The Long Riders' Guild

Serko - the world's first Long Rider film!


The photograph on the film poster (left) was taken by Friend of The Long Riders' Guild Matthieu Paley.  Click to enlarge.  The French reads:  "Russian Empire 1889.  They risked their lives to meet the Tsar."

This is an article by Long Rider Jean-Louis Gouraud, who rode from Paris to Moscow.  He is a superb horseman, passionate about horses, and an author who has published many previously "lost" equestrian travel accounts, including "Serko," a novel about the real-life exploit of one of the most remarkable Long Riders of all time, Cossack officer Dmitri Peshkov.  Jean-Louis's most recent book is "L'Asie Centrale - Centre du monde (du cheval)," which followed hot on the heels of "Horses" - a beautiful book with fantastic photographs by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, text by Jean-Louis.  In addition, he recently arranged for Aimé Tschiffely's biography of Robert Cunninghame Graham to be translated into French.  Click here to read more about these books.  Jean-Louis writes here about the exciting events which resulted in the first Long Rider film ever to be made.

Basically, this is a true story.  An astonishing equestrian achievement.  The most extraordinary Long Ride of all time, without doubt:  more than five thousand miles in less than two hundred days, without changing horses.  That is to say (if you take into account a forced halt of two weeks caused by illness) more than thirty-five miles a day, for six months:  who could do better?

The participants in this exploit were called Serko (the horse) and Peshkov (the rider).  It took place in the immense Russian landscape at the end of the 19th Century.

At that time, in the Asiatic part of the Russian empire, Cossack villages (called stanitza), were established along the length of the river Amur to ensure the security of the border:  on the other side of the river lies China.  More precisely, Manchuria.  In one of these villages, Blagovestchensk (which can be translated as “good news” in the religious sense of the term) a Cossack in his thirties probably got a bit bored.  Down there, there are few distractions for a bachelor.  His best friend was his horse.

A little local horse, which he had bought in 1885 for a very reasonable price (150 roubles) from a fellow-officer in a neighbouring village, Constantinovskaya.  He had a Roman nose, a short but thick neck, heavy cheeks, he is typical of the native horses, but doesn’t belong to a well-established breed.  He is known simply as a “Manchu,” like nearly all the horses born and raised on the two banks of the Amur river, which are also sometimes called “Amurskis.”

He’s no looker, but he’s a great little horse.  Great carrier, both enduring and resistant.  He doesn’t really have a name.  Like almost everywhere in Siberia and Central Asia, horses are designated by a physical characteristic.  This one doesn’t have anything, except that he’s grey.  In Russian, this colour is called Siery.  Peshkov affectionately called him either Serok or Serko.

Let’s go with Serko.

One beautiful morning Peshkov (first name: Dmitri, patronymic: Nikolaievitch, rank: sotnik, which is something like Squadron Leader) was overtaken with a mad desire to move.  Maybe it was the result of a dare (stupid) or the wish to break a record – or both together.

On 7th November 1889, towards midday, he left Blagovestchensk mounted on Serko, with the firm intention of getting to Saint Petersburg, the capital of the empire, which lay several thousand versts away.  (A verst was more or less equivalent to a kilometre.)  Nobody believed they would ever get there.  They made it, however, and in record time.  On 19th May 1890 the two of them – both in excellent shape – arrived in the city of the Tsars, having traversed the empire from Asia to Europe, crossing the Steppes, forests, rivers and mountains.

Click on picture to enlarge

On 7th November 1889, towards midday, he left Blagovestchensk mounted on Serko, with the firm intention of getting to Saint Petersburg, the capital of the empire, which lay several thousand versts away.  (A verst was more or less equivalent to a kilometre.)  Nobody believed they would ever get there.  They made it, however, and in record time.  On 19th May 1890 the two of them – both in excellent shape – arrived in the city of the Tsars, having traversed the empire from Asia to Europe, crossing the Steppes, forests, rivers and mountains.

This picture of Dmitri Peshkov and Serko appeared in the magazine Journal des Voyages (Paris),
28 September 1890.

Even though this was extraordinary – and even (almost) unbelievable – this story, even though it is true, is little known among the Russians themselves.  It was while rummaging in a collection of old magazines from 1890 that I learnt for the first time – not long before I myself undertook an equestrian adventure, infinitely more modest, certainly, than Peshkov’s, but which allowed me to appreciate all the more his performance, and to recognise all the better Serko’s astonishing vitality.

