The Hunt At Perchino
It is difficult to imagine a grander scenario. The young American had travelled in a heavy, horse-drawn troika for many hours through forests and open plain on the dusty trails across Russia’s still almost medieval countryside. Finally, his heavy carriage arrives at the gates of Perchino, the ancestral hunting manor of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, uncle to the ruling czar of all of Russia and commander of what was at the time considered one of the world’s greatest armies. It is 1904, and the revolution is years away: there are rumblings in the distance, and a shot in Sarajevo would soon have disastrous consequences worldwide, but there’s no hint of this as Joseph B. Thomas gets close to his goal and, as he put it, “the eye was delighted by the sight of the white walls of Monseigneur’s mansion…”
And quite a mansion it was. Technically just a hunting lodge, Perchino must have appeared as almost a fairy palace after the backwardness and poverty of the roadless countryside. A large, light, gracious mansion of classic proportions in the Italian style, the main house was surrounded by “broad paths, splendid meadows, flower beds at the walls and around the banks, with great trees on the bank of the river and around the pond… One may imagine oneself in a well cared for park, but not in a great Russian dog breeder’s yard.”
Thomas, like a true breeder, immediately focused on the dogs in “the magnificent kennels,” without bothering much about their surroundings. Fortunately, and somewhat miraculously, from a world where so much has been lost, a more detailed account of Perchino survives. The Grand Dukes “chef du comptoir” Dimitri Walzoff, the man who received the American visitor and was most closely responsible for the superior quality of the Perchino dogs, wrote a description of the estate, the kennel, the dogs and the wolf hunting that was carried on there. It was published in 1912 and eventually translated into English for Winifred Chadwick’s classic little 1952 “Borzoi Handbook,” providing a fascinating glimpse into a world that most of us can only dimly imagine.
Perchino, as Thomas would have seen it during his visit. There are 100 Borzoi in the photo.
Walzoff — or, to be precise, His Excellency Dmitri Walzoff — had a long history with the Grand Duke. He had been a superb Borzoi breeder in his own right, so successful that the old Grand Duke (the father of the one living during Thomas’ visit) had hired him in the 1880s to a establish the greatest Borzoi kennel anywhere. Great talent and drive combined with unlimited resources resulted in the spectacular dogs that were the envy of Russia and, later, the foundation that American Borzoi breeding was build on. It is worth knowing something about this establishment.
Perchino, in fact, was more a village than a house, with everything geared towards the production of the most efficient-hunting and most beautiful-looking Borzoi imaginable. “Here the high-bred Borzoi is to be seen in all its beauty…”
The full strength of the Perchino hunt consisted of a total of 365 dogs: 130 Borzoi for hunting, about 100 Borzoi puppies of different ages, and 20 Borzoi who were no longer capable of hunting. There were also 15 English Greyhounds, 100 foxhounds for tracking, 87 horses (14 carriage horses, the rest to be ridden during the hunts), and a total of 78 male staff members, from the hunt steward, office clerks and coachmen down to the huntsmen, attendants and stable boys. The womenfolk, typically, are nowhere mentioned, but it’s clear that Perchino at its height must have consisted of several hundred dogs and several hundred humans. “This is the only Borzoi hunt in the whole of Russia existing on such a scale. Nobody ever owned a hunt with such splendid dogs and huntsmen so thoroughly acquinted with their work, even in olden times.”
Visitors almost exclusively consisted of huntsmen and Borzoi aficionados, especially when the Grand Duke himself was in residence. The manor house was, indeed, a true hunting lodge, and almost every room in the lodge was hung with hunting-trophies killed by the Grand Duke and rigorously protected, as Thomas adds, somewhat disconcertingly, by the Grand Duke’s personal clown, a man three feet six inches tall, “a curious relic of mediaeval custom.” In the corner of the dining room stood two great stuffed bears, holding lamps in their raised paws, and a huge wolf, caught by th Grand Duke’s own leash of dogs, stood at the door of the balcony, “showing his ivory-white teeth.”
There was also a great central room, called “the Club,” where the dogs were brought in one by one to be inspected by the visitors and huntsment. The walls of this room were adorned by paintings of the best dogs of the Perchino kennels. “Apart from their historical interest, these pictures serve … as proof of the constant improvement in the breeding of the Perchino pack. Among the dogs … there are often some which are the very image of their sires looking down from the walls, and are so like them in type, shape and colouring, as to be easily mistaken for them.”
