The story behind St. Petersburg’s favorite felines
An elite group of residents has called St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace home since at least 1745...
Are they royalty? Politicians? No, they’re cats.
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Empress Elizabeth brought in the first group of fuzzy felines around 1745 to serve as royal rodent catchers. When the Hermitage opened to the public in 1852, Russian Tsars charged these kitties with keeping the museum’s masterpieces from turning into mice food.
Much like their Romanov owners, this initial cat population dropped off during the Russian Revolution. But, as rats infested St. Petersburg’s streets, many locals started releasing cats to control the situation. The cat population bounced back to the Hermitage, but the furry residents lived in very poor conditions.
Flora (1634) by Harmensz van Rijn RembrandtThe State Hermitage Museum
Flora, Rembrandt, 1634 (From the collection of The State Hermitage Museum)
Thankfully, a dedicated group of volunteers joined forces in the 2000s to save abandoned street cats and give them a better quality of life in the Hermitage’s basement. In addition to enjoying tons of pampering, these fluffy staff members receive generous donations from cat-food companies, and they even have their own annual celebration.
Mosaic floor (1847 - 1851) by UnknownThe State Hermitage Museum
Mosaic floor, Unknown, 1847 – 1851 (From the collection of The State Hermitage Museum)
There’s some debate, however, whether these cats are actually doing their job. One Hermitage security guard captured an image of one cat sitting back as a rat drank from its bowl. In the cat’s defense, museum officials argue the mere presence of cats in the Hermitage helps deter mice that might’ve otherwise nibbled on a few masterpieces.