From the Wilderness to Saks Fifth Avenue, the Fur Trail Leads from the Hunt to Riches

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Hunter: "A hare has been here," says Nikolai Marfsalov, pointing to tracks in the Siberian snow. By slipping a stick under a print, then gently lifting it to see how the snow falls, the hunter can tell how recently the animal has passed. "If it stays in one piece, it's old snow," he says. "If the snow falls like dry sand, the animal was just here." Marfsalov, a member of the Evenk tribe of northern Siberia, may note the passage of a hare, but his favored quarries are more exotic: sable, ermine, fox and wolf. He is an age-old figure in the landscape, the lone hunter trekking the frozen wilds of Yakutia.

In the legendary Russian fur trade, which the Soviets have developed into a lucrative source of hard currency from the West, Marfsalov's furs now must compete with pelts from special farms, which raise animals to be slaughtered. All pelts destined for export eventually end up at the Leningrad fur auction, where Western wholesalers bid millions for them. The chances are good that many of the furs at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus come from icy Siberia.

Although retired and living on a pension, Marfsalov, 62, still heads off alone into the taiga from late October to mid-December, circling out as far as 130 miles from the nearest settlement. His usual hunting ground lies about 100 miles north of the city of Aldan along high, pine-covered ridges by the banks of a river. He travels mounted on a reindeer, sleeps in a reindeer-skin tent and wears a warm, reindeer-skin suit. "The cold doesn't bother me, even when it's minus 76°F outside," he says. "Evenks never freeze."

Retirement has also allowed Marfsalov to pursue a second love: painting. Self-taught, he has produced a remarkable series of 20 oils on life in the taiga. "Sometimes when I'm hunting, I'll stop in a beautiful place and just try to remember it," he says. "I also remember the behavior of animals. I really love all animals. They're all beautiful." His canvases have won state prizes and gone on tour throughout the Soviet Union. One startling moonlit scene shows a moose battling wolves in the snow. "It's impossible to see such a scene," says Marfsalov, "but you can read it in the snow."

Marfsalov began learning to read nature at the age of 5, when he trapped his first hare. His family lived as nomadic reindeer herders, moving from campsite to campsite on the taiga, and everyone, including his mother and sisters, was a hunter. "We have a tradition of living well together, friendly," he says. "Say I go out hunting and kill an elk or a bear. I'll give half to my neighbor, even more. Next time you're successful, you'll do the same for me."

When he's not hunting, Marfsalov now lives in an apartment in Aldan with his wife, a retired teacher. A successful hunter can take two to four sables a day during the season, earning an average of $175 a pelt, but, says Marfsalov, a charmingly self-contained and thoughtful man, "We don't burn for money. Personally, I wouldn't want to be very rich. You know why? It spoils a man. Ruins his character."

The Fur Farm: About 200 miles north of Marfsalov's ancestral home, in the village of Petrovsk on the Lena River outside Yakutsk, lies one of the country's more than 350 state farms that raise animals for their pelts. Inside the locked compound, surrounded by a high wooden fence, small wood-and-wire cages stretch endlessly across the snow. The 5-to 6-month-old foxes, their round, unblinking eyes fixed on the interlopers, scurry to the backs of their shelters in fear as visitors pass. The entire scene resembles a fox concentration camp.

Director Vladimir Grinchuk, a veterinarian by training, takes pride in his operation, which nets 1.5 million rubles (about $2.3 million) a year in fur sales. Founded in 1943 with only 200 to 300 animals, the farm today has 12,500 foxes. Grinchuk claims farmed pelts are superior to the wild version. "Wild animals live under the roots of trees," he says. "Often their coats get damaged. The animals on the farm grow softer, thicker fur of much better quality."

"Pelting," or the club killing and skinning of the animals, takes place in November. Outside one wooden building, a pile of bloody innards sits frozen in the snow, while inside workers cure pelts by tumbling them in a large rotating drum containing a mix of gasoline and sawdust. The farm is organized as a cooperative, providing jobs, housing and social services for about 50 workers. The caretakers sometimes grow attached to their charges. "Some of the foxes we have kept for four or five years, the ones that are used for breeding," says one woman, wiping away tears. "It is a terrible time when they have to go too."

Although aware of the controversy in the West over the killing of animals for their pelts, the Soviets make few apologies. "In some ways this controversy seems unnatural because historically people have used furs to cover themselves," says Valentin Pavlov, 39, the Moscow-based director of Soviet fur farms. "You have to be realistic. Farming of fur animals has a history of about 200 years. It's profitable for the farms and the state."

The Auction: Three times a year, in January, July and October, furs go on the block in Leningrad's grandiose Soyuzpushnina auction house. In the high-ceilinged anterooms before the auction, foreign buyers pore over rack upon rack of mink, blue fox, red fox, ermine, wolf, lynx, sable and squirrel skins, among others. Everyone wears white lab coats, and a clinging odor of cured pelts hangs in the air.

"If you lose your concentration when you're going over these skins, you have to stop, take a break and start all over again," says Leonard Springer, a 25-year veteran Leningrad buyer for his own company, Leonard & Donald Springer, Inc., in New York. "If you make a mistake in the size and color of the fur, it'll cost you later on."

His son Donald raised hairs in the fur world at the July 1986 auction when he paid a record price for the top lot of sables—$1,700 a pelt, compared with an average of $300. The Springers claim to have sold the coat they cut from the 85 pelts for $350,000. The night before the October auction their famous bid is still fueling talk at a cocktail party for the buyers. Among the elegantly dressed Soviets and foreigners around a caviar-laden table is Evelyn Paswall, another New York City buyer. "I think I looked at 35,000 furs," she says wearily. "I start at 8:30 and go almost nonstop until 4."

When told what Springer claims to have made on his sable coat, Paswall gives a Seventh Avenue sneer: "Oh, puhleez! Cut that figure in half!" Yuri Mashkin, the general director of Soyuzpushnina, circulates through the party. Mashkin, more pleasant than his predecessors, has represented Soyuzpushnina in the U.S., and with his pompadour and his passable English, comes across as urbane for a Soviet official. Surprisingly, only 15 percent of all Soviet furs are exported, he says, with most of the rest going to hats and collars for the domestic market.

The sable auction kicks off at 3 the next day with the 40 furs in lot 2001. All around the colonnaded, wood-paneled room, the buyers suddenly sit up. Everyone knows that this is the best lot in the auction. Seated behind a raised counter, the auctioneer starts the bidding at $200 a pelt. Springer has predicted the lot will go for $500 to $600 a pelt. His main competition in the bidding is a powerful troika of New York buyers: Peter Dion, a wealthy friend of Ronald Reagan's; Ernest G. Kremnitzer; and David Mechutan, son of a world-famous furrier. As the spotters cry "Up!" the price tops $400, then $450, then $500. At $640, Springer shakes his head. Dion is victorious, and an attendant presents him with a carved wooden duck, the prize for taking the opening lot, as the other buyers applaud in the echoing room....

...Back in the stillness of the Siberian forest, the rewards are different for hunter Nikolai Marfsalov. When he kills a sable or a wolf, his hunt stretches infinitely back to the dawn of his people. "Man has the right to use nature wisely," he says, "wisely." He hates the "fur farms" and won't set foot within their gates. His goal now is to preserve the free taiga, its way of life and its animals in his remarkable paintings. His brushes move to and fro, and under his hand emerge scenes of violent beauty, of life and death in the vast, indifferent snow.

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