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Hunting with Russian Hounds in Ukraine -
Interview with Mykhailo Basii


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Hunting with Russian Hounds in Ukraine – Interview with Mykhailo Basii translated by Bogdan Basii
By Sabine Middelhaufe

The Russian or Kostroma Hound is that kind of slightly mysterious breed that you won't encounter at international dog shows, because, baffling enough, the FCI still hasn't recognised it; you won't find it in the hunting grounds of Western Europe either, because these have been occupied for a good 2000 years by long-eared, dove-eyed, colourful hounds, courtesy of the old Celts.
Google's superbrain, when asked for “Russian Hound”, might offer you first of all information and photos of the Russian Wolfhound, better known as Borzoi, who is a gazehound though, and not a proper hound who hunts his quarry by scent.
In the unlikely event of unsuspectingly meeting a Russian Hound, you might be forgiven for mentally sorting him into the completely wrong folder, because he probably doesn't resemble any hound you've ever seen before.
So, short of taking a plane to Russia, Ukraine or Finland, where the breed is highly popular, there's just one thing we can do: ask Mykhailo Basii, passionate Ukrainian breeder of Russian Hounds, owner of the kennel “U polazi” and a working trial expert, to shed some light on these fascinating dogs and their work.

- Hunting with hounds in Ukraine is a bit different from hunting in Italy or Germany. So let's start with the environment: how do we have to imagine your hunting grounds?

As you can see from the map, Ukraine, except Carpathian and Crimean mountains, is  environmentally divided into three parts: forest, steppe, that is basicly a treeless grassland plain, and forest steppe, which occurs as a transition zone from broad-leaf forest to gras and shrublands.
For most of the year we live between the capital, Kiev, and our hunting hut south of  Kiev. But we frequently go hunting up north too, in the Chernigiv region. Both zones have mixed forests but the northern areas have larger woodlands, generally of over 500 ha, and more moors.
The southern zones, which already belong to the forest steppe, are a bit different. Quite often there are forests of up to 300 ha, connected to the network of cultivated fields, which can differ in size from 50 - 1000 ha. Between the fields are artificial windbreaks consisting of lines of trees to protect the soil from erosion. These lines also serve wild animals as shelter.

- And how is hunting organised?

About 80% of the Ukrainian territory is hunting ground.*) That is over 46 million out of 60 million hectares. Roughly 32 million ha belong to the 382 organizations of the UTMR (Ukrajinske Tovarystvo Myslyvtsiv i Rybalok or Ukrainian Society of Hunters & Fishermen). That means, most of the hunting grounds in our country are communal. The rest is private (in long-term rent) or belongs to the state. You must be a UTMR member and buy a season ticket in some of these organizations to hunt on their lands. The price of a ticket is rather low: about 20 euros. In private grounds, on the other hand, you pay around 10 euros per day.
    As of 1 July 2021 the land market will be open in Ukraine and people are able to sell or buy land. This reform will also somehow touch the management of hunting grounds and will result in more freedom. We’re hoping for the best, since there will be more investment options.

   *) In the Soviet Union there were no private properties and everything belonged to the State. Hunting grounds in Ukraine were subdivided between three associations under the control of Republican ministries: Dynamo (Ministry of Internal Affairs), Voenohota (lit. Military hunt, Ministry of Defence), and UTMR (Ministry of Forests).

Above: Wheat fields, Kyiv region, 2020.
Titel photo: Dar (18 months), 2017, near Kyiv

- Which species do you hunt with Russian Hounds?

By design Russian Hounds are considered “forest dogs”, their main prey was the snow hare.  As we know, this hare tries to stay in the forest. However, the species is rare in Ukraine and hunting it is forbidden. Instead, where we live we have brown hares, and although Russian Hounds are very versatile we breed them specifically for hare hunting. We employ them in forest and forest steppe zone as well as in dry reed areas. Ramazi Matiashvili, breeder and expert of the Georgian hunting dogs association, loves to hunt hares with our dogs in the Georgian mountains.
Moreover, hare hunting is very complex and complicated, which makes it much more valued.
I have chosen Russian Hounds according to the biotope in the area where I live. Before that, I tested different breeds: English Russian Hound, Estonian Hound, Kurzhaar… But the Russian Hound turned out to be the best. What I also like is that, despite their versatility, Russian Hounds are not the dogs for “crowd hunting”. I prefer to come to my countryside hut on Friday afternoon and immerse myself in my flow. I don’t have to synchronise my actions and timings with others. I can hunt by myself with my hounds or with a small group of people. There is no “competition”. I don’t have to report my mistakes or brag about my achievements. I’m in, I’m out, I’m gone. I love it, the hounds love it. Hunting with Russian Hounds is pretty individualistic and that's the type of hunting I like the most.

