The nine lives of Rus­sia’s Hermitage cats

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

For more than a cen­tury visi­tors have mar­veled at the Hermitage Mu­seum’s pre­cious col­lec­tions, and for just as long dozens of cats have prowled the Saint Peters­burg palace’s sprawl­ing cel­lars. The fe­lines has one main task-to root out un­wanted guests: ro­dents. The 70-odd bri­gade have their claws so deep into the history of Rus­sia’s largest mu­seum-and one of the world’s old­est-that there is even a spe­cial fe­line unit ded­i­cated to their wel­fare. “Our cats are as well­known as our col­lec­tions,” beamed Irina Popovets, who runs the unit.

Ev­ery morn­ing, art lovers from the world over ar­rive at the gates of the Hermitage com­plex on the Neva River hous­ing a col­lec­tion that spans an­cient Egyp­tian and Re­nais­sance art to mod­ern mas­ters like Cezanne, Gau­guin and De­gas. Mean­while, 45-year-old Popovets heads down be­low to feed her purring charges, a mixed batch of colors, breeds and tem­per­a­ments who are al­ways over­joyed to see her. Some days, she brings along three as­sis­tants to help her vac­ci­nate new ar­rivals and treat the sick.

As with hu­mans, love alone is not al­ways enough. “Most of them are in bad shape,” Popovets ad­mits, adding that many have been brought in by peo­ple who can no longer take care of them. Her of­fice is lo­cated near the mas­sive un­der­world in­hab­ited by the cats and its walls are hung with por­traits of the beloved an­i­mals. “Peo­ple very of­ten dis­creetly bring us their cats,” she said, and the mu­seum some­times strug­gles to keep the ev­er­ex­pand­ing fe­line staff. Cats first found a home at the Hermitage long be­fore it be­came a mu­seum open to the pub­lic in the 1850s.

In 1745, Peter the Great’s daugh­ter Em­press Elis­a­beth is­sued a de­cree or­der­ing that “the finest cats of Kazan (a city on the Volga river) be found, the big­gest, the ones best-suited to catching mice, so that they can be sent to Her Majesty’s court.” By the time Cather­ine the Great took power in 1762, the fe­lines had be­come of­fi­cial res­i­dents. They were even dubbed the Win­ter Palace cats, af­ter the royal res­i­dence that has now be­come part of the mu­seum. They sur­vived suc­ces­sive wars, in­va­sion by Napoleon’s forces and even the revo­lu­tion that over­threw Tsarist rule.

The cats, how­ever, did not make it dur­ing the 1941-1944 Nazi siege of Len­ingrad, the city’s name un­der Soviet rule. The city’s fam­ished pop­u­la­tion had no choice but to eat all their pets in or­der to sur­vive. Leg­end has it that the palace’s fe­line guard was brought back to life when World War II ended, when new re­cruits were brought in by train from all over Rus­sia. By the 1960s, there were so many cats at the Hermitage that the au­thor­i­ties de­cided it would be best to aban­don them.

Hol­i­days and post­cards

Yet the rat pop­u­la­tion pro­lif­er­ated and a few years later the cats again found their place. Though they are no longer al­lowed into any of the mu­seum’s 1,000 halls show­cas­ing more than 60,000 mas­ter­pieces, staff say the cats have won the fight against the ro­dents. And they have be­come stars in their own right, hugely pop­u­lar with some three mil­lion tourists who visit each year and snap up sou­venirs and post­cards adorned with cat pic­tures on sale in the mu­seum’s shops. “Given the Hermitage cats’pop­u­lar­ity, we have de­cided to kick­start a process to copyright their name,” mu­seum di­rec­tor Mikhail Piotro­vsky said. There is even an an­nual hol­i­day in the fe­lines’ honor once a year, as well as a web­site invit­ing res­i­dents of Saint Peters­burg to adopt one. Popovets picks up her of­fice phone to an­swer queries from a man keen to take home a kit­ten whose pic­ture he has seen on­line. “You’re right, it is an honor to adopt a Hermitage cat,”Popovets tells him. — AFP

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