March 18, 2019

A Race With a Heart (of a Dog)


A Race With a Heart (of a Dog)
Skijoring the North Hope race in Kostroma Oblast. Andrey Borodulin

Every year, people from all over the world convene in a small snowy town in northern Russia for the friendliest and fluffiest of sports events – started by an Orthodox nun in a wheelchair who had an idea... and a dog.


Chances are, you have never heard of Neya. This town in Kostroma Oblast isn't on any tourist routes and was built as a timber outpost. Its population of 9,000 is on the decline, and many of the villages around it are completely abandoned. And yet, every winter the town comes alive for the oldest dog sledding race in European Russia, North Hope, attracting the sport's professionals from across the ocean and racers – known as mushers – from thousands of kilometers away, with their top dogs, of course. 

How did this come to pass? We asked Anna Odintsova, one of the North Hope race organizers, to tell us this fascinating story.

Tell us about the North Hope race: how did this project start? 

It began when Matushka Paraskeva and Father Bartholomew created an Orthodox orphanage, taking in 16 boys from a local municipal orphanage. They had to give the kids something to do, so an Australian benefactor sent them a Siberian husky. Then they took in a malamute from the Moscow region that the owners didn’t want anymore. Paraskeva trained as a dog breeder and launched a kennel. In 2005, the orphanage was visited by an American, Terry Hinesly, an experienced racer, a veteran of Alaska's Iditarod race, who started working with the kids. One day over tea, Terry, Paraskeva and Russian musher Mikhail Bragin came up with the idea of a local race for the kids, so that they could be real dog drivers, flying through the snowy Russian landscapes. In 2007, six people participated for the first time, with the “start” and “finish” signs drawn by children on bedsheets. Since then we've had over 500 participants.

It was not easy, back then there were no middle-distance races in Russia, so we had to work from scratch. Now our team includes people from Russia, US, Canada, Spain, Norway, Italy, and other countries – there is nothing like it, probably in the world.

skijoring
A skijoring (skiing while being pulled by dogs) participant at the 2019 race. Photo by Andrei Borodulin.
What's it like to hold an international event in Neya, and why do people keep coming back?

Participants like the race’s format, it is good for beginners and for veterans. Its status is quite high. Secondly, we bring top professionals into the team of organizers, they are legends in the sport. The event includes seminars and master-classes that racers normally have to chase around the world. Then there is the charity context of the event which makes it bigger than just a race, and the cozy atmosphere, which all participants remark on.

Participants invest a lot of effort into getting to Neya, and only the most passionate people make it. One person comes from the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, traveling a distance of 3,000 kilometers. It’s only 600 kilometers from Moscow, but it’s a completely different universe, in terms of the faces, the landscape outside, how people speak, and so forth.

Neya
A view from above. Photo by Andrei Borodulin.

North Hope cannot happen anywhere else. This is where winters are still fairly reliable, which is becoming rare. The scenery is spectacular, the silence is musical, and this makes a sports event something bigger than it is. It’s a very kind place, where people go to recharge. But, logistically, it is very difficult both for racers and organizers. The trip is expensive for the racers, when dog-sledding is already an expensive hobby. For us, housing people is becoming more critical every year. If we find funding, we plan to build a house just for this event.

Despite the difficulties, the race has been around for 12 years, which is longer than any other race in the European part of Russia.

Watch a short film about a past North Hope race.
Is mushing a popular sport in Russia? Who participates in this hobby and what is unique about this community?

There aren’t a lot of mushers in Russia, mostly they survive on their enthusiasm. Mushing requires a huge investment of time and money. In central Russia, it’s hard to find places to train. Many people are in tourism, they organize dogsledding rides, but it’s very difficult. I personally would be happy if it continued as a niche activity, that way we can avoid all the dark sides of big sport. To me it’s not fully a sport, because it’s not really about sport. There is no equivalent in the Russian language for mushing.

As the race lasts several days, participants have to camp in the forest, sleeping with their dogs in the snow. Photo by Andrei Borodulin.
Tell me about the charity aspect of the race. How does an annual event like this impact Neya and the villages that the race passes?

When the boys from the orphanage grew up and left to live their separate lives, the kennel continued, but changed into center for dog sledding, which still had a focus on children, but in a more professional way. It has programs in socio-psychological rehabilitation for orphans, for kids born with various conditions. The race now has the status of a race to benefit children, and the participation and housing fees go toward the local orphanage and needs of local disabled kids. 

Snow Dog
 

In terms of the route, some of the villages along the way are inhabited, and some are ghost villages. For Neya itself, where nothing ever happens, this is the main event of the year. Locals know the racers by name, they ask in the streets whether “the foreigners have arrived.” They bring various pickled and sweet foods to the start of the race, and show photos from past years. It’s very touching.

But we’ve never had any financial support from the authorities or sponsors, so that also limits the scale. And we have goals other than growth. We love that a mother of a disabled child can come to our event after being ashamed of the child her entire life, and she can stand there and smile. We love that people see how mushers take loving care of their dogs, and then they go home and they give their own pet a rub behind the ear or an extra snack. We show the magic that happens between a musher and his dog, as a metaphor of the link between humans and nature.

The main lesson of mushing is one of love. It’s not about sport. It’s about trust and care about each member of the team.

 

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955