The big question that faced nearly 70 foreign judges who had been invited to the Eurasia show in Moscow on March 22 and 23 was whether they should cancel their assignments or not. Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea has met with such opposition from the West that several of the country’s leading political figures — which includes at least a couple of prominent dog people — are no longer allowed to travel to Europe or the United States. At least one European country has reportedly informed Russian judges that they are not welcome to officiate at their shows. It’s easy to say that dogs and politics shouldn’t mix, but to a certain extent of course they must do so. As one of those who had been asked to judge at Eurasia, I did not feel this was a good time to go to Russia. I didn’t know it at the time, but the U.S. State Department had issued a travel warning on March 14 about “the possibility of violence … directed against U.S. citizens,” which fortunately seems to have proved unfounded.

Moscow Exhibition Center Crocus Expo 2014

On the other hand, the Russian Kynological Federation had already spent a small fortune on visa and airline tickets, and it did not seem fair that a dog club should have to suffer for actions they had nothing to do with. Russian dog people are anxious to maintain those foreign contacts that are vitally important for them. Some even worry that a new Iron Curtain may descend around their country and again isolate them from the rest of the world. Those who were around do not easily forget that for almost all of the 20th century there was virtually no contact between dog people in Russia and the West.

There was a second problem: how to respond to the repressive Russian laws against “propaganda for gays” that were introduced last year. Many, including the American Kennel Club, feel that staying away is the best response. I believe the opposite: that maintaining contact with as many Russian fanciers as possible may have a better chance to effect change. (For the record, that opinion is shared by many gay Spokesmen. Multiple Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, for instance, has stated that the more gay athletes that attended the winter Olympics in Russia the better.)

Everyone must decide for themselves, of course, but in the end I’m glad I went. I talked to many “average Russians,” to judges from many different countries, and I learned a lot. As far as I know there were no cancellations among the judges, and the talk – typically for dog people – was more about dogs than world affairs. The large and very international panel consisted of judges from Austria (5), Belgium (2), Colombia (1), Denmark (3), Finland (5), France (3), Germany (5), Hungary (1), Ireland (1), Israel (2), Italy (4), Lithuania (1), the Netherlands (3), Norway (2), Portugal (6), Poland (1), Puerto Rico (2), Serbia (2), Slovenia (2), Spain (5), Sweden (3) and Switzerland (3). There were also two Russian judges and three from the United States: Steve Gladstone, Desmond Murphy and myself. (Actually, there were four, if you count Steve’s partner, who was not judging on this occasion, however. Steve Gladstone is an AKC Board member, and his presence indicates that AKC’s much-discussed suggestion to blackball Russian dog shows was more a personal statement from two AKC officers than a general recommendation.)

The Eurasia show is one of the biggest events in the dog world calendar, and it’s the biggest dog show in Russia. There were nearly 13,000 entries over the two days, with a total of 6,678 dogs on Saturday and 6,150 on Sunday. (Even so, only part in the vast Crocus Exhibition Center was used. I’m sure more than twice as many dogs could fit if necessary.) We don’t have any shows that are as big as that in the U.S. Many have speculated about the reason that dog shows in both Eastern and Western Europe are so much bigger than ours in the U.S. It probably helps that dog shows are much more of a family hobby there than here. There are few professional handlers and a much more casual atmosphere prevails, with few restrictions on how the human participants should dress and behave. Sometimes it’s fun and colorful; sometimes it goes a little too far, at least to my mind, and on occasion I surprised myself by almost missing the more regimented American show scene.

Desmond Murphy with Pom Ch. Unbeaten Premiera

Other reasons for the greater popularity of dog shows in the FCI countries may be the obligatory “grading” (which means that every dog gets an award, from “Excellent” down through “Very Good” to “Good,” “Satisfactory” and so on), and the written critiques that are expected to outline each dog’s virtues and faults. Sometimes the written critiques are too brief and superficial to be really helpful, but it still beats the American system where exhibitors most of the time have absolutely no idea what the judge thought of their dogs.

