The real life of the “Aristocats” of the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg

By Cai Pigliucci, CNN

As you walk through the great halls of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, you might hear the faint sound of a meow coming from the pipes below.

In the sprawling basement of what was once the Winter Palace, the official residence of the ruling Czars in Russia, nearly 50 cats are treated like royalty. Downstairs in the main room (the “koshachiy dom” or “the cat’s house”), they are fed and cared for by Hermitage staff, with veterinarians on call.

The palace also has a special room for more antisocial cats who prefer little contact with their fellows. Then there are those who meander through the basement corridors, lying on big pipes and trotting freely around the nooks and crannies of the palace.

The Hermitage even has a press attaché dedicated to cats, Maria Haltunen. Although they are not allowed in galleries and are rarely seen by the public, Haltunen says they remain popular.

“Maybe (it’s) because they’re so sweet, maybe because of the weird combination of a huge museum and cute cats,” says Haltunen, who happens to be allergic to animals.

“Guardians of the galleries”

Today, the Hermitage Museum consists of five buildings open to the public – with the Winter Palace as the centerpiece. The nearly three-century-old building has been home to cats from the start. Empress Elizabeth I ordered by decree that the cats be brought from the city of Kazan, about 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) southeast of St. Petersburg, to catch mice in the basement of the palace.

Cats now roam the basement of one of the world’s largest museums, which boasts some 233,000 square meters of space and more than three million works of art and artifacts, including a significant collection. of Rembrandts, Matisses and rare ancient Greek vases.

Walking around the museum is like dancing in the footsteps of the Russian tsars. Visitors can walk through the Coat of Arms and Coat of Arms Hall to the Military Gallery, then arrive at the Throne Room, standing in front of what was literally the seat of power in the Romanov Dynasty.

Empress Elizabeth I approved the Baroque style for the palace, which was built in the 1750s and 1760s during the last years of her reign. His father, Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg, had made it his mission to westernize the country, commissioning buildings from leading Italian architects.

During the reign of Catherine the Great, who acquired the first works of art, the Hermitage collection was born – and the legend of the museum’s cats grew, Catherine would have nicknamed them the “guardians of the galleries”.

She commissioned the Petit Ermitage (next to the Winter Palace) which was established as a court museum, with the Winter Palace remaining a private gallery. It was not until 1852, under Nicolas I, that it was opened to the public.

The museum seen by its director

The current director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, knows every inch of the palace. His father was the director for almost 40 years; Piotrovsky grew up wandering the halls.

“It is an encyclopedia of world art and culture. It’s an encyclopedia of Russian history, ”Piotrovsky told CNN. “No other museum has such a combination of beautiful views and beautiful places.”

Piotrovsky says his favorite place is constantly changing. He likes that art and artifacts aren’t housed in a “white cube,” like the minimalist backdrop of many art museums around the world, but rather displayed amidst the grandeur of a palace.

While the director insists everything in his museum is a must see, one of the big prints is the famous Peacock Clock, one of Catherine the Great’s acquisitions. From its perch overlooking the gardens, the gilt bronze clock is made up of three life-size mechanical birds in motion.

On a recent visit to the Hermitage, CNN’s Richard Quest (left, standing) got to see the clock in action.

“The peacock is the bird of paradise, the gardens are in a way the symbols of paradise”, explains Piotrovsky. “It makes a kind of little paradise inside the museum.”

The Soviet Union and the resurgence of cats at the Hermitage

When Piotrovsky took over the Hermitage in the early 1990s, the country was in turmoil. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country faced an economic crisis so severe that it forced people to throw their pets onto the streets.

The museum decided to take in some of the stray cats, adding to the few felines left in the basement at the time.

Piotrovsky says his thought was to “give (people) a symbol of humanity, a symbol of people’s love for animals”.

But, he adds, “Not everyone liked it. Not everyone likes the smell of cats.

For many years, museum staff used their off hours to feed and care for their furry colleagues, but now cats also depend on the generosity of donors. Each year, the museum organizes a “cat day” where children come to discover and paint felines.

To this day, the palace cats faithfully carry out their mouse-catching duties – even the oldest cat, at 22.

“Well, if the mice walked past our cats, they would catch,” says Haltunen. “They do their job very well.

With cats in the basement and artwork above, the museum draws visitors from all corners of the world. At the start of the pandemic, the works of the Hermitage were only available online. But Piotrovsky says he believes people now recognize the importance of seeing the collection in person, in all its majesty.

“I think it’s a great symbolic museum,” he adds, noting that the museum has endured wars and political upheaval over the centuries. “Frankly, no other museum has a history as rich as the Hermitage.”

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CNN’s Richard Quest and Robert Howell contributed to this story.

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