November 14, 2021

Cats: An Unofficial Symbol of Saint Petersburg

Cats: An Unofficial Symbol of Saint Petersburg
A pair of kitchen towels with cat-centric artwork by E. Romanova. Tatiana Claudy

Can you guess a price of a cat in Medieval Russia? It was the same as an ox! Not surprisingly, because cats were exotic animals. As the legend goes, the Byzantine princess Anna (the bride of Prince Vladimir the Great) brought the first cat in Russia in 989.

Such valuable animals were protected by law. According to the Metropolitan’s Justice (a code from the thirteenth century), the fine for killing a cat was 1 grivna (a silver bar weighing 205 grams, or 7.23 oz). Cats, as “clean animals,” were allowed to live in monasteries and churches to protect food stocks from mice and rats. 

The history of cats in St. Petersburg goes back to the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great ordered that citizens "have cats in barns, for the protection of those and intimidation of mice and rats.” His daughter, Elizabeth, ordered that there be brought from Kazan “the best and largest thirty cats, suitable for catching mice” to safeguard against rodents in her residence, the Winter Palace. Although her daughter, Catherine the Great, disliked cats, she tolerated them, especially Russian Blue and white Angora cats, as “guardians of picture galleries.” And all the Russian monarchs who followed also kept cats in the royal residence. 

The tradition continues: today fifty cats live in the Winter Palace (the Hermitage museum). Each  has a name, such as Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Hemingway — even Hillary and Trump! Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the museum, called them “a legend of  Hermitage life and its integral part.” No wonder that these animals inspired works of art: Mary Ann Allin, an American writer (and longtime friend of Russian Life), wrote a book, Anna and the Hermitage Cats, and Chris Brubeck, an American musician and composer, created a musical drama for children, “Hermitage Cats Save the Day.”

But famous St. Petersburg cats aren't limited to those who live on Palace Square.

A Feline Tour

Our first stop in a feline tour of the Northern Capital is Malaya Sadovaya street. Two statues of cats (created in 2000 by sculptor Vladimir Petrovichev), Elysey and Vasilisa, are placed on the cornices of apartment buildings #3 and #8. These figurines remind us how, in 1943, cats saved the city from rats. During the 872 days of the siege of Leningrad by German armies, almost all cats perished. To fight multitudes of rats, thousands of mousers from the Yaroslavl region and Siberia were brought to the city. Some of them were taken to the Hermitage museum to save priceless exhibits from rodents. 

Today, the Elysey monument is believed to have magic powers — if you toss a coin and it lands on the cornice where the cat “sits,” he will grant your wish.

Elysey, cat sculpture
Elysey, keeping watch for mice (and wishes) | Tatiana Claudy

Our next stop is Marata Street 34 where another popular cat (created in 2005 by Vladimir Petrovichev) "walks" on the cornice of the apartment building. Petrovichev presented the monument to the local art group “Mitki.” They named it Tishka Matroskina, dressed it in their uniform, an iconic telnyashka, and placed it under the window of their workshop. It was “Mitki” that devised the idea of celebrating the World Day of St. Petersburg’s Cats each June.

Now we move to the cat cafe-museum “Republic of Cats” at Yakibovich street. This is the largest cat cafe in Europe. An alternative to an animal shelter, it houses about 60 cats (including retired Hermitage cats) who can be adopted. Visitors measure their height and weight in “cats,” create their own cat comics, and play with the friendly denizens. Outside, “sitting” on a suitcase, cat Vasily grants travelers' wishes. To make your wish come true, you need to rub his belly (which is why it is so shiny!). And Kitten Funtik (created by sculptor Semyon Platonov in 2013) grants the wishes of children.  

Republic of Cats
Of course, cats are well-known for their populist leanings.
A "Monarchy of Cats" would be simply unthinkable. | Tatiana Claudy

One of the newest landmarks in the city is the statue of the Learned Cat (at Prospekt Ispytateley 31). Chained to a tree, the cat “reads” a book inscribed with “Happiness is where you are.” Sergey Melnikov, a blacksmith, created it as a 3-D illustration of the well-known lines from Alexander Pushkin's "Ruslan and Lyudmila" (translated here by Yevgeny Bonver): 

There’s a green oak tree by the shores
Of the blue bay; on a gold chain,
The cat, learned in the fable stories,
Walks round the tree in ceaseless strain:
Moves to the right – a song it groans,
Moves to the left – it tells a tale.

And then there is another popular cat – a live one, name Osya. He lives in the museum dedicated to the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, having made the former apartment his home about sixteen years ago. Later, two other cats, Kesha and Persik, joined him. Osya loves to lie on the sofa or sit on the windowsill. I've visited this museum several times and never missed the opportunity to pet him. And, of course, little Osya has been quite the celebrity lately.

Osya, before he was famous. | Tatiana Claudy

The Akhmatova Museum houses the study room of another Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, who was Akhmatova’s good friend. Legend has it that when Akhmatova told him that he resembled her big ginger cat, Brodsky replied, “If you are to be someone in your next life, then the best thing is to be a ginger cat.” By a little bit of mystical coincidence, all “Akhmatova’s” cats are ginger!

Our final stop is at one of the most beautiful places in the city — the Griboyedov Canal Embankment near the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This is the place to go for souvenirs featuring images of St. Petersburg’s cats. Such rich choices: backpacks and tote bags, towels and napkins, scarves and pillowcases. I am especially drawn to “Peter’s cats,” a series of images created by the local artist Vladimir Rumyantsev. His cats are extraordinary, curious, and intelligent. In addition to “common cat’s business” like walking on roofs or watching a fisherman, they write with a quill, play musical instruments, hug angels, and even fly in the sky! Despite the death of their creator, “Peter’s cats” continue to tell their fascinating stories about their hometown.

cat souvenir cart
Rumyantsev's works, adorning a souvenir cart. | Tatiana Claudy

Of course, I bought pillowcases, scarves, and towels with pictures of these lovely creatures to take to my home in Indiana, making it into a small symbol of St. Petersburg, and to remember the fine felines of a charming city.




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