Fur flies over Russian PM's unbearable forest jaunt

Russians have long thought nothing of the fact that their leaders like to ease the tensions of Kremlin life by blasting away at fur and feather. Lenin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were all fond of stepping out into the woods to wipe out a little wildlife. Though sick, Boris Yeltsin last year shot 40 ducks and a wild boar for his friend the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, without a squeak from anyone except his doctors.

But Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, seems to have gone too far. Even Russia, with its fondness for furs and fighting dogs, has been shaken by revelations about a hunting expedition in which two bear cubs and their mother were goaded out of hibernation and shot dead - one of the cubs falling to a bullet from the Prime Minister's rifle.

Hunting is traditionally regarded by Russian men as a means of showing the world that they are muzhiki - no-nonsense, guys' guys. But Mr Chernomyrdin is emerging from his visit to the forests of Yaroslavl, north of Moscow, with less of a red neck than a red face.

Details have emerged in two publications, Ogonyok magazine and Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Mr Chernomyrdin, long caricatured as a dreary bureaucrat, fuelled the scandal by admitting the bears were shot, disputing only their age and size.

If the papers are to be believed, the preparations for the hunt rivalled those of a production at the Bolshoi Theatre. Bulldozers reportedly ploughed a mile-and-a-half-long road through the forest to a bear den and mowed down a clearing for a helicopter landing pad.

The woods were swamped by armed agents of the Russian Federal Security Service, successors to the KGB. Mr Chernomyrdin and his hosts, accompanied by bodyguards and professional hunters swept on to the scene in a convoy of Volga cars, accompanied by a mobile dining room and kitchen. An ambulance was also on hand.

The Prime Minister's host, the governor of Yaroslavl, appears to have been anxious that they should enjoy a fruitful day, not least because the point of inviting him was to persuade the government settle an enormous debt to the region.

In Brezhnev's time, aides would release wild boar in front of the muzzle of his gun. They even tied them to trees on days when their leader's aim was particularly unreliable. When the old man's fancy turned to rabbits, his bodyguards would release animals in the nearby woods in such quantities that he was certain eventually to hit one of them as they hopped and nibbled in his field of range.

The Chernomyrdin hunt seems not to have matched Brezhnev's standards - but almost did. The hunters took their positions, but no bears emerged. A pack of dogs was reportedly sent in to arouse the animals from their hibernation. Still no bears. Only after the hunters poked inside the den with sticks did a cub stagger out into the snow, to receive a bullet between the eyes, courtesy of the honoured guest. According to the newspapers, the second cub was killed by the governor, while their mother went down in a hail of bullets.

In Russia, killing adult bears causes little outrage. But cubs are a different matter. The government "should be ashamed, before the people, before God, before their own consciences", thundered Novaya Gazeta. Ogonyok called it "akin to common murder".

Mr Chernomyrdin has defended his conduct. "I do not know why there is all this clamour," he told the TV current affairs programme Itogi. "When the bear is in the den, are we supposed to peek in first?

"There was a she-bear and two cubs, but they were grown up," he said. "I would like the journalists who wrote these [stories] to have a face- to-face encounter with these cubs, not in the office, but somewhere else. I would enjoy watching that." It is, however, too late. One of the cubs has been stuffed. The other was lunch for the hungry hunters.

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