Hunting for Dogs in 17th-Century Muscovy

By Kleimola, Ann | Kritika, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Hunting for Dogs in 17th-Century Muscovy


Kleimola, Ann, Kritika


In their introduction to the anthology that grew out of their pioneering conference on human--animal bonds in modern and postmodern Russia, Jane Costlow and Amy Nelson position the collection within the rapidly emerging field of "animal studies," which focuses primarily on examining "how animals shape and inform the human experience in real and symbolic ways." By the imperial period, Russian intellectuals often were preoccupied with issues of identity and uniqueness, their complex relationship with the "West," and, with regard to animals and the environment, a sense that part of being Russian lay in enjoying a more "natural" relationship with the world around them than did their Western counterparts. (1) While these themes first clearly emerge in 18th-century Russia and seem to indicate a sharp shift away from the concerns of Muscovite society, evidence of a cultural transition had already appeared in 17th-century Rus'. The Muscovite elite began an increasingly rapid transition toward convergence with the West European aristocracy, a shift that can be traced, if only in chiaroscuro, in the surviving fragments of documentary and material evidence.

Costlow and Nelson end their introduction with the hope that the anthology's essays will stimulate further work, "turning our attention to the place of animals within human history, beginning to imagine what a history of animals in Russia might be." (2) Given the millennia in which dogs have shared human existence, canines should have played a prominent role in this history. Yet this species remains surprisingly invisible in 17th-century Russian sources. Richard Hellie's exhaustive compilation of price data sheds light on the market for horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and other varieties of fowl but turned up no sales records for dogs and only one entry that apparently records some kind of kennel expenses, probably the sum Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich spent for dog food in 1676. (3) Given the absence of such data, one might be tempted to conclude that few if any canines ever lived in Muscovy.

The presence of dogs is undocumented in other sources as well. Official records do not mention working dogs' functions, such as herding livestock or catching vermin. There are no Muscovite accounts of agricultural practices or animal husbandry of the sort found among classics of the ancient world. The Romans Varro (writing c. 37 BC) and Columella (first century AD) agreed that a farmer needed dogs to guard both his property and his flocks. The Roman dog's job was not to round up and control the flock but to guard against predators, especially wolves. (4) For millennia shepherds from China to Spain have generally had four or five such dogs working for them. (5) Livestock, including large numbers of sheep, constituted an important part of the Russian economy. A 1676 inventory of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich's property counted 203 Tatar (ordyn) sheep and 1,690 Russian sheep. (6) Wool was a major domestic textile fiber, mutton "was present in some abundance," and sheepskin was a common commodity. (7) In 1605-6, for example, the Kirillov Monastery's expense book (raskhodnaia kniga) lists payments to three hired local "sheepmen" (ovchinniki) for processing 1,520 sheepskins. (8) Large landholders also seem to have had a substantial stock of such hides. When V. V. Golitsyn, the influential advisor of Peter the Great's half-sister Sophia, fell from power in 1689, the inventory of his confiscated property listed a cache of 518 sheep-skins. (9) One of the components of Moscow's Zamoskvorech'e district in 1695 was a "sheepskin-processing" settlement (ovchinnaia sloboda). (10) Despite ample documentation of a substantial sheep population, however, no evidence survives to indicate that shepherds used herding dogs to help move this stock out to pastures and to market or to guard livestock, although the long-standing practices of Eurasian shepherds suggest the probability that Muscovites also relied on dogs for protecting flocks from predators. …

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