I left from Paris with my two French Trotters, Prince-de-la-Meuse and Robin, which I rode alternately, one day on one, the next on the other (Turkmen-style) on 1st May 1990.  And the three of us arrived in Moscow, bursting with health, 75 days later on 14th July – having covered 3,000 kilometres (1,875 miles).  A good third of the distance Peshkov had travelled a century earlier – he with one horse, me with my two big pets.

As soon as I dismounted in Red Square, with compliments raining about my ears, I remarked to my Russian friends that what I had just achieved was but a little saunter compared with Peshkov and Serko’s epic.

Jean-Louis Gouraud, riding Prince de la Meuse and leading Robin, arrives in Moscow's Red Square on 14th July 1990.  Click on picture to enlarge.

As soon as I dismounted in Red Square, with compliments raining about my ears, I remarked to my Russian friends that what I had just achieved was but a little saunter compared with Peshkov and Serko’s epic.

What epic?  Peshkov and who?  They had never heard of them!  That was when I determined to tell the story of this epic, while livening it up a bit.

[This illustration of Peshkov and Serko was painted by Philippe Meyrier as part of a series of Long Rider paintings.  Please email The Long Riders' Guild for more information about Philippe's art.]

Click on picture to enlarge

The result was a little 200-page book called “Serko” which I called “faction,” for reality and fiction were intermingled.

It was published in Switzerland in 1996, then republished in 1997 by éditions Favre, then by France-Loisirs.  Then it was translated into Russian and published in Moscow, two years later, by Terra publishers.  Out of print today, the “faction” novel will soon be republished, in an expanded version, by the publisher du Rocher (in a collection entitled cheval-chevaux).  It will be available in bookshops when the film of the same name comes out on the best screens in France and Navarre.

For “Serko” has become a film!  It is a little like the famous Russian dolls:  a true story becomes a novel which becomes a film.  How did this happen?

A friend of mine, Marie-Christine Renauld, suggested to me one day that I should meet Joël Farges, a film director who, in 1987, was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo, a kind of Goncourt for audiovisuel work, for a short film on Pondichéry, and who had just released a lovely film, “Amok,” based on a novel by Stephan Zweig – with Fanny Ardant in the leading role.  Marie-Christine had given him “Serko” to read and was certain that Joël and I would get along wonderfully.  She was one hundred percent right.

I immediately liked this man with the youthful stride.  It didn’t take us long to discover that we had something, at least, in common:  love of the world, the vast world, a taste for travelling, a passion for India, Eastern Europe, faraway countries, unknown lands.

Running alongside his job as a director, Joël told me at our very first meeting, he had a (busy) life as a producer – going to places the “majors” dared not:  Czech, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran and Tamil Nadu and other faraway places.

Joël is interested in small groups, in minorities, in tribes which are on the point of extinction;  he has written a series of books for young people – childish but not puerile – in which two youths, Pali and Mali, go off in search of endangered civilisations:  the Tuaregs in the Sahara, the Brazilian Indians, the Central African Pygmies, the Bohemian Gypsies, and the Papua New Guineans.

It didn’t take me long to realise that what interested him in “Serko”, more than the equestrian exploit, was the meeting of the heroes with those unknown people (unknown in Hollywood, anyway), the Evenks, whose huts are similar to the Indian Tepees, of the Bouriates, ethnic Mongolians living around Lake Baikal.  There are the shamans, who have spiky ceremonial headdresses supported by deer antlers.  The hunters of bear, martin or sable who beg the spirits to forgive them for their killing.  This mosaic of populations intrigues Joël:  these horse-, reindeer-, yak- and camel-breeders, not filmed as often, it is true, as the Cheyennes or the Apaches, or as the bison-hunting Sioux or the scalp-collecting Kiowas.

Joël is tempted, I can tell.  We see a lot of each other.  He goes over and over the project in all senses.  Eventually, unable to stand it, he asks one of his friends, Jean-Louis Leconte, to help him create a first screenplay from my novel – a really professional one, good enough to show a producer – and asks me to take them both to Siberia to show them the land, the people (and the animals.)  He didn’t have to ask twice.  At any mention of travelling around in Russia, and preferably round Lake Baikal, I’m ready to go!

