Hermitage Museum Guarded by Secluded “Cat Troops” – Cats and human have been in inseparable relationships since ancient times. Nowadays, people keep cats as the apple of their eye. But back in time, they’d hired as diligent workers… as rodent slayers. You can find them under the thousands of art collections at Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Hermitage Museum History
Located in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Hermitage Museum is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world.
It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852.
Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items (the numismatic collection accounts for about one-third of them) including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings. The main museum complex, five, named the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre, are open to the public.
Catherine the Great started her art collection in 1764 by purchasing paintings from Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky.
He assembled the collection for Frederick II of Prussia who ultimately refused to purchase it. Perhaps some of the most famous and most notable artwork that was a part of Catherine’s original purchase from Gotzkowsky.
In her lifetime, Catherine acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries.
She sponsored many cultural projects. In St. Petersburg, Catherine had a theater built for opera and ballet performances—and even wrote a few librettos herself.
She was trying to change negative view of Russia as backward at the time by expanding educational opportunities and the arts.
Catherine had a boarding school established for girls from noble families in St. Petersburg, and later called for free schools to be created in towns across Russia.
Cats Brought on Board
There have been cats in the palace since Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, issued a decree, in 1745, that the biggest cats, capable of catching mice, be sent immediately from Kazan to the court of her imperial majesty.
Cats from Kazan were thought to be very good at catching mice.
Under Catherine the Great, they were divided into chamber cats (the Russian Blue breed as she is thought to have favored the breed), and backyard cats who chased rats and mice guarding Her Majesty’s peace of mind.
The Siege of Leningrad
Hermitage-employed cats survived the October Revolution in 1917 and continued their service under the Soviet government.
However, they didn’t survive the 900-days siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.
Bitter cold and daily bombardments, mass starvation made people eat all the cats, the city was infested by rats. It’s said to have been so numerous as to form a gray, moving mass in the streets.
But as soon as the blockade was lifted, two carriages with cats arrived in Leningrad (now St.Petersburg) from Russia’s central regions which would be the backbone of new troops of guarding cats.
The team of tailed guards consists mainly of alley cats, and like in the imperial times, the cat community hinges on a 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.
Cat’s History of Professional Rodent Killer
Put aside the Hermitage Cats’ story just for now, Let’s take a look at the history of cats being professional rodent killers.
Cats have been playing a crucial role in human survival in terms of keeping food and books/information intact. As far as we know now, probably from 9000 years ago, cats and human began contacting each other and somehow lived together.
Herodotus described the existence of libraries in Egyptian temples. During this period, some animals were given special training to prevent rodents and serpents from infiltrating temples in an effort to preserve papyrus rolls.
Monastic records from the Middle Ages indicate cats were utilized in medieval monasteries to stop rats from eating valuable manuscripts.
During the 19th century, the British government compensated libraries housing cats that kept rodents away from books. Distillery cats served the vital purpose of hunting and killing mice and rats before they could compromise grain supply.
Cats have been great contributors to maintain our society.
The Spirit of the Place
There is a number of volunteers and 3 full-time caretakers who take care of cats all devote to the cats and know all their names. Cats lounge at staff offices while they are not allowed to roam around in the galleries.
New arrivals are vaccinated and most are neutered to prevent undue proliferation, keeping just enough breeding cats to maintain the population around 50. Each cat has a passport with its photograph.
The well taken-care and loved cats are no longer afraid of people and have a positive effect on staff morale.
One of the staff says people became kinder thanks to the cats. Cats allow them to show their kindness fully without hesitation.
Cats bring out the best in people, so to speak.
Wanna visit? You can order tickets from here.
Catherine II Biography (Bio)
Behind Every Good Whisky Is A Trusty Distillery Cat (NPR)
THE SECRET HISTORY OF DISTILLERY CATS (VinePair)
Hermitage Cats – Эрмитажные Коты (hermitagecats.ru)
Also published on Medium.