Back in the USSR

In the absence of a triumphant photo of dead bear cubs in Russia, I offer this from a hacienda in Argentina where the old ways — the good ways — are still followed.

by Terry Wieland

Back in what now seems another era, I was invited to go bear hunting in Russia. For various reasons, I turned it down, but an acquaintance of mine accepted and ended up somewhere in Siberia. He returned with a triumphant tale of of finding a den in the wet spring snow, and somehow provoking a mother bear into emerging with her two cubs.

“We got them all!” he crowed, quite proud of himself and his great achievement.

He and I have not spoken since.

To my mind, that one incident tells you everything you need to know about Russia and Russian professional hunters. I would like to use the phrase “Russian hunting ethics,” but it’s an oxymoron.

Lest you think I am singling out the Russians, I should add that reports I’ve had coming out of Belarus and the various ‘Stans have been every bit as bad. These applied to both fishing and hunting. In both cases, bag limits seem to be merely a minimum you aim for, and the goal is to exceed it by as much as possible. Sort of like a minimum SAT score.

Early on, in the 1990s, many tales involved hair-breadth escapes from Soviet-era surplus helicopters, and quite often pilots who were so drunk they had to be propped up in the cockpit and flew on pure motor memory. Hunting and fishing are supposed to be adventures, but braving the former Soviet Union, especially in the ‘90s, was going a bit far.

Of course, the bait was nigh irresistible. For big-game hunters, especially, the prospect of hunting Argali sheep in the Pamirs, legally, for the first time in a century, or chasing various subspecies of red stag, was simply too much.

Austria is one of the birthplaces of the concept of hunting ethics, and hunting in the Alps is almost a religion, reflected on every chalet and mountain hof. Oh, what the hell: It is a religion.

During the Soviet era, hunting did not die out. It survived at both the lowest and highest levels, with little in between. At the lowest levels, the natives of the Siberian taiga lived as they always had. At the highest levels, it was a pastime for commissars and party bigwigs, who had hunting lodges previously owned by grand dukes and such, preserved for their use. The best description of how these people lived is contained in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. At first, you think Orwell is exaggerating for effect; then you come to realize he was, if anything, understating, to retain credibility.

The pigs in the farmhouse, wearing the farmer’s suits and drinking whisky, while the other animals, starving, peek in through the windows, is the perfect analogy not only for Stalinist Russia, but for the later Soviet Union; according to reliable reports, it’s a world that is being recreated in Russia today. For the better part of two decades, Russian oligarchs and mafioso (assuming there’s a difference) were the main financial pillar supporting such iconic British companies as Holland & Holland and James Purdey. For a while, H&H even had a gunshop in Moscow.

Now we learn that even Chanel, H&H’s parent company until a year ago, is shutting down its retail stores in Russia. I’m not sure how much that will influence the current situation, any more than Vladimir Putin being expelled from the International Judo Federation, or the International Cat Federation banning Russian cats from competition. (Their owners might care, but it’s safe to say the cats themselves won’t give a damn.)

A quick look at some hunting websites unearths any number of glowing reports about hunting in Russia — monster brown bears “harvested” in Kamchatka, for example — but I’m skeptical. Not about the fact that a “monster” brown bear was killed, but about the way in which it was done. Early on, there were reports of bears on the rivers in the Far East being hunted from helicopters (presumably with sober pilots) and various other unethical practices.

Supposedly, organizations like Safari Club International brought their influence to bear to clean up a lot of it. The usual method of doing this is not to appeal to anyone’s scruples or better nature (good luck!) but to limit access to the record book for animals taken by questionable means. After all, if you can’t parade your prowess and derring-do before the great unwashed, what’s the point?

These days, accusations of corruption are flung about like snowflakes in a blizzard, but according to international groups who measure such things and publish their findings, Russia has declined steadily and drastically since Vladimir Putin took control. Bribery, wealthy hunters, and corrupt wildlife officials are a match made in, well, not quite heaven. But you get the idea.

At this point, it’s difficult to say exactly what the real situation has been in Russia, or will be in the future. Although, if I had to guess, to quote my old pal Bruce Cockburn, “The trouble with normal is, it always gets worse.”

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Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland is getting really tired of writing the words “hunting ethics” for a succession of impatient editors and bored readers, and apologizes for keeping on about it.