The kennels consisted of nine stone houses, with sectional kennels for 12 dogs each, matching in color, plus rooms and kitchens for the attendants. Everything was scrupulously clean and comfortable: “Not the faintest odour is perceptible from the dogs, which are constantly attended with the greatest care; their coats are wavy and soft as silk.”
The dogs went hunting together, three on a leash, and were frequently exchanged on the leashes, so that they all lived on a friendly footing with each other.
In addition to the above, there was a “Special pack” of especially superior dogs, 8-10 bitches and 16-20 dogs, in two separate kennels situated next to the hunt steward’s house, with the Grand Duke’s two personal huntsmen’s houses adjoining.
There were, of course, also separate puppy kennels, a veterinary hospital, kitchens, and kennels for the retired dogs and for the other scenthounds that supported the Borzoi during the hunts.
A hunter and his Borzoi. From J. B. Thomas’ Borzoi (Houghton Mifflin, 1912).
A Day's Hunting
Thomas was able to participate in a Perchino hunt during his 1904 visit, and his report is a stirring one. “In the early morning may be seen, wending its way along the trail-like roads of the district, a long line of mounted hunters, each holding in his left hand a leash of three magnificent Borzoi, two dogs and a bitch as nearly matched in color and conformation as possible [about 25-30 leashes, or 75 to 90 Borzoi, were usually involved – B.B.], and followed by the pack of Anglo-Russian foxhounds, with the huntsmen and whips in red tunics.
“On arriving at the scene of the chase, the hunters are stationed by the master of the hunt at intervals of a hundred yards or so until the entire grove is surrounded by a long cordon of hounds and riders. A signal note is heard on a hunting-horn, and then with the mingled music of the trail hounds, shouts of men, and the cracking of whips, the foxhound pack is urged into the grove in pursuit of the hidden game.
“The scene is certainly a mediaeval one. The hunters, dressed in typical Russian costumes, with fur-trimmed hats, booted and spurred, and equipped with hunting-horn, whip, and dagger, and mounted on padded Cossack saddles high above the backs on their hardy Kirghiz ponies, holding on straining leash their long-coated, exceedingly beautiful animals, make a picture that once seen is not easily forgotten.
“But hark! — the sound of hound voices is changed to a sudden sharp yapping of the pack in full cry, and simultaneously there springs from the covert a dark grey form bent upon reaching the next woods, some hundreds of yards away. In an instant he is well into the open, and sees, only too late, that he has approached within striking distance of the nearest leash of Borzoi. With a cry of ‘Ou-la-lou,’ and setting his horse at a gallop, the hunter slips his hounds when they view the game, to sight which they oftentimes jump five to six feet into the air.
“There is a rush — a spring — and with a yelp the foremost hound is sent rolling; but instantly is back to the attack, which continues — a confused mass of white and grey, swiftly leaping forms and snapping fangs — until a neck-hold is secured by the pursuing Borzoi, who do their best to hold the wolf prostrate. Then, in a most spirited dash, the hunter literally throws himself from the saddle of his hunting-pony on to the prostrate wolf. Formerly, a deftly wielded knife assisted in avoiding any further trouble for the dogs; but of late years it has become better form to take the wolf alive.
“A short stick, with a thong at each end, being held in front of the wolf, he seizes it, and the hunter, with instant dexterity, ties the thong between the brute’s neck. Reynard [the fox]and the hare are captured in the same manner by the dogs, but in that case a toss in the air is usually sufficient.”
The Grand Duke had not yet arrived at Perchino when Thomas was visiting; with him present the later fall and winter hunts, often conducted in snowy terrain, were even larger and more elaborate. The autumn hunts of the Grand Duke could net as many as 80-100 wolves. From 1887 through 1912 the Perchino hunt killed 10,080 head of game: 681 wolves, 743 foxes, 4,630 brown hares and 4,026 white hares.
Walzoff writes about “Bystry” (Ch. Bistri of Perchino), who “was sold to Mr. Thomas in America, where it had no rival and received first prizes at all the shows and became a champion.” Bistri’s sire Almas had received the gold medal in Moscow and won “the first prize of the show for the most beautiful Borzoi.” (Waltzoff, notably, does not say that Bistri won a gold medal: it’s almost inconceivable that he would have refrained from doing so if that were the case, and highly unlikely that he would have been available for sale if he indeed he had won the gold medal. Perhaps Mr. Thomas’ imagination when promoting his dogs in America got the better of him?) Almas’ five-generation pedigree is published in “The Perchino Hunt,” and Walzoff writes that all of Bistri’s ancestors “were of rare beauty and had the very first-class field qualities of swift runners and solo killers.
