Most of the time, when people in town see my dog, they say things like “what is that?”. And… “wow”.
So I say he’s a Borzoi, and they say ‘a what?’ and I spell it and say “used to be called a Russian wolfhound”. And they say “oh, yeah! I’ve heard of those.”
And I realize that somehow I remember Russian Wolfhound as the “real” name, replaced later by “Borzoi”, which I’d heard was a reaction to the Cold War, like “freedom fries”.
Then my friends try to explain my dog to their friends: My favorites are “Bourgeois” and “BoyToy”.
But that first one is intriguing to me, especially while the news clamors about unrest near and far, and theories about who’s to blame for the history of everything. While it’s not that uncommon for breed names to change, either officially or in common parlance, the “Russian wolfhound” tagline has persisted well beyond most anyone’s living recollection of the argument. Prior to the official AKC change in 1936, the question of whether to change the name was a big enough deal for one of the pre-eminent US breeders to write a heartfelt letter on why “Russian wolfhound” was a far better name than “Borzoi”.
Mine sprints off as I’m reading Borzoi history to chase an idea and then lounge flat in the long grass, only to seek out a bed on the porch, which he eventually left for the couch…
It seems that during a series of uprisings culminating in the Russian Revolution, the dogs were associated with nobility – specifically, wealth and land ownership. The breed effectively died out in Russia and was sustained, some say resurrected, in Britain and the US in the late 1800s, rising in popularity during the 1920s. Some of the foundation for the British line of Borzoi were dogs gifted to Queen Victoria by a czar. Surely Victoria would have sided with the nobles in Russia when the serfs started behaving badly, but did she call the breed “Borzoi” or a “Russian Wolfhound”?
Ayn Rand would have summarily rejected any politically-motivated attempt by the Soviet sympathizers to rename a breed of dog to something more “proletariat”. I hope someone sends me a reference wherein she settles the question for me. So, in fact, it wasn’t the Cold War but between world wars and during a period of aggressive change in Russia that Americans decided “Borzoi” was the real and official name of the dog formerly knows as Russian wolfhound. So maybe it was that thing we do where we rename things to make it seem like we’ve grown. We do like to argue over what to label everything.
And maybe it really was just a dog people thing. This club, that club, kennel club politics. The AKC’s literature says they went with Borzoi because everyone outside the US already called it that.
And that leads me to my favorite theory of all. Since the breed was sustained and developed outside of Russia, in predominantly English-speaking countries, “Russian wolfhound” is how an English speaker would describe what the dog is, by which we mean what the dog does. “Borzoi” was just a Russian word ( “swift”). If the Border Collie had another Gaelic name, like lufar (“agile”) one can imagine an impassioned argument for keeping the name “Border Collie”, because that’s what it is. One can also imagine that even if the AKC decided the Border Collie should be called Lufar, that people would still be calling the dog a Border Collie in eighty years.