The dogs look different from what we’re used to, too. Grooming varies from professional perfection (as proved by some that have come to be shown in the U.S.) to a more unkempt, straight-from-the-barn look. And there were lots of long, wagging tails and floppy ears in breeds that are commonly docked and cropped in the U.S. Handling also goes from one extreme to the other: the top handlers are as good as the best in America, but some had obviously never been inside a show ring before.

Many breeds that we don’t see at AKC shows are popular in Russia. There were at least a couple of hundred Ovcharkas, the big and rather terrifying-looking Russian guard dogs. If I can’t identify the three or four different Ovcharka breeds by name that’s partly because I don’t speak Russian, partly because the catalog is mostly written in Cyrillic, which doesn’t help most Westerners much. One of the breeds, the Vostochnoevropeiskaya Ovcharka, is not FCI approved yet, which meant it could not compete in the regular classes, but there were still 62 entered. This is not a breed a stranger would go up to and pet indiscriminately, but most were well behaved. However, one of the most frightening moments of the weekend occurred when a couple of Ovcharkas got into an argument at ringside. I did not envy the handlers who had to pull them apart.

Pom Winners

The show’s biggest entries came from three established “international” breeds: there were 172 Pomeranians, 157 Labrador Retrievers, and 155 Siberian Huskies. Other large numbers were provided by Golden Retrievers (99), Papillons (93), Rhodesian Ridgebacks (97), Cocker Spaniels (American, that is: 87), Black Russian Terriers (86), German Shepherd Dogs and Pugs (85 each), Beagles (81), Jack Russell Terriers (79), Miniature Pinschers (75), and Pembroke Welsh Corgis (70). There were 62 Dogues de Bordeaux, over a hundred Poodles, 145 Chihuahuas, almost 200 Schnauzers of all three size varieties, and about 300 Dachshunds. These are rough figures taken from the Saturday catalog, which also included some non-FCI breeds that I had never seen before, including the American Bulldog, the American Hairless Terrier and at least 10 Harlequin Poodles.

On the first day of the show I had the pleasure of judging 91 Pomeranians (males and puppies) – you are not allowed to judge more than 100 dogs per day at these shows. I had heard that Russian Poms are good, and they really were: most of them deserved an “Excellent” grade. My Best Puppy, Bellissimo Star Manu To Kiss, went on to Best Puppy in Show later in the day. He was sired by an American import, Ch. Damascusroad Tell Me No Lies, who also won the CAC in an Open class of 19.

(Don’t ask me why he was in Open if he was already a champion.) The real highlight was the beautiful Champion Dog class with 23 entries. Even in that competition my eye went immediately to one particular dog, who ended up winning the class even though he was obviously less fond of me than vice versa. I didn’t learn until the following day that this was the Pom that won he Toy Group at Crufts a couple of weeks earlier. His name is Ch. Unbeaten Premiera, born and bred in Poland from a mixture of American, Canadian, Asian and Eastern European blood. He was Best Dog, and I badly wanted to give him Best of Breed as well, but especially for Group competition you want to be confident the Breed winner is not going to act up, so BOB went to a charming bitch, Ch. Germanika Mercedes Iz Kaskada Grez. (The kennel name, I learned, means “from the Cascade of Dreams.) She is sired by one of the Thai-bred Fon’s dogs and went on to place in the Group later that day.

The owner of the Crufts dog Bozena Borkowska Grochala, apologized for her dog not having a good day. No doubt he has a basically good temperament: he was totally confident on the floor and just needs to learn to accept being gone over by strangers. I suppose a superstar may be allowed to act out a bit, and the next day he went on to greater things. Incidentally, in that big entry I only found two or three that were sensitive about being handled on the table.

