“Would you go to Baku?”
At the time, Baku was a war zone, and I sought confirmation of this fact from my enquirer.
“Well . . . well . . . well . . . yes, I think it maybe.”
Definitely not the right answer. Definitely “No!” on my part. But then curiosity entered the fray.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there are Moscow State Circus horses there, and we need to get them to Australia, where very famous impresarios want to host their tour through the major cities.”
The problem, he explained, was that their journey from Russia, where the fall of Communism was a very recent event, would have to entail passage through the then European Economic Community. The Europeans were unwilling to accept the local Russian identification and health certification that would enable the horses to travel through Europe and onwards to Australia.
The Moscow State Circus has many branches. There is a five-year apprenticeship prior to its acts becoming accredited. After accreditation, they can tour through the various branches, which are located in cities as far flung as it is possible to imagine. The acts remain in these cities for about a month before relocating to their next host city. In this way, there is a regular change in the program in any given location.
Each host city therefore has an annual calendar of some 10 to 12 different programs for the locals to enjoy throughout the year. When the circus travelled to other countries, entertainment was one of its goals. Another, perhaps a much more significant one, was trade. Leading business folks in the visited country could be invited to the circus as a pretext for enquiries about where they purchased their raw materials, and whether or not their Russian hosts for the evening could make them a better offer from their plentiful supplies of raw materials.
It therefore did not take long for the organizers of the Australian tour to be offered an alternative set of horses, located outside a war zone. This lot were in Kraznoyarsk, in Siberia. Krasnoyarsk had only been “opened’ recently. It had been closed because it was a major armament production center.
After a night at the Circus in Moscow, spent playing with the baby bears in the basement, my guide/interpreter and I went to the internal airport for transfer to Siberia. She was a quite spectacularly beautiful woman. Almond-shaped face, eyes like deep, deep pools of hazel brown hue, the most elegant of fur coats, the longest full-sculpted and full-length booted legs, and the huskiest of voices. She spoke immaculate, idiomatic English.
“Where did you learn it?” I asked as she introduced me to her capital city on my first day tour.
“There!” she replied, smiling as she lifted her befurred arm and pointed to the almost forbidding structure of the Moscow University.
“No one ever learned to speak like that in an institution,” I said. “Where did you learn to use it so well?”
“On the diplomatic circuit in Africa,” she said. “My husband and I particularly enjoyed the cocktail parties.” They must have been a lethal combination, working as a team. He was now a very senior government official, she warned pointedly, just to fend off right from the start any potential for unwanted attention that might occur in the balance of my visit.
Unwanted attention seemed very, very unlikely. The hint of her former role in the KGB was more than sufficient deterrent. She had only to walk into a room and no matter how slovenly or disinterested the local bureaucrats, her very presence galvanized them into instant attentiveness to her every whim. No passenger walkways for us at the airport. We drove straight to the front wheel of the enormous passenger aircraft, ascended the crew steps, and were ushered to a row that had been cleared for us. Others had to battle their way to their seats, placing their caged chickens and jerry cans in the isles.
We flew through the night. Kraznoyarsk is as far from Moscow as New York is from London. We arrived, after a pale and watery daybreak, into a sudden blizzard. The aircraft slid to a tortuous halt after slipping down much of the runway.
We, of course, were first off, greeted with a cheery wave from a large female figure who, clad in heavy brown cloth and fur-lined coat, broke at once into a protracted aria. She was the boss of the local circus. A frustrated opera singer. Verdi in the snow.
We bounced rather than drove in her military-issue jeep for about 45 minutes through deep forest until we reached the city. It was a scene from the Ipcress File; gray, pock-marked due to the decay of poor-quality concrete.
The hotel was equally drab. The room walls were cracked. The radiator was close to the boiling point. The view from the window over the square showed nothing but a single fir tree and buildings as plain as the one I was in. Time for a siesta.
“Time to go for supper,” was the accompaniment to the knock on the door a few hours later. The poster in the hall announced: “Come to Siberia for the Skiing—not like Europe—no queues!”
We entered the substantial townhouse that had been the former Communist Party Headquarters. Huge doors. High ceilings. Parquet floors. A striking portrait of a young woman gazing wistfully out through a window at the falling snow dominated the chandeliered hallway. Introductions to local dignitaries, Russian champagne in the drawing room, white linens, crystal ware, bone china in the dining room followed. There was champagne, vodka and brandy at the table for toasts. Then came a super-sized salver of canapés—smoked trout, oeufs en gelee, caviar and sturgeon. Chicken Kiev, chipped potatoes, and salted cabbage followed a Russian salad. Thank God the visit to examine and identify the horses was not scheduled until the following morning.
My hotel room was like a sauna as the pale winter sun woke me. Efforts to open the window proved futile and would have almost inevitably antagonized my hosts.
“We go for breakfast,” was my waking knock at the door. My heart sank, as low as my non-existent appetite. We skipped the illustrious surroundings of the night before and instead went to a local hotel other than my own. No choice, no options, just Chicken Kiev, chipped potatoes, salted cabbage. Twice, within 12 hours. After this reminder of the privileges of freedoms in the West that were not the reality in this part of the world, we set off for the circus.
The circus, like its many counterparts throughout that country, was not housed in a tent but in a permanent circular concrete structure. In accord with tradition, the multi-tiered seating surrounded the circular stage area, extending to high above the ring. The stabling was in an annex that led to the outside and to the ring itself. The horses were kept in wooden stables within this annex.
