Russia is more in the news now than ever, especially in dogs. We hear of huge shows, beautiful dogs, talented breeders and aggressive campaigns that force a lot of experienced European dog people to look to their laurels. Russian dogs have already won at Crufts and the World Show, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we’ll see them invade American shows as well. Actually, it’s already started: imports from Russia have already done well in some breeds, and Russia’s representative reached the finals in the Eukanuba World Challenge in Florida last December. But that’s peanuts compared to what’ll come next, I suspect…
Yet modern, Western-style dog shows are a fairly new concept in Russia. Little is known about purebred dog activities during the Soviet years, since there was virtually no contact with the West for several decades. There were dog shows before the revolution in 1917, and although purebred dogs must have seemed like a bourgeois luxury to the new regime, the universal love for dogs prevailed and little pockets of dog activity remained. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, dog activities burst into full bloom, contacts with Western dog fanciers were again possible, and over the past 20 years or so the Russian dog scene has been among the most dynamic and fastest expanding in the world. The total number of registrations recorded by the Russian Kennel Federation is around 275,000 per year, less than by AKC, but the biggest shows have more dogs than we can boast of in the U.S. these days.
My first visit to Russia last year was fascinating. I learned a lot, liked much that I saw and was happy to go back again. An invitation to judge the National Specialty for Russia’s native breed, the Borzoi, was the initial reason for going, and there would also be specialties for Whippets and Greyhounds. I also had a few things to do at the all-breed show organized by the Russian Hunting Dog Federation on June 1 outside Moscow.
It’s a great privilege to travel the world judging dogs. It’s also very tiring: a lot of fanciers obviously read my recent Best In Show Daily article about this subject, and perhaps they will sympathize when they hear that the trip took more than 20 hours from door to door, and you arrive after midnight — which of course is almost noon the next day, California time. Jet lag is just something you learn to live with if you judge overseas. Many travel a lot more than I do; I just don’t understand how they cope.
The kind Whippet lady who met me, Natalia Chubarova, deposited me at the hotel where fellow American judges Lydia Hutchinson and Desmond Murphy had already arrived. Another group of judges from Italy, Hungary, Sweden and the Netherlands were also flying in. This was not a particularly large all-breed show with perhaps 1,000 dogs, but several national specialties were held in conjunction with it, which was probably the reason for the ambitious international judging panel.
Friday was given over to sightseeing under the guidance of the efficient Ekaterina Domogatskaya, without whom the dog scene in the Moscow area would be much less well organized and not nearly as international as it is. It felt a little surreal to sit at a café by the Red Square and discuss last week’s dog show in America with Desi and Lydia, but that’s dog people for you.
The Borzoi Specialty
Next day’s national Borzoi specialty was held on the same grounds as the all-breed show, but as an independent event, with its own catalog, so Borzois were judged twice in one day. They are, of course, Russia’s primary contribution to the Western dog world, and since I had judged the BCOA National Specialty in Pennsylvania a couple of weeks earlier, it was tempting to make comparisons. It’s not fair to do so, however; the 337 dogs entered at the U.S. national constituted a much higher percentage of the total breed population in America than the 87 entered at the Russian specialty did in the breed’s native country. I’m told Borzoi are quite popular in Russia these days, with at least a thousand, maybe more, registered per year, but entry figures aren’t that high, and what I saw — impressive though it was — may not have been representative of the breed as a whole.
According to most breed historians, Borzoi reached a peak of perfection in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the great landowners maintained huge kennels for hunting, often with a hundred dogs or more. After the revolution, the breed seems to have kept a low profile until a number of imports from Europe and the U.S. helped reestablish the Borzoi in its native country in recent years.
We were lucky in the U.S. that a wealthy young American, Joseph B. Thomas, traveled to Russia several times around a century ago, searched out the best Borzoi then existing, and brought over three shipments of dogs to his O’Valley Farm kennels. They formed the base for modern American Borzoi breeding, and it’s possible to draw a direct line from the early imports via Louis Murr’s Romanoff dogs up to, for example, Karen Staudt-Cartabona’s Majenkirs today. Thomas’ reports from his visits to Grand Duke Nicholas’ kennels at Perchino read like something out of a fairytale, but there’s no question he had a discerning eye and knew exactly what he was doing when selecting his breeding stock.
Just a short time after Thomas’ last visit, most of the Borzoi – as well as those who tended to them – were summarily shot by the bolsheviks as despised symbols of the aristocracy. Intensive pedigree research proves that some lines survived, and their descendants are among those now populating the Russian show rings.
Most of today’s top winners have imported blood close up in their pedigrees, though. The bitch that Frank Sabella gave an all-breed BIS to last year, Ch. Solovyev Gvardia Belaya, for instance, has a Canadian Sirhan dog a couple of generations back on her sire’s side, and her dam was imported from Belgium, won BOB at Crufts, and goes back to American lines on her sire’s side as well. Gvardia placed second in a strong champion class under me at the specialty. Her beautiful daughter Solovyev Taman, who was Best Junior in Show at both the specialty and the all-breed show, was sired by a son of the U.S. import Ch. Oaklara Marina By Starlight, and my gorgeous BOB winner, a 3-year old bitch from the successful Lunnaja Raduga kennel, has American dogs from Mariza and Cordova in her pedigree. The Russian breeders deserve credit for cleverly incorporating foreign blood from many countries into the old native lines. I don’t think there’s any real difference in type and quality between the best Borzoi in Russia and those in other countries today.
