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Russian Hunts seek English support

A GROUP of Russian enthusiasts organised a two-day ‘Tsar’s hunt’ recently near the city of Mozhaysk, the former site of a Soviet nuclear weapons store that is about two hours’ drive from the Russian capital of Moscow. The hunt was a recreation of the old-style Russian foxhunts were banned after the Russian revolution, being openly declared as ‘elitist’ and ‘bourgeois’ by the Communists.

Thirty riders, bedecked in hunting livery, charged across the countryside in furious pursuit of their quarry. It could have been a quintessentially English scene from the days before foxhunting was banned.

The organisers say that they are trying to revive a centuries-old tradition of hunting on horseback that died out with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. And they are hoping to attract British enthusiasts unable to indulge their passion at home since the ban on hunting with hounds started in England and Wales in February. A similar ban has been in force in Scotland since 2002.

"We’re trying to revive this Russian tradition — this is part of our heritage and we shouldn’t lose it," said Yevgeni Matuzov, the general director of the Avanpost stables, which organises the hunt and looks after the pack of borzoi hounds. "We would be happy to have the English come here and try hunting with the borzoi hounds."

Hunting was a popular pastime for the aristocracy in Tsarist Russia, whose swaths of forest and steppe were teeming with wild boar, moose, red deer, wolves, brown bears, lynx, foxes, wild ducks and geese.

The magnificent borzois — or Russian wolfhounds — were particularly favoured by the tsars and for many years could not be purchased, only given as a gift by the emperors. Hunting for sport died out after 1917 when private estates were confiscated and horses and dogs commandeered by the state.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been a renaissance of blood sports among both the new Russian rich and a growing number of foreign visitors.

Hunting enthusiasts point out that what Russia lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in its wealth of untouched countryside and lax trespass laws. The anti-field sports movement in Russia is virtually non-existent.

The Russian Hunting Agency, founded in 1990, offer a variety of trips ranging from brown bear hunting in the far eastern region of Kamchatka, on the Pacific coast, to wild boar hunting near St Petersburg. It is one of several recent moves to revive a rich Russian equestrian tradition. In 2003 Moscow staged the country’s first polo tournament for more than eighty years.

Mr Matuzov, however, insists that the ‘Tsar’s Hunt’ is about more than a bloodsport. He said: "Our aim isn’t to kill animals — it’s to live a day in the 19th century." A total of 60 riders — all in 19th-century dress — took part in the weekend hunt for foxes and hares with a pack of five borzois.

The Tsar’s Hunt even had a Hunt Ball on the Saturday night with an orchestra playing waltzes and mazurkas for 120 guests, many wearing 19th-century dress.