Long before the Winter Palace housed first-rate art in its current form as the Hermitage, it housed exceptionally skilled and totally cute rodent killers. In 1745, Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, decreed that all felines proficient in rat-catching were to be sent from across her realm and delivered to the royal residence, the Winter Palace, to help keep the pest population at bay.
By the time Catherine the Great came into power in 1762, the furballs had established themselves as residents and as the front of defence in the war against unwanted intruders. During the centuries, the Winter Palace Cats, as they were now called, endured various wars and invasions up until the end of World War II.
When the Siege of Leningrad fell upon the city from 1941 to 1944, St. Petersburg was isolated from the rest of Russia, supplies were cut off and food grew scarce. The Winter Palace Cats didn’t survive the famine and starvation that engulfed St. Petersburg during those 900-odd days of what is recognised as one of the most brutal battles in modern history.
After World War II, mousers were once again shipped in from around nation and reinstated as palace protectors, or so the story goes. They have gone on to become almost as popular with the visitors to the former royal residence as the vast collection that spans from ancient Egyptian right through to the Renaissance period.
However, instead of being carted in from across the country for their hunting prowess, many of the cats have been abandoned, dropped off by owners who can no longer take care of them. And while they are not allowed in the actual museum, they are free to swan about the maze of back rooms, cellars, courtyards and tunnels as they like. They also don’t really protect the palace from mice anymore, they just kind of laze and loiter about.
Now dubbed (and trademarked) Hermitage Cats, there are around 70 furballs that currently call the Hermitage home and are cared for by an operations staff and a small team of volunteers. Each is named, and there is a kitchen to prepare their meals. Individual food preferences are noted. There even is a small hospital if they require medical attention. Despite being adored by the humans that care for them, the museum has begun to offer up some of its beloved residents to warm and loving homes.
An adoption scheme now in place, which allows for an adoring fan to pick up a really special souvenir. Hermitage Cat day is an annual event that celebrates the kitties. As part of the festivities, the backend of the palace is opened up to the public, potentially matching up pets to owners. There is even a website with a selection of cats on display and anIinstagram account dedicated to showing off what is arguably the museum’s most adorable and lovable collection.