So we left, and spent most of the month of October (for me, the best season) in the last year of the last century (1999), criss-crossing the area around Irkutsk, then Oulan-Oude.  Like a rich boyar [Russian nobleman] showing his vast domains to foreigners whom he wishes to impress (favourably), I carted my cinematic friends to the west, then the east, banks of Baikal, made them go out for a lovely boat-trip on the lake, took them to the village “old-believer” of Bolshoi Kunale, organised a collection of two hundred horses at Oyeur, very close to the Mongolian border, showed them the mouth of the Irkout river, at the foot of a pink cliff, dragged them to museums of history and ethnography in the region, showed them the old quarters of the great cities, almost unchanged since Peshkov rode through – in a word, everything!

The fish was hooked.  Thereafter, Joël did everything possible to bring his project to fruition.  He rewrote the screenplay once, twice, three times.  Still not satisfied, he asked Michel Fessler, a famous screen-writer, to write a final version.  Michel already had many successes (“Ridicule” in the cinema, “The Odyssey of the Species” on television.)

It was this final version to which the Commission d’Avance sur Recettes gave its support.  This support was necessary to help the director convince producers, distributors and financiers to put their money on “Serko.”

The first to jump into the saddle was an intrepid little woman, well known in the world of cinema:  Catherine Dussart.  Her father was a great producer.  She herself became famous for producing most of Pavel Longuine’s films.  So the first advantage was that she knew Russia, and was not terrified (unlike most of her French colleagues) of the idea of going there to film.  The second advantage was that she loves horses.  Not from afar, no, riding them!  It is quite common, early in the morning before going to her office in Boulogne to undertake inevitably difficult negotiations with bankers, for her to go to Maisons Laffitte, where the illustrious trainer Jean-Paul Gallorini gives her one or two gallopers to help her cope with the stress…..

In the end it all comes together.  Catherine suggested I return to Russia, this time scouting for locations.  So Joël and I went back in October and November 2004.  She charged me above all with the most exciting of missions: finding and choosing the horses which would play the role of Serko.  Me, casting horses!  Joël reserved for himself the task of casting the other actors (and above all, of course, actresses.)

It was a double challenge.

Firstly, because the breed, type, variety of horse which the real Serko belonged to – horses of the Amur, of Manchurian origin – no longer exists.  I had seen this with my own eyes when, in 1986, I visited the main studs of Heilongjiang, the new name given by the Chinese to Manchuria:  local horses, here as in the ex-Soviet Union, have been “improved” by the specialists in animal husbandry – sorcerer’s apprentices – who succeeded in their job, certainly, in getting taller and stronger horses, but at the cost, regrettably, of the original breeds’ astonishing endurance and resistance.  So it would be a waste of time looking for our Serko in these faraway countries:  the only horses to be found there are just about good enough to pull a cart and to make …. sausages.

Secondly, because in a film like this, where the distances between locations are hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres, we could not make do with one horse who would be lugged around (how?) from one place to another according to the needs of the camera.  It must be possible to have one horse, or, better still two or even three horses, on hand by every “scene”:  one horse to play the role, and one or two doubles in case the first is indisposed.

The film was due to be made in three different places – two in Siberia and one in European Russia – so we needed to find between six and nine horses who looked similar – six doubles!  Same height, same look and, if possible, same sex!

My searches around Lake Baikal having proved fruitless (fewer and fewer horses are being bred in these regions, those which there are being born and growing up wild:  if we had had to choose three or four, break them in, teach them the two or three tricks we expected of them – it would have taken a long time to finish the film!) I became convinced I would have to look …. elsewhere.

Look for what, exactly?  Grey horses (Serko is the diminutive of the word “siery” which means grey), not too big, with strong limbs, thick necks and manes, slightly hooked noses, heavy cheeks, but a bright eye.  “In short, Camargues” said one of my French friends.  Yes, rather.  But the Mediterranean is a bit far from Baikal, so let’s look closer.

I thought of the solid horses invented by Count Orlov, the famous trotters of the same name, not too tall, with strong shoulders and backs, who usually become, as they age, a light grey – like Serko.  Catherine Dussart agreed.  So we left for Varonej, the cradle of the breed, where Count Orlov created his breeding programmes and whose studs, which were taken over by the State, had continued to produce Russia’s most emblematic horse, without interruption, even through the revolution.