It’s difficult to decipher the Russian catalogs unless you’re familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, which I’m not. This creates a problem for Russian dog people who want to show internationally, since, apparently, all dogs have to be initially registered with a name in Cyrillic, and when the dog is ready to compete internationally, this is transcribed by the RKF in a manner that’s often more arbitrary than linguistically correct. If you’ve wondered why some Russian kennel names sound odd, that’s the reason. There is, for instance, a Russian Whippet kennel named Blek Sharc. That’s supposed to be Black Shark, but the breeder is stuck with the RKF spelling, like it or not.
By the time I had finished with the Borzoi specialty, Group judging at the all-breed show was already in full swing. I have not been able to find names of all the Group winners, but some are illustrated. There was a wonderful young white Miniature Bull Terrier bitch who had won the Bull Terrier specialty of around 100 dogs under Desi Murphy and also Best Terrier at the all-breed show under Lydia Hutchinson. There was a Pomeranian who looked very impressive from ringside and has apparently done a lot of winning. There was a Wire Fox Terrier who had either won at the World Show or defeated the World Show winner; I had no way of checking the name.
There were lots of Dachshunds, with 300 entered for the specialty. The winners looked appealing to my eyes, but were probably a bit higher on leg than most U.S. winners, as required by the FCI standard. (I don’t think there’s much to it, though, and there’s a lot of American blood in Russian Dachshunds today.)
The Borzoi mentioned above, Gvardia Belaya, won BOB at the all-breed show and took the Group easily under me, which tells you something about the depth of quality in that breed. There was also a very appealing Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen, Ch. Irma Podkoidernik Jadowity, who won Best in Show under Tamas Jakkel, with the Borzoi as runner-up. Tamas of course judges frequently in the U.S. and came fresh from his BIS assignment at the World Show in his native Hungary.
’Best of Best’ Competition
The day wasn’t over yet. After BIS, I had the pleasure of determining “Best of Best,” an award for which the BIS winners at the all-breed and specialty shows were eligible. The specialty winners included my Borzoi, the previously mentioned Mini Bull Terrier, the Wire Fox Terrier, a Papillon, an English Cocker Spaniel and a Smooth Miniature Dachshund (actually a “Kaninchen,” as FCI classifies the smallest of their three Dachshund varieties). The winner of the Taigan specialty unfortunately didn’t compete; the Taigan is a sighthound somewhere between an Afghan and a Saluki in type. It’s recognized as a breed only in Russia and Kyrgyztan, but not yet by FCI at international shows. I watched them in the adjoining ring being judged by Gerard Jipping, the new FCI vice chairman who is a sighthound specialist in his own right.
Although I liked the PBGV, the Mini Bull and the Borzoi a lot, it was not difficult to choose the Dachshund as “Best of Day.” Her name is Ch. Formula Uspeha Colibri, and it turns out she had won the Group at the World Show and Best Puppy in Show under me when I last judged in Russia. The breeder and owner, Irina Hapaeva, is one of Russia’s most successful Dachshund fanciers and apparently bases her breeding program partly on the same English D’Arisca lines that are behind the Grandgable dogs from Canada.
Since Whippets are not a popular show breed in Russia I worried how many there would be, especially since I judged the breed in Moscow only eight months ago. However, Natalia Chubarova had not only found a great location with a perfect rubber-mat floor, but also somehow rustled up an entry of 64 Whippets, apparently an all-time record. Several, including some champions, were of a type we just don’t see in the West anymore, but there were also a few really beautiful dogs. I’d be happy to bring home my BOB winner, Ch. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, born in Russia but sired by U.S. export Ch. Aberdeen Remarkable In Paris (twice BOS at Westminster). There was also a pretty puppy import from the U.S., Classic N Tahari Beauty for Masaru, bred by Cackie Vroom and Frank De Paulo, and a few other quality U.S.-sired dogs.
The real surprise was the Greyhounds, which are even less popular than Whippets and had an entry of 17 for their specialty. Almost all of them were of good show quality, however, as a whole they were probably better than a comparably sized entry in the U.S. these days. BOB was the white-ticked dog Ch. Fionn Clann Delwyn Drew, a combination of Sobers and American breeding.
Incidentally, talking to Lydia Hutchinson later, she told of a similar experience at the Cairn Terrier specialty she judged that day: not a big entry, but astoundingly good quality. It’s quite clear that the Russians know what they are doing in most breeds, have achieved astonishing results in very short order and will make a major contribution to the world’s purebred dogs.
A World Show in Russia
There was already much talk of the World Show that will be hosted by Russia in 2016. It’s too early to tell, but many worry that the organizing experience isn’t there as yet for such a big undertaking. The visa requirements may prohibit a lot of foreign visitors, and the lack of hotels that accept dogs is also a major obstacle. It would surprise me, however, if the people in charge won’t be able to make the most of such a great opportunity to promote Russian dogs.
After the show, I spent a few days sightseeing in St. Petersburg, certainly one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg is palpable, similar to that between New York and Los Angeles, but much stronger. Moscow is older and bigger, the center for business and politics, while St. Petersburg is more European and the focus for arts and culture. It’s “only” a little more than 300 years old, but the proliferation of stunning palaces, churches, squares and avenues can hardly be equaled anywhere.
After St. Petersburg I traveled home via Finland and another Whippet specialty weekend, this one with over 200 dogs entered. That’s a different story for another time, but let me mention that I awarded SBIS to an American-bred bitch, Ch. Sporting Fields Jamaican Me Crazy, with BOS to the son of another U.S. export, the previously mentioned Ch. Aberdeen Remarkable in Paris. They were both beautiful, but it was definitely the first time I’ve awarded SBIS to a barefoot handler!
For a short video from the RHF show, click here.
For an interview with Bo Bengtson after the show, click here.