Mykhailo Basii with hounds Dar & Vzlata in a couple with a trophy hare. Skvyra, 2018

- Apart from hares, could the breed be used for other species which perhaps aren't present in the areas where you hunt?

As I already mentioned, Russian Hounds are versatile. You can hunt lots of species with them: hares, foxes, wild boars, deer… You can also go after wolves with a pack of these hounds.
However, as breeders we prefer not to hunt ungulates with them. The consideration behind this is that the smell of a roe deer or wild boar is way stronger than a hare’s scent. It obviously means that those animals are much easier for a dog to find. This can spoil the dog. The quality of his work on a hare trail will decrease. Therefore, we don’t hunt ungulates even if the dog picks up their scent.
    But there's another reason: the population of wild boars in Ukraine was severely reduced after the arrival of the African swine fever in 2012. In 2015, for example, the disease was discovered on one of the farms in our region, and led to the almost total extinction of wild boars. Although since 2016  no cases of swine fever have been reported in Ukraine, the wild boar population is still really low. This year, 2020, we have only one mature female and six piglets in a hunting area of almost 100.000 hectares... That is why, being environmentally conscious, we promote the idea, that at this moment in time boar hunting should rest. In fact, in our zone we’re monitoring the animals and try to protect their population.

Vzlata (18 months), 2016, Kyiv region

- How long is your hunting season?

The hunting season for fur and ungulate animals in Ukraine is rather short: collective hunting goes from November till January; individual hunting till February.
You can hunt ungulates individually every day and in a group only during weekends. You can hunt fur animals only on weekends.

- That makes only about 20 hunting days in a whole year…

Yes. And each hunter may only shoot one hare per hunting day. Thus there are not many occasions in a year, when Russian Hounds can do the job they were destined for… But at least we can hunt foxes, wolves and golden jackals every day and without a limit, during the season. These norms were designed due to natural economy factors. Foxes, jackals, wolves are considered vermin in agriculture. They also endanger traditional rural communities in Ukraine. So, the hunting with Russian Hounds also helps people and has an  environmentally protective purpose.
Let's put it this way: there is always an option - if the desire to go out hunting is irresistible, one hunts foxes or jackals. But if one desires an exquisite hunting experience, one goes for a hare hunt. And, of course, you can always try to hunt a wolf.

Dar (1 year), 2017, Kyiv region

- With so few actual hunting days, how do you keep your hounds happy, healthy and in good shape?

The hunting season itself is very short, true, but it's not forbidden to trace a quarry with your hounds, test their abilities, take the pups out and show them the ropes, as long as you don't kill any prey. It’s just good to spend as much time as possible with the dogs. In a perfect world and weather conditions it is great to take out the dog for a walk one by one or in couple every 3-4 days for about 3 hours. The landscape during these walks is not so important, we take them out in the fields, forests or in the meadows: these exercises teach the dog to develop the scent in several circumstances. We also dedicate a lot of time to proper nutrition of the dogs: the diet should be a perfect combination of proteins, fats, vitamins and carbohydrates and includes various types of raw and boiled meat, cereals and pet food for dogs to stay healthy.

In the pack: Vzlata, Zateyka, Dar, Alt, Dobych, 2016

- Hounds are usually very autonomous in their work and can rely on their inborn instincts. Nevertheless, they do need some kind of basic training. So, how do you prepare your puppies and youngsters?