Varonej is five hundred kilometres south of Moscow:  an overnight train journey.  I asked my old accomplice, Nicolas Bordovskikh, to accompany us.  Not only is he an excellent interpreter (and a faithful friend) but his contacts in the Russian horse world are very useful.

The studs at Tchesmenski and Khrenovoye have all the charm of great buildings with a prestigious past, but our visit was a little disappointing.  We just managed to find a pair of nice mares, Mitra (9) and Popoulatzia (7) offered at $3,000 each.

We were far from having solved our problem.  Nicholas and I scoured anything in the Moscow region which resembled a stable, a stud, a hippodrome, a riding club.  And thus we managed unearth a dozen little grey horses which looked enough like the historical Serko.  My favourite was Casper, a 13-year-old gelding which we found in the pretty little equestrian centre at Ismailovo.  Unfortunately his price went up every day until it reached astonishing heights.  Some horses, like Orlik, owned by a young stunt woman, were not available for a very long time.  Others, like Barsik, were too old (20!) to stand a journey to Siberia.

Finally, Catherine Dussart decided on Altair, a 12-year-old gelding, a prefect double of the real Serko, certainly, but who turned out to be impractical – and on two delightful residents of the Bitsa stables:  Prometheus, a gelding almost 12 years old, and Fée, a gentle mare of 13 with a tender look in her eyes.

Bitsa is a giant equestrian complex on the edge of Moscow, where the dressage and jumping events of the 1980 Olympics took place.  The buildings are a little rickety, but the riding school horses are treated with love.

Fée, Prometheus (and Altair) were treated with love again when, in February 2005, they arrived in Irkutsk after an incredible lorry (truck) ride of more than 5,000 kilometres (8 days and 8 nights, in crazy temperatures of –20, -30!)

They were welcomed, pampered and cosseted by the beautiful Tatiana Neichumova, responsible for the little equestrian club in the old stables of the ancient hippodrome of the capital of oriental Siberia.  In the course of looking for locations in the region, four months earlier, I had been struck not only by her luminous beauty, but by the seriousness and competence with which she answered my questions, by the cleanliness of the stables, the happiness of her horses, and the wealth of her reserves of barley, oats and carrots.

Not long after the three Serkos arrived at Irkutsk, Tatania received reinforcements in the shape of Eva Shakmundès. 

Is it necessary to introduce Eva?  Nobody could forget this graceful horsewoman, long hair flying in the wind, standing on a magnificent grey Percheron called Rasputin, in the first cabarets and operas of Bartabas.  After her wonderful days with the Zingaro Theatre, Eva set herself up in her own name, creating equestrian spectacles (“Penthésilée”) and bringing her experience to film-making.

Her presence at the filming of “Serko” was a determining factor.  For a start, she had the bright idea of creating a sort of false mane (with real hair):  a kind of wig which could easily be hooked onto, then unhooked from, the horse’s neck, first on one horse, then on another – thus accentuating the resemblance between them.  It was hard to tell, from afar, if Serko was played on any one day by Fée or by Prometheus (or, in the St. Petersburg area, by Kokan, a perfect double of Serko, unearthed on the spot by a friend, Anastasia Naoumova):  they all had the same long mane ….

Until three months before filming began Alexis Tchadov, the young comedian recruited by Joël Farges to play the part of Peshkov, had never swung his leg over the saddle.  Eva managed to turn him, if not into a great circus rider, at least a competent horseman.  When he arrived at Irkutsk, only a few days before filming started, Alexis had taken an intensive course in riding in Moscow.  He knew how to recognise the front of the horse from the rear, walk forward, a little trot, break into a canter, pull on the right rein to turn right, on the left to turn left – nothing more.  He was, understandably, a little tense, rather stressed, and hung onto the reins.  Instead of giving him another crash course in equitation, Eva taught him to approach the horse, to stroke it, to feel it.  To reassure himself while reassuring the horse.  The result was miraculous.  When he got back in the saddle, Alexis was a different man.  One would have thought he had been doing this all his life.  You will see it on the screen:  a real pro!

The film opened in Paris on 29th March.

Text and pictures © Jean-Louis Gouraud.

Click here to read more about Jean-Louis's ride from Paris to Moscow in "Stories from the Road."

Click here to read about Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg's discovery of a herd of 4,000 wild Yakut horses in Siberia!

Click here to go to photographer Matthieu Paley's website.

Top of page        Home