Hunting and Freshwater Fishing

Domestic food production in Northern Eurasia is frequently supplemented by game and fish gathered in the wild. Siberia and the north have traditional hunter-gatherers and fishermen, for whom the game and fish of the taiga and tundra are their primary source of protein. Elsewhere, villagers hunt and fish to obtain extra protein because food from stores is expensive. There is a tradition of sports hunting among the political and business elite, as well as middle-class urban residents. Given the size of Russia's forests and steppe, and the number and extent of its rivers and lakes, both game and freshwater fish are in plentiful supply.

The Russian tradition of hunting was well described by the classic writers of the 19th century. Leo Tolstoy's vivid description of hunting snipes in Anna Karenina is one of the best examples, along with the numerous hunting scenes from Ivan Turgenev's Hunter's Sketches. Wild game typical of Russia includes moose, elk, roe deer, brown bears, wild boars, capercaillie, grouse, quail, partridges, pheasants, and waterfowl. The peoples of the north also traditionally hunted walruses, seals, and whales, but today only the Chukchi and Inuit of the extreme northeast are allowed to do that.

A specialized form of hunting is trapping fur animals in the taiga. Russia is one of the top fur producers in the world, including such species as Arctic and other foxes, sable, hares, squirrels, mink, kolinsky, and muskrats. Although muskrats were only introduced in Eurasia from North America in 1928, Russia now has some of the largest and furriest muskrats in the world in the Selenga delta near Lake Baikal. In the steppes, bustards and other large running birds would be hunted historically, but they are now endangered. The Central Asian steppes have saiga antelope and wild kulan donkeys (both also now endangered). A specialized form of hunting in the CaucasusKazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan is falconry, which brings in little food, but is a highly skilled form of hobby hunting.

Freshwater fishing is also common throughout the region. Over 50 species of fish were commercially harvested in Tsarist Russia. The short stories of N. Leskov and I. Shmelev have some vivid descriptions of the dozens of species available at noblemen's receptions. The most valued was sturgeon, including the huge beluga, weighing over a ton. Pike, perch, eel, and other fish were eaten boiled, fried, baked, smoked, dried, and in any other imaginable way. The traditional Siberian fish broth soup, ukha, is one of the fish specialties offered at many restaurants today. Much of the wild fishing declined in the 20th century because of water pollution, dams, and overfishing in the most developed parts of the region. The freshwaters of European North, Siberia, and the Far East remain remarkably productive, however, as even a brief visit to the fish counter at a local market in Russia will testify. The hardest hit were the Volga River sturgeon in the Caspian Sea basin, whose populations declined as a result of dam construction, water pollution, and caviar poaching.

Yet another form of wild harvesting is mushroom and berry hunting. A few Americans may hunt mushrooms on occasion, but many U.S. supermarkets will stock only the familiar button variety. Wild mushroom hunting is a national hobby bordering on an obsession in Russia, especially among middle-aged urban dwellers. Hunting mushrooms requires skill—knowledge of the correct places, the appropriate times, and edible kinds of mushrooms. Mushroom poisonings do sometimes happen (virtually all from consumption of the “destroying angel,” Amanita virosa), but dozens of other varieties can be safely eaten. The king of the Russian woods is the white bolete, with caps sometimes reaching the size of a dinner plate. Mushrooms are consumed in soups and salads, and especially fried. Some people like to dry or can them for winter use. Wild strawberries, raspberries, dwarf blueberries, and lingonberries are also plentiful in most forests in Northern Eurasia. In Central Asia, there are forests where wild apples or plums can be found. The total amount of the wild mushroom and berry harvest is not known, but it may provide an important supplemental form of nutrition.