Russian Hounds are very smart and independent. Still, they have to be taught good manners in order to coexist smoothly with other animals and people in a household. First of all, we teach them complete indifference towards domestic animals. Whether it be a cat, a rat, a cow, a chicken, a rabbit… there should be no reaction from the dog. We also prefer to teach them a certain indifference towards people. The dog is taught to ignore humans in order to not be caught and stolen. Even if one is very friendly. Our hounds sometimes bark at other dogs but they don’t bark at people. Sometimes they also howl. Our recent youngsters are hungry for the attention of their owners but still distant towards others people. Adult dogs are emotionally calm even towards the members of the family. From a human perspective I would describe it as “being immersed in one's own flow”. You know, they have this “switch”, they’re passive and phlegmatic at home, one tests their patience, when playing with them, and they’re the complete opposite as soon as they are released in the forest. Still, they are not “depressed” at home, it feels like either they trust us that much or “they just don’t care”. Russian Hounds do not protect the house or their owner anyway. They are beloved pets but meant for hunting and don’t fulfil any other function.

Above: Youngster Nalyot’ (9 months), 2020, Kyiv.
 Right: Mother & son: Vzlata (3 years) and Alt (1 year), Kyiv region 2017

A dog shouldn’t worry or care too much, who takes him out hunting, as long as the owner has allowed it. 
During the hunt, Russian Hounds are controlled and guided by the horn, so, from about 3-4 months we teach them to obey it's signals which can be certain two note or three note melodies. Also, it is important that the dog knows the exact tone of his owner’s horn as many other hound owners use horns too. A dog is not allowed to start tracking the quarry without a signal. One also stops the chase according to a signal.
We keep our dogs as much as possible without a leash. A dog should “feel”, not obey the owner.
At about 5-6 months we slowly start taking young dogs out into the hunting grounds. They get acquainted with the forests and learn to keep permanently focused on the owner and the direction he takes. Of course, they are animals and very often it depends on the individual temper and circumstances, but overall we try to teach our hounds to stick to these rules.

Alt (1 year), Dobych (13 years), Vzlata (3 years), 2017

At about 10 months, we start to test them. There are seven disciplines and ten subjects which we evaluate:

    1) Attitude. How does the dog look for a quarry? We value the extent of the search. Then the meaningfulness, that is to say, the dog stays not just in this extended corridor of, for example, 800 metres, but consciously browses zones which hypothetically could be places to find a quarry, so he checks more precisely under fallen logs, or gets out of the forest and checks the nearby fields, especially those, which are slightly higher than the ground, and so on. Finally we examine the connection with his handler.
The dog has only one hour to find, flush out and start chasing the quarry.
    2) Achievability. In Ukrainian it is called “Zdobutlyvist’”, in Russian “Dobychlivost’”, and it means the possibility to foresee the quantity of hypothetically gained game.  We count that in time. How fast has the dog found and flushed out the quarry.
    3) Mastery. The way the dog is in charge of a chase. If he loses the scent, how fast does he pick it up again?
    4) Tenacity. How determinedly the dog traces the quarry. We value the dog's correct reactions to our commands while he's tracking, but on the whole, the longer he keeps firmly tracing the hare, the better.
    5) The quality of the voice.
    5.1) Amplitude & Resonance. The louder the better. The bay of the hound must be heard clearly, loudly and precisely.
    5.2) Range & Melodism. The voice of the dog should be in all ranges and create a musical bay.
    5.3) Trustworthiness. The signals a dog gives the handler with his bay should be exact and adequate to the current moment of the hunt.
   6) Delay. Normally, the dog mustn't fall behind the quarry more than 1,5 - 2 minutes.
   7) Obedience. The way the dog listens to the commands of the owner without a leash in everyday circumstances. If the dog is not on a trail, he should return in less than 5 minutes after the signal of the horn.

Russian Hounds are tested only in natural circumstances and on natural game only.
The average life duration is about 12 years, 10 of it he or she is hunting.

Vzlata (1 year) with a hare, 2015

- In countries like Italy, France and Spain hounds are mostly used in packs, while in Scandinavia, for instance, often a single hound is used. Which method do you prefer and why?

We hunt hares only with one dog. If the effectiveness of the hunt is important, we use two dogs in couple. For a wolf hunt we use a pack but quite often it is difficult to organise. Moreover, we don’t have so many wolves in the region of our regular hunt.