The afternoon’s group and BIS judging also included competitions in a number of other categories: for the best Couple (or Brace, as we would say), Progeny, Breeder, Baby, Puppy, Junior and Veteran, and the interesting “Pride of Russia” award, for which only native Russian breeds could compete. There are ten Groups at FCI shows, and the top three are placed for Best in Show. The finale the first day was judged by Finland’s Kari Järvinen, the man in charge of the much anticipated FCI World Show in Helsinki in August. He chose as his winner the French Bulldog Ch. A’Vigdors Ramasseur des Compliments, a pied dog who was already a BIS winner, took the CC at Crufts, etc. The breeder, Revaz Khomasuridze, is known worldwide for the quality of his French Bulldogs. Runner-up to BIS was the Kerry Blue Terrier Ch. Avalanche Eire-Kerry Yarvi Cute, the only dog who won the group both days. He represents yet another breed that Russia is known for, and himself reportedly the result of several generations of Russian breeding. Third place in BIS went to the Pharaoh Hound Reedly Road John Bull, not yet a champion but bred in a Russian kennel that won the Breeder competition both days. (The next day they also won Group 2nd with a bitch who I’m told had won BOB at Crufts.)

“Pride of Russia” award, for which only native Russian breeds could compete

The line-up also included a Bearded Collie from Italy, a Rhodesian Ridgeback from Great Britain, a native Black Russian Terrier champion male, a young Wire Dachshund whose sire came from Brazil, a black English Cocker bitch of Russian, Serbian and British breeding, an Irish Setter who was born in Russia by an Australian sire from Tasmania, and an Azawakh who was bred in Italy. (The Azawakh is still nor fully recognized by AKC but is one of the most attractive and easily recognizable breeds at European shows.)

On Sunday I judged a few Sighthound breeds, including a large entry (for Russia) of Whippets, which are not very popular there. BOB of the 42 entries went to a U.S. imported bitch, Classic N Tahari Beauty at Masaru. There was also a good entry of Borzoi, with the Breed win this time going to Ch. Solovyev Giacint, who later won that day’s “Pride of Russia” competition.

The BIS line-up this day looked rather different from Saturday’s. Only one dog repeated its Group win and several of the previous day’s winners didn’t survive the Breed judging. The French Bulldog was defeated in the Group the next day, even though the judge, Kari Järvinen, had given him BIS the previous day. Judging, of course, is always “on the day.” The Pomeranian Ch. Unbeaten Premiera won BIS under FCI President Rafael de Santiago. Runner-up to BIS was a black-and-tan Afghan Hound, Ch. Amal Salang Coeur d’Coeurs, who also had not won BOB on Saturday. He is bred in Russia but sired by the Australian import to Sweden, Ch. Aviva Coeur a Coeur. Third place in BIS went to a Pekingese who was not entered at the Saturday show, Ch. Will I Am at St. Sanja, a British import owned by the famous Sunrise Dragon kennel in Moscow, importer of several dozen top quality British dogs over the past decade or so.

The remaining Group winners were the famous Pembroke Welsh Corgi Ch. Andvol Pinkerton, now more than 6 years old, a young but very impressive Tibetan Mastiff, the same Kerry Blue as the day before, a Smooth Miniature Dachshund from the famous Formula Uspeha kennel, a Dalmatian who I believe was bred in Germany, a different Irish Setter (this one bred in Sweden but – amazingly – yet again with an Australian sire), and a young, very handsome Russian-bred yellow Labrador Retriever, who also won the competition for Best Junior in Show.

It was an interesting weekend, in spite of the larger political concerns. I read the English-speaking “Moscow Times,” which was freely available at the hotel and offered a very different view from the one propagated by the government.Everyone I met, from exhibitors and club officials to “regular people” in the streets of Moscow, was pleasant and polite. The hospitality was wonderful, including a visit to the Bolshoi Theatre and dining in the best Moscow restaurants. In fact, it was difficult to find any time for sleep, and of course the 12-hour time difference between California and Moscow didn’t help. There was plenty of time to sleep on the plane home, though: it took more than 20 hours from door to door.

So is the Russian Kynological Federation ready to host the FCI World Show in 2016 as planned? Everyone agrees that the organization functions much better now than it did just a few years ago. Of course everything depends on the larger political situation. We dog people can only hope that the good relationships that have developed between Russian dog fanciers and us in the West will be mirrored on a larger plane.