The stabling was not just for horses. It was also home to camels and an elephant. They all seemed to get along very well. The horses ranged from the very rangy and fast-looking Alkatekinskya or Akaltekin horses that were used for displays of Cossack horsemanship (although it was the women who rode them and performed acrobatic acts, including dismounting and remounting at speeds that were incredible) and much heavier draught-type horses, which were used for gymnastic displays at much slower speeds and that involved teams of acrobats.
The chief horseman was diminutive, hawk-nosed, scar-faced and dark-haired. He began our relationship with pointed questions about my favorite holiday destinations, hinting that expenses-paid travel could be provided, but only if the horses could travel to Australia!
Alkaltekins are very handsome and look like the Arabian cross that belies their ancestry. I asked if I could be allowed to ride one of the Akaltekins and was delighted to be allowed to do so, in the circus ring. Despite my best efforts at control, it took off with me and we flew around the ring at a speed far greater than had been my intention. It felt like another circus act—the motorcyclists hurtling around the vertical sides of “The Wall of Death”—and at a similar angle from the vertical!
At last I gradually succeeded in restraining the animal. We drew to a progressively slower speed and eventual halt, albeit slowly, and my new-found, scar-faced friend asked had I enjoyed it. When I said that I had never sat on anything as uncomfortable before in my life, he told me that was because I had only been going “half speed” and that had I gone full speed it would have been as smooth as silk!
Blood sampling to enable subsequent laboratory testing back home in Ireland and blood typing to enable positive identification, followed by the subsequent packing for transport, all took a couple of hours. The boss of the circus, my guide and interpreter, and I then bundled into the jeep and headed off. Just over two hours to a scheduled flight departure time from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow. Or so it seemed. My companions then advised that this was a typical western visitor mistake because all flight times were Moscow time, not Siberian time, and there was a five-hour time difference. Which meant that there were not two, but seven hours to kill before take off. So, they assured there was only one thing to do. Go for lunch.
Yes, Chicken Kiev, chipped potatoes and salted cabbage, the third time in 24 hours.
And although there was a happy ending and the horses did get to travel safely to Australia—and their tour was a great success—I have never been able to even consider eating Chicken Kiev again.
From Dr. Des Leadon, March 2020: These stories fulfill a promise I made to my colleague and dear friend Dr. Michelle LeBlanc before her untimely death on April 13, 2013. Michelle and I collaborated on various projects after meeting at a Havermeyer Foundation Lecture on neonatal foals, and she soon became a wonderful friend to both my wife, Mariann, and me. When Michelle was first diagnosed with her terrible disease, I visited her in Florida. After conceding that I would not be able to visit her as often as I would have liked, I promised that I would write to her every two weeks. I honored that promise for the rest of her life. These stories formed the basis of that correspondence.
The final story, titled “Michelle’s Gift,” is among others still to be edited. These stories are a review of many transatlantic clinical equine research collaborations between her, myself, Peter Rossdale, Marion Silver and many others. At the time, I imagined these stories were my gift to Michelle. The reality, though, was that they were much more Michelle’s everlasting gift to me—a rediscovery of the joys of writing and, perhaps, an analogy for so much else in life.
About Dr. Des Leadon
Desmond (Des) Patrick Leadon, FRCVS, has worked in equine practice in Ireland, England, Australia and Spain. He has provided consultation services in Russia, China, Italy, France and many other countries, and he has been involved in equine clinical research for more than 30 years.
Leadon graduated as a veterinarian from Trinity College Dublin in 1975. He returned there and was awarded his Master of Science degree by thesis. He subsequently joined the world-famous equine specialist practice of Rossdale and Partners in Newmarket and was awarded the degree of Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, London, by thesis, in 1982. He returned to equine practice in County Meath, Ireland, before joining the then newly established Irish Equine Centre in 1984. The Irish Equine Centre is Ireland’s independent equine diagnostic and research laboratory.
Leadon is Head of Clinical Pathology at the Centre and a member of its Management Committee. He is an external lecturer for the Equine Science course at the University of Limerick and is an Honorary Faculty Member of the Veterinary Sciences School at University College Dublin. He is both a European College and Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Registered Consultant/Specialist in Equine Medicine.
He served as president of both the British Equine Veterinary Association (1993-1994) and the World Equine Veterinary Association (2001-2006). He continues to serve on the Past Presidents Advisory Committee of the World Equine Veterinary Association (2006 to date). He is a Founding Diplomate and former Vice President of the European College of Equine Internal Medicine (2002 to 2008). He served an initial term as the International Director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (2009 to 2011) and was invited to serve a second term (2011 to 2012).
He has published 74 reports in equine scientific literature, in text books, and in lay publications, and he has made more than 200 presentations at national and international equine scientific meetings. His special interest areas include the problems inherent in transporting horses long distances by air, the spread of infectious disease, and Rhodococcus equi. He has received research funding grants from organizations that include the International League for the Protection of Horses, The International Equestrian Federation, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, Ireland’s National Development Plan and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
Leadon is a pre-race inspector for the International Racing Bureau (for the Hong Kong International Races) and acts as an Advisor and as an Arbiter in insurance disputes for Lloyds Underwriters. He is a Veterinary Advisor to the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ITBA), Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the European Thoroughbred Breeders Association (EFTBA) and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation (ITBF). He was appointed to both the Equine Liaison Group of the Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Medicines Committee of the Irish Medicines Board in January 2011.
Leadon was presented the “Outstanding Contribution To The Industry Award” by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association in January 2014.