The State Hermitage Museum in the Russian city of St. Petersburg is one of the oldest and most prestigious museums in the world. The gigantic collection, which has over three million pieces, was started by the Tsarina Catherine, but became accessible to the public, like a museum, since 1852. Among the historic buildings that make up the great Hermitage complex is the Winter Palace, the residence of the Russian imperial family. The tradition of Cats at Court dates back to a 1745 decree of Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg. In that years, the palace was infested with rats, which ran undisturbed in the royal kitchens. So, the empress issued an order “to find in Kazan…the best and biggest cats capable of catching mice, and send them to… the Court of her Imperial Majesty, along with someone to look after and feed them, and send them by cart and with sufficient food immediately”.
The cats had to be all male, and castrated. This breed of Kazan cat exist still today and it is know as Russian Blues, and Catherine the Great favoured these cats inside the palace, while putting common people to work in the basement! So, Elizabeth arranged the cats everywhere on the building, for an integrated struggle to the growing population of mice. The system proved extremely effective, and the empress decided to keep them permanently in the palace. When the Hermitage became a museum, the cats remained, to protect the precious collections from the rodents.
The cat colony has been continuously present in the former imperial palace from the time of Elizabeth up to the present day: it survived the October Revolution, and continued to carry out its task even in the Soviet era. The hunting cats did not resist only during the 900 tragic days of the Siege of Leningrad, when the people were starving and there was no food for anyone. So of course, the cats did not survive that.
At the end of the war, the entire city of St. Petersburg, not just the Hermitage, was invaded by mice. The solution adopted was the same: the government requested the sending of two wagons of cats, which again were of great help in eradicating the rodents.
Until the mid-1990s, the Hermitage cats were, in a sense, a little left to themselves. Then, the museum management developed a treatment program for its fluffy guardians, and since 2007 has also started adopting stray cats. Currently, the feline population of the museum has about seventy residents, looked after daily by four volunteers, who also take care of preparing their food in a special kitchen, because they all have different preferences! In one courtyard there is also a cat graveyard, and exist a large ledger, in which every resident cat is listed by name, along with its chosen living quarters, working area, dietary preferences, and many more.
However, cat lovers can not hope to meet them in the exhibition rooms: the cats live in the basements. Sometimes, however, one of them manages to sneak into the galleries, to the delight of the visitors!