From rags to riches in Russia: St. Petersburg’s “Hermitage Cats”
St. Petersburg’s legendary State Hermitage Museum is a must-see destination for any traveler who visits Russia‘s northern capital. People go to the Hermitage to admire the vast collection of art and artifacts from all over the world dating from prehistoric times all the way to the present day. But as they wander the halls of the stately Winter Palace on St. Petersburg’s Neva River, most visitors don’t know that a separate Hermitage collection exists in the basement – a collection of cats.
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The presence of cats at the Hermitage dates back to 1745, when the Winter Palace still served its titular purpose as the official residence of the Russian monarchs. Distressed by the prevalence of mice and other vermin in the palace, Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, issued a decree demanding a shipment of cats to be sent from Kazan to solve the problem. Her request specifically called for “better cats, the largest ones, able to catch mice, and accompanied by a person who will look after their health.” The empress soon received a full carriage of Russian Blues to act as basement-level hunters, launching a nearly uninterrupted tenancy of Hermitage cats that continues to this day.
Since that first installment of Russian Blues, the only time in history that the Hermitage basement has not played host to a community of cats is during the devastating 872-day Siege of Leningrad, when all animals in the city perished except the rats. Cats were reintroduced shortly after the siege was lifted, though they did not achieve their current status of chats célèbres until after the fall of the Soviet Union. After the end of WWII, cats quietly repopulated the Winter Palace and their presence went mostly unnoticed until they were discovered by museum staff in the late 1990s. Some of the Hermitage employees began feeding them and took up a collection among museum patrons for the cats’ ongoing needs.
Today, the Hermitage plays host to anywhere from 5-7 dozen cats, most of whom are former strays. Thanks to private donations, as well as help from Purina and the German Pro Animale Society, the basement cats are now well-fed and even have their own infirmary and staff of dedicated volunteers to manage their welfare. Though not all of the cats are good mousers, there is no punishment for cats who are lax in their hunting abilities, and it is said that their presence alone is often enough to deter a reinfestation of vermin at the Winter Palace. There has never been a better time to be a Hermitage Cat!
Travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, with MIR
Although it’s a long shot, there have been sightings of a Hermitage cat or two by visitors to the Hermitage, as they make their way through one of the museum’s outside courtyards. It’s all luck of the draw. We suggest you head to the Cats’ Republic café, where retired Hermitage cats have been known to relocate.
Cat-sighting or not, a visit to the Hermitage is a must for all those who visit St. Petersburg. You can experience the Hermitage like a local on any of these MIR small group tours and rail journeys by private train:
- Russia’s Imperial Capitals & Ancient Villages
- Insider’s Russia: Moscow & St. Petersburg Rediscovered
- Russian Winter Wonderland
- Land of the Midnight Sun by Private Train
- Arctic Explorer by Private Train: Quest for the Northern Lights
MIR has over 30 years of travel experience in Russia, with affiliate offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Siberia offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
(Top photo: Gilded walls of the grand staircase in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo credit: Meaghan Samuels)
PUBLISHED: January 30, 2015