Voices from Russia

Monday, 4 June 2012

“Guard Cats” In Public Service at the Hermitage

Is this a feline Bulat Okudzhava? Ya never know…



The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg “hires” cats to protect its artworks against rodents. The so-called “guard cats” go unnoticed as they dwell in the attics and basements, away from the eyes of tourists. The museum administration has “employed” these highly skilful “guards” ever since the museum was founded in 1764. Even though nowadays rats and mice can easily be exterminated using chemicals, the museum can’t do without the cats, who’ve become a living legend and its mascots.

The first “public service” cats came in the 18th century. Tsar Pyotr Veliki was the first to provide shelter for a big cat he had brought from Holland at the then-wooden Winter Palace. Later on, Tsaritsa Yelizaveta Petrovna ordered a batch of rat-catching cats from Kazan because she was scared of small rodents. Cats acquired the status of palace guards during the reign of Tsaritsa Yekaterina Alekseyevna Velikaya. Under Yekaterina, they were divided into chamber cats (the Russian Blue breed), and backyard cats who chased rats and mice guarding Her Majesty’s peace of mind. The State Hermitage Museum started as a private collection of Tsaritsa Yekaterina, who acquired 220 works by Dutch and Flemish artists through her agents in Berlin. At first, most of the paintings she acquired were placed in secluded parts of the Winter Palace, which became known as the “Hermitage”, or “Retreat”, in French.

Hermitage-employed cats survived the October Revolution and continued their service under the Soviet government. However, they didn’t survive the siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. After starving people ate all the cats, rats infested the city. However, as soon as the blockade was over, two railway cars filled with cats arrived in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) from Russia’s central regions, to form the backbone of a new squadron of rat-eating cats. Cat numbers rose to an unprecedented high in the second half of the 1960s. As the cats prowled the basements, museum rooms, and corridors, the museum administration received orders to get rid of them, which they did. However, several years later, the “four-legged guards” were ordered back, for the museum found it too hard to do without them in its struggle to preserve cultural artefacts.

Since then, the Hermitage cats have gotten good care. Each so-called “hermit” has a passport with a photo certifying that he’s qualified to pursue the difficult task of protecting the museum basements against rodents. The cats are well looked after, fed properly, attended to if ill, and respected for their hard work. Museum employees know all male and female cats by their names, and the name for each cat is picked carefully, to suit his or her character. The team of four-footed guards consists mainly of alley cats, and like the imperial times, the cat community hinges on strict hierarchy. The cats fall into aristocrats, the middle caste, and the low caste. Each group operates within a certain designated part of the building. The cat staff cannot exceed 50-60 cats, but not because they’ll be difficult to look after in terms of cat food. If the number of cats exceeds 60, they start cat fights and neglect their duties. For this reason, from time to time, the museum has to look for people who’d adopt their extra cats.

The museum’s basements have specially designated areas for storing cat food and attending to ailing cats. The roadway near the museum has road signs warning drivers about cats’ presence and urging them to be careful and slow down. Road accidents are the most frequent cause of death amongst Hermitage cats. The Hermitage budget allocates no funds for the cats’ keeping. The cats live on donations from the public and museum workers. Hermitage Cat Day, marked annually on 28 March, is one of the museum’s memorable dates. The museum staff prepares a large number of informative exhibitions and exciting contests.

28 May 2012

Yuliya Galiullina

Voice of Russia World Service



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