Ch. Bistri of Perchina at 18 months and his kennel huntsman. Later imported to the U.S.
It is worth noting that although the Grand Duke at one point focused primarily on mostly white dogs, he later changed his ideas. As Waltzoff puts it: “As the Borzois, celebrated for their beauty and their hunting value, are of various colours, the Grand Duke keeps hounds of every shade of colour — beginning with the black and tan coloured — to the snow white ones.” There’s no question, however, that the dogs Thomas had the most success with in the U.S., as well as their best descendants, often were primarily white.
It was a sore point with Waltzoff that in spite of the superiority of the Perchino dogs, a large part of Russia remained unaware of their prowess. He writes: “Foreigners from Germany, Belgium, France and America have visited this hunt. Americans have even bought dogs here … but from Russia the hunt was only visited by the landowners in the neighbourhood of Perchino or the personal acquaintances of the Grand Duke … If we consider how much labour and money has been spent in order to obtain the results here described, we shall understand how we cannot help feeling sorry to see how little our Russian hunters make use of this…”
Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1913, a few years before they were killed by the bolsheviks.
In any case, time was running out both for Perchino and for the Russian aristocracy. Thomas, as we know, made two more trips to buy dogs, the last one in 1911, securing bloodlines that would never be available in Russia again.
Just a few years later Perchino was gone. During the Russian revolution in 1917, the Czar and his family were taken prisoners and, following an order from Lenin, killed by a firing squad in 1918. (Their bodies were dumped in a pit near Yekaterinenburg; the remains were dug up and given a state funeral in 1991.) The manor house at Perchino, as a symbol of aristocratic pretensions, was razed to the ground, and most of the dogs and several of the hunt servants were shot by the bolsheviks for the same reason. The Arch Duke, who was not at Perchino at the time, escaped to France, where he died in 1927; Waltzoff also is believed to have survived in exile.
The same fate, or worse, befell other aristocratic kennels. Not all the dogs were killed by the revolutionaries; some were shot and buried by their fleeing owners, who knew what fate awaited them, and a few even managed to escape. A German breeder, Dr. Wegener, visited Perchino shortly before the bolsheviks arrived and managed to secure a few dogs, including Asmodey Perchino, who proved to be as important in reviving Borzoi breeding in Europe after World War I as Thomas’ imports were in America.
Perchino breeding in the US
We know that Thomas’ imports or their Valley Farm descendants won at Westminster almost every year from 1904 through at least 1912. Although no longer owned by Thomas, the kennel’s descendants continued to prosper: Ch. Ivor O’Valley Farm was Best American-Bred in Show at Westminster in 1925, and in the early 1930s the multiple BIS winner Ch. Vigow O’Valley Farm provided Louis Murr with his first big wins.
This dog’s son and namesake, Ch. Vigow of Romanoff, was the top American-bred dog of any breed in both 1936 and 1937, was never defeated in the breed and won 21 BIS. (He may have continued winning for much longer, but Murr tells how Vigow was killed in a tragic kennel accident just weeks after winning the Hound group at Morris & Essex KC for the second time: an ill-tempered bitch in season was accidentally let into his kennel).
Murr also won the Hound group at Westminster in both 1942 and 1943 wth two other dogs, Tydd and Vigow II (or possibly III) of Romanoff, and remained active as an all-breed judge well into the 1960s. At least two of today’s leading Borzoi specialists, Lena Tamboer of Tam-Boer and Karen Staudt-Cartabona of Majenkir, got their start with Romanoff breeding and thereby ensure a living link to the old, pre-revoutionary imports.
Little is known about Borzoi breeding in Russia from 1917 and for the next seven decades. It is unknown whether any pure Perchino blood remains in the breed’s native country. After the fall of communism, several Borzoi imports from the United States have become champions in Russia, and since they trace back to Perchino far back in their pedigrees, they have, after a fashion, brought the breed full circle — courtesy of Joseph B. Thomas’ determination to settle for nothing but the very best.
The Borzoi bitch Int. & Am. Ch. Belisarius JP My Sassy Girl was No. 1 Hound in the U.S. in 2017 and Reserve BIS at Westminster. She was born in Japan but descends from Russian imports through several generations of mainly Majenkir, Romanoff and Valley Farm breeding. For instance, Ch. Nenagladni of Perchina, born a century before Sassy, features many times in both her sire and her dam’s pedigree some 20 generations back.