by Joan Larsen
St. Petersburg. . . Russia’s most wonderful city has drawn me back more than once. Home of the world-famous Hermitage Museum — just named the best museum in all of Europe (!) — is praise enough to have art lovers making a bee-line north.
But – hidden far beneath the museum — lies what has to be undoubtedly any museum’s best kept secret – a world of regal cats who not only call this palace home, but have assumed the official title of “cultural ambassadors” – a title actually given by the Hermitage to them. As you might imagine, they hold their heads up very high and very proudly.
How could I not want to somehow arrange a meeting with The Press Secretary to the Cats – and yes, that is one of Maria Haltunen’s official titles! The story of these special creatures – so privileged to spend their lives in the most splendid museum in the world – will be one that will stay with all who have heard it, I believe. Once our hearts are touched in that “forever” way by the love and esteem that these beautiful creatures receive by all who encounter them, their story becomes hard to forget.
Actually, cats have resided in the Winter Palace since 1747. It was then that the Empress issued a decree, arranging for a chauffeur to bring “house cats suitable for catching” to her home. And so it was that a carriage full of Russian Blues were ferried posthaste from Kazan to the imperial residence. The teal palace on the bank of the Neva River was transformed – by Empress Catherine the Great – into one the world’s most renowned art collections. But even she was heard to say: “There are few visitors to the galleries – only me and the mice”. Under Catherine, there was a clear distinction between house and court cats – with the latter having complete reign in the galleries.
Maria Haltunen, hired in 1995 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wandered down the stairs beneath these galleries of baroque splendor. As she put it, here lay a netherworld of heating ducts and storage rooms. But dozens of cats stared out at her, hungry and neglected.
This kind woman – and a veritable army of friends who soon devoted themselves to the cats’ care and keeping – proudly showed us the places where the 70 cats live in the Winter Palace cellars and storage rooms: the Hermitage Cattery.
No longer are the animals allowed in the galleries; however, many of the green service doors in the six Hermitage buildings have small cat doors in them. And so the residents can come and go as they please between the gardens – where in summer they are to be found lounging and strolling as humans do among the priceless outdoor exhibits.
It is a sight to see.
No, the cats no longer are free to roam the galleries, but “the most people friendly” can be seen in the former apartments of the ladies-in-waiting, where the staff offices are located.
These days there are just not enough rodents to provide their food requirements, so their food is prepared by their guardian angels: an army of volunteers and three full-time women , paid for by – what else – the Museum Cat Fund.Veterinarians donate their time and efforts to the cause.
The Keeper of the Cats left the best surprise until last. Haltunen proudly told that each cat has its own “passport” as well as an annual holiday in April in their honor – a time when visitors line up for the chance to meet the cats and possibly adopt one.
Many in St. Petersburg find it prestigious to have a Hermitage cat at home. For a person interested, there is an interview first with a volunteer – with living conditions and commitment discussed as well. Those cats who leave to be rehomed receive a special Hermitage certificate, which gives them that “certain distinction”.
Leaving this beautiful museum with its paintings — world-renowned and stunningly beautiful — was difficult, but then – just outside – I encountered one of the cats, comfortably having a rest on the head of a statue. This cat was thoroughly enjoying his life, neglecting the conventions of ordinary beings.
There is something very special here, something really extraordinary about the Hermitage cats.
Be sure to take a moment to see this enchanting and most beautiful youtube video… so you can actually view this stunning museum and hear first-hand how dearly its cats are loved:
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”