- The coat colour and ears of the Russian Hound are quite different from those long-eared, often multicoloured hound breeds that are descendants of the ancient Celtic hound. Can you tell us something about the history and evolution of the Russian Hound?

That’s a nice question. Well, we don’t know too much. The founder of Russian Hound hunting in the Russian empire was Nikolay Kishenskiy (1850-1927). He wrote a book “Notes of a Tver Governorate hunter on gun hunting with hounds” (1879) and created the first standard of the breed in 1895. Basically, we can count the beginning of the Russian Hound breed from this time.
Kishenskiy had an idea, that the Kostroma hound was a pure Russian Hound. And it’s ancestor in turn was the ancient Russian Hound, himself a descendant of the mythical Eastern hound. These dogs arrived approximately in the 10th century in Kyivan Rus’, a pre Russian, medieval realm. In the Saint Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv, founded in 1011, are frescoes with hound-like dogs.
Who brought them to our land? Most likely, they came to us from the East.
One version tells that Mongolo-Tatars brought their dogs from Central Asia during their raids on Kyivan Rus’. But this version is weak. The Siege of Kiev was in 1240 and we have earlier frescoes. Also, Mongolo-Tatars were coming from the steppe, where obviously were not many forests.
Another version says that these dogs came through Caucasus, Volga and Don with merchants from the Middle East. This account is more likely, because, as far as we know, all hounds came from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Furthermore, we know that Greeks were already hunting with hound dogs. Xenophon has written his famous treatise “On Hunting” in 354 B.C. In Chapter 10 he already mentions 4 types of hounds: Indian, Cretan, Locrian and Laconian. Maybe some of these types went with Celts to the West and some went to the East to our land. After the Mongolo-Tatar Siege in the 13th century we don’t know much about the development of the breed until 19th century. It was our Dark Ages.
Before the Soviet Union Era, packs of Russian Hounds were mainly kept by landlords. So, we have for example Alekseev and Lebedev Russian Hound types, named after their respective breeders.

Above: Alekseev breed.
Right: Mihail Alekseev

At the turn of the 20th century, there were some quite well-known Russian Hound breeders. One was Mikhail Ivanovich Alekseev from Zvenigorod district of Moscow province. His dogs were famous for their exterior, they laid the foundation for the further development of Russian Hounds. There is an anecdote, that Alekseev hounds were great workers but had never seen wolves, thus were unable to work on them. But this is a myth and most of the recent Russian hounds are somehow connected to Alekseev’s pack.
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Lebedev was a veterinary surgeon from Vyaz’ma, Smolensk province. He was reowned for his science based selective breeding. His dogs were famed for tenacity but until about 1911-1913 their exterior wasn’t typical: some dogs were even gray, until he added Budilo IV 2563 from Alekseev to the pedigree.

And, of course, Kishenskiy also helped a lot to establish the breed.
As Ukraine was under the Russian empire, Russian Hounds were coming to us with the landlords. Quite certainly they came with Afanasiev and Prokopenko. S.F. Afanasiev was a doctor from Kharkiv, his dog Plakun would win a silver medal on the famous Moscow exhibiton of 1925 where the standard of the breed for the Soviet Union was established.
In 1917 the October revolution broke out; in 1922 the Soviet Union was established. Breeding was done chaotically. Only in 1923, with the help of Zharych, Zinevych and Trostyanskyy, Russian Hound breeding became organized in Ukraine.
The first official standard of the breed in the Soviet Union was defined in 1925 in Moscow and was valid until WWII. The war completely ruined breeding again. The forests of Ukraine were flooded with wolves. This caused the creation of five breeding centers for hunting dogs in Ukraine after the war. Famous bitches like Rozluka and Provorka were giving progeny for these centers from Boyok-57, Hul-175 and other male hounds. Hornist-533, owned by M. Yegorov is considered to be the most prolific dog in the Russian Hound breeding history. Some of our dogs are also his descendants. So, right now we are somewhere on the edge of 10 pure Russian Hound generations…
In order to strengthen the breed in Ukraine, I have bought Dobych, an all-Russian Champion of the year 2008 from A. Ustyuzhaninov. On the basis of his descendants we’re trying to further the breed. Dobych also holds about fifteen I. class diplomas: when hounds are tested, they are evaluated in 10 categories and given points, the maximun being 100 points in sum. To be awarded the I. class diploma a hound must have received more than 80 points but didn’t make champion. The II. class diploma is given for 70 points, III. class for 60 points.

