread out, at their base as thick around as my forearm. I sat down on a stump, lit a cigarette and tried to conceal my trembling hands from the Soviet gamekeeper.
We hailed the rest of the party, and soon we were all congratulating each other and counting points. It was not the best stag by Crimean standards but certainly far superior to any I had seen before—except on some German castle wall.
Politically the Russians are not the most ardent practitioners of popular democracy, and in the hunting field they dispense with many of the ancient customs of the chase, but one tradition, I soon learned, they follow rigidly. After every kill they hold a soviet, or council. It hardly resembles the puppet councils of the Kremlin's Congress Hall. Everyone speaks his mind and all advice is thoroughly debated.
The problem under consideration at the soviet which now began was: what to do with the stag? Should we drag him down the mountainside? Should we take the trophy and send someone back for the carcass? I feebly suggested that in view of the warm weather we should first of all clean the animal. The director agreed, but we were only two votes out of five. As usual, the driver dominated the debate. He said we should get the GAZ to the spot and take the stag home as he was. For 10 minutes the argument raged. Little by little we won over the chief game warden, and with his vote we had a majority. It was agreed to clean the beast at once. Sulkily the driver wandered off, vowing he was going to get the GAZ anyway and bring it up to the kill.
The director drew his hunting knife. The gamekeeper produced a small but sharp penknife. Petrov turned to the chief game warden. "And where is your knife?" he asked peremptorily. The warden mumbled he had not brought one. Angrily, Petrov put on his schoolmaster's tone. "Don't you know you always carry a hunting knife? Never let it happen again!" I produced my own knife and handed it to the warden.
Simultaneously the three of them attacked the stag, one at the throat, one at the tail and the third at the belly. Once again I thought of my Bavarian jagers, who are trained to clean an animal singlehanded, without soiling their white cuffs.
They had just about finished the job when we heard a crashing roar near by and the GAZ appeared, careening along the slope, bouncing over boulders and logs and weaving crazily among the trees. With a triumphant grin, the driver stopped by the carcass. "See?" he said.
The stag was loaded and everyone climbed in—everyone but myself. "I need a little exercise," I said lamely.
The driver looked wounded, but not until the jeep had slid precariously down to the road did I venture aboard.
When we arrived home my wife was waiting. She told me she had twice been in a position to shoot, but with customary feminine discrimination she had been unable to make up her mind whether the antlers were good enough before the stags had moved out of sight.
That evening we set out again. This time my wife sat next to the driver of the GAZ. When the driver started to open the windshield my wife knew what to expect. "Nyet!" she burst out emphatically. The driver looked hurt again, but this time he fastened the windshield shut without a murmur of protest.
We stopped in a stand of tall beeches, their gray trunks straight and clean. Above, their foliage formed a huge golden-brown ceiling. My wife went off with the gamekeeper while we waited by the car. They had hardly been gone five minutes when a superb great stag stalked leisurely through the tall trees behind his harem of hinds, like a monarch preceded by his pages parading majestically among the Gothic columns of a great cathedral. Occasionally he stopped, thrust forward his head, laid back his antlers and bellowed thunderously, the last, short, hoarse cries echoing through the forest. Then he resumed his stately march.
He was headed straight for where my wife was waiting, but then the wind changed, he caught her scent and trotted off in another direction behind his half dozen wives.
It was getting dusk when we joined my wife again. Together we walked down a wide break in the forest. Suddenly from the bushes another band of hinds emerged and behind them a large stag. He crossed the break so quickly that none of us had a good look at his head. Beyond, in the woods, he stopped to graze, his head behind a large oak.
"Shall I shoot?" my wife whispered.
"Nyet," said the director, who couldn't see the antlers.
"Da," said the gamekeeper, supported by the driver and the warden.
Between the chorus of nyets and da's she turned to me nervously. Bowing to the majority, I said, "Take a chance."
She brought up her gun and, aiming carefully in the failing light, fired. The deer started and disappeared in the dusk.
The gamekeepers hurried forward and a moment later one of them shouted: "Down." We found the stag only 10 yards from the shot, a bullet through his heart. The da's had been right. It was a strong crowned stag.
Next morning the camp manager was on hand to see us off. Once again he started to apologize for his recalcitrant diesel generator, but my wife cut him short. "Candlelight is for hunting cabins." she said. "Bathtubs are for later." He seemed a little less unhappy.
As we were about to depart, Petrov and his staff appeared in the sturdy GAZ. "Won't you go out with us just once more?" they pleaded. Their warm Russian hospitality, the friendliness of this camp far removed from the seats of the Cold War, and the superb sport we had enjoyed for three days made it hard to refuse. But we still had a busy schedule ahead.
Reluctantly we started back to the Black Sea coast.
SEA OF AZOV
THAYER ON RUSSIA
Writer (Diplomat and other books), ex-Foreign Service Officer (Germany and Russia), Charles Thayer here presents the first of several articles on hunting and fishing in the U.S.S.R.
ANOTHER ARTICLE ON HUNTING IN THE SOVIET UNION BY MR. THAYER WILL APPEAR IN AN EARLY ISSUE