A rusty street sign on the Palace Embankment in Saint Petersburg warns drivers to mind the cats who are likely to cross the road. The sign looks old, but it probably isn’t: the salty air, unrelenting winds and frigid temperatures all take their toll on the metal. It is a very important warning, though, and I am sure it gets replaced every few year at most, probably at the request of the cats’ own PR manager. Yes, you read that right: these really are VIFs (Very Important Feline) and they are also employees of one of the largest museums on earth: the famous Hermitage.
The cats were actually in the winter palace even before it become a museum. Catherine the Great founded the museum in 1754 (in the building now known as “Small Hermitage”) to house and display her impressive (and constantly growing) art collection. Almost a decade earlier, though, Empress Elizabeth (daughter of Saint Petersburg’s founder Peter the Great) had issued a decree, ordering: “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”.
Right now the “cat brigate” of the Hermitage is 60 to 75 and more units strong, according to different sources and they are undoubtedly effective in keeping rodents away from all the masterpieces housed in the various museum building. It is unclear, on the other hand, if the first “feline battalion” of the mid 1800s was equally efficient, as Catherine the Great once famously wrote to the french philosopher Diderot: “My paintings are enjoyed only by myself and the mice”.
If you want to know more about the Hermitage cats, the museum even published an 80-page-long book solely on the matter. If you have 25 minutes to spare, there is a really nice documentary made by the Russian TV station RT in 2013. If you are even more pressed for time, there is a shorter 2-minute video by the Smithsonian Institute.