Above and right: champion veteran Dobych, at age 14.

- Every breed has something that sets it apart from others – which qualities define the Russian hound?

Russian Hounds are famous for the way they use their voices. You can hardly find another breed with such vocal range and variety of “song”…Russian hounds chase their quarry with a very exciting and passionate baying. We value when the voice changes dynamically from high to low and vice versa and goes from a steady to an almost hysterical, fast tempo. It’s a joy to hear their voice.
Speaking from a professional point of view, the tenacity of the Russian Hound is important to note. It is such a dedicated chaser. On the other hand, as it usually happens, it's also the greatest disadvantage of these dogs: not enough tenacity is bad, but too much of it is not good either, because nobody likes to wait for his dog for a couple of days...
I'm also fond of it's wolf-like and in a good sense “bestial” look. The low angle of the neck, tough constitution, harsh fur. Even at a glance, you realise it’s a robust, hard-working dog.
Russian Hounds are very smart, sensitive and profound in every sense.

Dobych (6 years), 2010, Kyiv region

- In your experience, do hounds, and more specificly the Russian Hounds, need immense hunting grounds where they can follow their prey for long distances and many hours, or can they be trained to also work in more constricted areas and with more direct cooperation between hound and master?

The task of the dog is to find, pick up the scent, trace the quarry. Thus the dog should be working in a range the prey animal goes. For example, if it is a hare, the range will be 2-3 kilometres. If it is a wolf, it can be much more. The task for the dog remains the same.
As long as there is a good dog and an inner connection between the dog and his owner, I don’t think that the size of the hunting ground really matters. We hunt in both, relatively small and quite extensive forests, and from our experience it doesn’t make any difference.

Above: Dar (2 years), 2018, Kyiv.
Right: Zateyka (2 years) during Kyiv championship 2018

- The Russian Hound appears quite powerful and confident, a dog capable of standing his ground if need be. So what happens if he encounters wolves, bear or lynx?

What I can tell you for sure is that I have never heard of contacts between bears and Russian Hounds in Ukraine… As far as I know a bear doesn’t react to the barking, so he would rather tear the dog apart. But I can certainly say that the dogs are not afraid of either wolf or lynx. One dog alone can chase the wolf and fight with him, that’s for sure.

Valeriy Chernyy with Ayka (granddaughter of Dobych) & wolf. Energodar, November 2020

- I guess everyone has one favourite story about a particular hunting experience with his dogs. Would you care to tell us yours?

As I have mentioned earlier, one of the most valued qualities of a Russian Hound is his tenacity, the dedication and the effort he makes…It was late November, an average morning, about +5°C outside. I was already a bit late. Still, I went with a young male hound, 19 months of age, called Vihr’ (literally a Whirl), into the forest and at 8 am set the timer and released the dog.
After about 15-20 minutes, Vihr’ gave tongue: he was tracing a prey, almost certainly a fox.
I looked at my wristwatch and started waiting. But suddenly something happened that took me completely out of  my “sport attitude”. It was the music of his baying. The tone. The melody. How he was trying to explain to me  everything that happend with his voice. The contest between the dedication of a young hound and the slyness of an experienced fox. It created a pure, perfect connection. It was so easy to envision or imagine everything that was happening. I really loved those moments when he modulated his voice and there was the illusion of two hounds tracing the prey. I wasn’t looking at the watch, I was just listening, waiting, breathing… lots of things went through my mind before I got that fox. I was so proud of my dog. It was hypnotizing.
Two months later, Vihr’ became an All-Ukrainian champion. And I still keep that beautiful morning in my memory…
I deeply wish that everyone, at least once in their life, could feel such profound, archaic connection of Man and Hound.


All photos: Bogdan Basii

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