In 1745 the cats of Kazan had something of a reputation for their prowess as rat catchers -and dispatchers of mice too. Word of their expertise had duly reached the royal ear in St.Petersburg, so when Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine 1st, sought a solution for her rodent problem, the course of action was clear.
She decreed that a selection of the best, biggest and finest male (neutered) Kazan cats should be sent to the Royal Court – along with a suitable chaperone to mind and feed them. The number of those incoming rodent assassins is variously reported as 5, 30 or even 300! A surprisingly wide margin of error for what should be a simple matter of record.
How to deal with scavengers
Her problem concerned visits from unwanted scavengers to the kitchens and private chambers within the Winter Palace, home to the royal family and to Catherine the Great’s (Catherine 2nd) burgeoning art collection.
At the time however, the Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian royal family and their murine invaders. Something had to be done about the unwanted guests -and so the ongoing link between the Hermitage Museum and its cat population was born.
Catherine the Great preferred the distinguished Russia Blue breed to patrol the upper quarters, whereas common, genetically mixed moggies were displaced to below-stairs. Yes, a class-system for cats; it’s all about the breeding, don’t you know.
We don’t talk about that
A persistent feline contingent has inhabited the Winter Palace (and the greater: Hermitage) since the last quarter of the 18th Century, with the exception of one 3 year period during World War 2 -or The Great Patriotic War, as Russians prefer. During 1941 – 1944 Russia suffered the infamous and horrific Siege of Leningrad (St.Petersburg’s former name).
There, German forces blockaded and assaulted the Russian capital with troops, artillery and aerial bombardment in a bid to reduce the city to rubble.
Yes, that was the order -way beyond any definition of simple “defeat”. Some narratives euphemistically treat the cats as absent during this period and move swiftly on. The reality however, is somewhat different.
When two months of assault failed to break the Russian resolve, Hitler ordered instead that Leningrad be simply starved into submission or death -whichever came first.
As for the Hermitage cats in this scenario, why they were eaten of course – along with every other animal that breathed within the city bounds.
That’s shocking to some, but nothing compared to further atrocities that the human population was reduced to in order to survive. A very grim tale for another time.