For those who have only the vaguest idea of what it is like, I shall explain. As a rule, grouse have remarkably keen senses. But at certain moments, when they are making their spring mating calls, they hear nothing at all for a few seconds except their own song. You have to go into the forest while it is still dark, hide somewhere with your gun and wait for dawn. When somewhere far away an invisible grouse pronounces its first "tock, tock," it is too early to move. The bird is still able to hear. When it sings the second time, a speeded-up version of "tock, tock," it is time to get ready to run in the direction of its voice, but you should by no means move as yet. Then, in the next few seconds when the grouse's note has changed to a gurgling sound, you must run as fast as you can, but as soon as the gurgling stops you must freeze in whatever inconvenient posture you find yourself in. Once I stood on one leg for about 10 minutes in a swampy mire waiting for the bird to sing again. Running like this through branches that hit you in the face and through biting insects as you listen to the constantly changing rhythm of the mating call gives you an extraordinary feeling of primitive union with nature. On my first such occasion, after running madly with interruptions of half an hour or so, I saw the grouse in front of me regally enthroned on a branch, with the dawn as its orange-colored back cloth, glittering black like a lump of coal, spreading its tail like a peacock, sibilantly voicing its song of love—and I lowered my shotgun.
Hunting is precious to me precisely because of this feeling of oneness with nature, a feeling we lose in the canyonlike streets of modern cities. Sad as it is to admit, hunting is being enraptured with nature and at the same time murdering it. Still, I am unable to renounce hunting—the voice of my ancestors is stronger than all my vegetarian, sentimental gnawings of conscience.
Rock-climbing is also a sport I enjoy very much. I like the feel of the rope binding me to my comrades somewhere near the clouds. I like to feel the sensation of conquering the sky, although, in the final analysis, it always wins the victory over us.
Of the so-called intellectual types of sport, I once enjoyed chess, although I have stopped playing it now. Lenin is supposed to have said about chess: "For a game it is too serious, but it is too much of a game to be taken seriously." Perhaps that is true. I once asked one of the challengers for the world championship, Boris Spassky, "Tell me, don't you sometimes find that as a result of playing chess you have acquired the habit of working out in advance all your moves in life, too? Doesn't that interfere with life's spontaneity?" Spassky thought for a while and answered, "Well, yes, perhaps that does happen. It's true that I am sometimes too calculating in certain situations in life. But life is the sort of opponent who occasionally makes such unexpected moves that no matter how much you want to, you can never think up a reply to it in advance."
As I said earlier, I was amazed as a child at our strange Moscow visitor who indulged in gymnastics. But now gymnastics has become my trustiest ally. It I did not do physical exercises, I should certainly never have been able to keep up the appallingly hectic tempo of my life. No matter how tired I may be beforehand, no matter at what hour I have gone to bed, no matter how much I may have drunk the night before, every morning I make myself do some exercises. Regardless of the weather I go out in the street with my black spaniel, Fedka, and the two of us run for two or three kilometers and roll in the snow together in winter. Afterward, I go back home, and for about 40 minutes I work out with two small Indian clubs (I have a long way to go before I can match Pozhenyan's magical dumbbell). I usually accompany this with music. Then I start working.
In summary, I love sport because I love life, and sport is one of the basic joys of life. Life is not very generous with its joys—they have to be seized by force. And to seize things by force, a sound mind and sound muscles are needed. Symbolically speaking, had I not been an athlete, I would have succumbed long ago to the many blows that life sooner or later deals out to everybody. But I have a good abdominal press, as they say.
Even unsymbolically, the same is true. Late one night a year ago I was walking home through the dark alleyways of Palermo when three nice fellows attacked me with not-so-nice Sicilian knives. Had I not been an athlete, you would not be reading my story today.