Caturday felid: The cats of St. Petersburg

August 6, 2011 • 3:57 am

Although I’m told that Russians love their cats, you couldn’t prove it by me.  In my ten days in St. Petersburg, I saw exactly one living felid: a feral cat in the park at the Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace 45 minutes from the city.  And I only glimpsed the black cat (which, by the way, ran across my path) for a moment:

My personal observation, then, supports the hypothesis that the city of St. Petersburg harbors no cats.  However, there are monuments to felids in the city.  One striking one was in the gardens of St. Petersburg State University.  I was told at first that it was a monument to the cats studied by Pavlov (who worked there), but ultimately found out that this was an urban legend. The truth, however, is just as interesting.  During the Soviet era, there were lots of dire experiments conducted on cats at the University.  Supposedly some of them got loose, and ran around the grounds with electrodes protruding from their heads. Regardless, one of the physiology professors collected money to put up a monument in honor of the cats who gave their lives for these experiments.

this is the only picture I asked to have taken of me in the city:

There are two other statues of cats in the city.  One memorializes Yelisei the Cat, a hero of the siege of Leningrad in World War II:

If you don’t know the story of the seige, it’s heartbreaking, and a testament to the fortitude of the Russian people.  The city was cut off and bombarded by the Germans for 872 days—from August, 1941 through January, 1944.  Over a million people are said to have died, many from starvation, and for much of the time there was no outside supply of food.  The statue to Yelisei seen above (not my photo) supposedly memorializes the prowess of this cat at catching rats, which became an endemic health problem after many cats either died or were eaten during the blockade. Yelisei was supposedly one of many outside cats brought into the city to control the rats.

Here’s another cat statue from St. Petersburg, and again this is not my photo. I’m not sure what it commemorates; perhaps a reader can tell us.

I’ve previously posted on the basement cats of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, whose job is to keep the palace and art collection free of rodents.

Although I spent a lot of time in art museums, I saw only one painting that included a cat. But it is quite a famous one, Merchant’s Wife at Tea (1918), by Boris Kustodiev. It’s at the Russian Museum, and I sneaked this picture because I hadn’t bought an expensive pass to photograph the art:

The museum shop did sell expensive Russian lacquered boxes with images of kittehs. I didn’t buy any, but here’s a photo:

Finally, I am always curious to see what the locals feed their cats.  I went into Lend, a fancy supermarket, and after diligent searching found the cat food section.  Most of it appears to be imported, though with Cyrillic characters. Here are some cans:

But the most amusing thing was the variety of bagged cat food for cats of different temperaments and ages. These include the following varieties:

  1. Food for “specially demanding” or “sensitive” cats
  2. Food for “senior” cats who are “young at heart”
  3. Food for “fluffy homebodies,” or “in-home” cats
  4. Food for “tireless adventurers,” or “active” cats
  5. Food for “little explorers,” or “junior” cats

I almost expected to see an empty bag for “dearly departed” or “dead” cats.

17 thoughts on “Caturday felid: The cats of St. Petersburg

  1. It was a similar situation when I was in Bucharest–lots of feral dogs (sadly), but not a lot of cats wandering around.

  2. Cats were actually domesticated in Russia, dontcha know.

    On a related note, some dude from Russia wants me to ship my eBay laptop to him, all the way from Canada. Well, $100 shipping sounds good to me.

  3. I love the statue of Yelisei, it captures a real cat pose without being too stylised.

    The Merchant’s Wife painting is also delightful, the cat looks so pleased with life 🙂

  4. Hmm. They don’t worship kittehs, but they have several kitteh statues. A strange people. I would have been tempted by a small lacquer box. Thank you for your intrepid reporting.

    Regarding cat food varieties, those are oddly worded, but Royal Canin & Science Diet do the same thing here:

    1. Cats with sensitive stomachs (bland – usually chicken).

    2. Senior cats (10+) who are still active and burn calories, but have differend dietary requirements.

    3. Indoor cats burn fewer calories than outdoor cats, so this sort of diiet food.

    4. Active cats burn more calories.

    5. Kittens need extra protein and calories.

  5. I suppose, looking on the bright side, it could be that their feral populations are under control and their cats are, almost exclusively, indoor-only and neutered — which is what we’re striving for here in the States, after all…still, seems weird you didn’t see more flesh-and-blood felids….


  6. wow! felt really happy to read this post with lovely pictures. I am more of a dog lover but cats are delightful too.. and you seem to be so happy in that photo with a cat statue 🙂 Nice to see that… thanks for the post 🙂

  7. The neutering program might soon eradicate the normal housecat. The neutering program is running scarily efficient.
    See what happened to dogs: no common mongrel dog to be found anywhere, no own-parental-initiative pups to be got from the neighbours or whoever, only very expensive inbred rip-off from dealers.

    1. Heleen, I don’t know where you’re from, but I doubt it’s the US. We have the opposite problem when it comes to the overbreeding of cats and dogs, be they purbreds, mutts, or moggies.

  8. Of course Russians loves cats: they sent dogs into space 57 times, never a cat. [Wikipedia.

    It also tells me that France sent the only two cats ever into space; 1 survived, 1 died in an accident.]

      1. That reminds me of an (iirc) Arthur C. Clarke story where cats had been taken on board a space station as mousers, but they had struggled with zero G. Owls were more successful!


  9. ###
    It’s difficult to know what’s true in even recent Russian history. But that said…

    The mystery cat photo above is perhaps one of three cat sculptures that have been installed within the past decade. They are to be found on the outside of buildings at 1st floor level [Imperial units!].

    Here is one report about the cats that has been amusingly rendered into English by a machine translator: St. Petersburg is the World Day of cats and cats & HERE is another report that plagiarises the first link, but includes pics [it’s a Russian dating site for cats & dogs or their owners ~ you figure it out]

    St. Petersburg-born cat artist Vladimir Rumyantsev is involved – I don’t know how.

    I reckon there’s numerous cats, but they are indoor types. Any feral cats would need a well appointed shelter with rodents on tap to survive the winter


  10. When I was in Korea, I noted that I didn’t see many dogs of a certain size, except hanging from a chain, or on a table. Kegogi, and all that.

    Now I’m thinking about Majel Barrett, who was well known for her neighborhood trap, fix and release efforts.

    Thanks for cute pictures of the trip!

  11. Oh my, “little explorers.” I love those designations.

    My cat had to be on medication for a while, and it was a powder, so I gave it to him mixed in baby food. At the grocery store one day, the checker scanned in the dozen or so (MEAT AND GRAVY) baby food jars and asked me, “So! How is the Junior Executive?”

    That was years ago – now he’s the Senior Vice President who is young at heart.

  12. I am a cat owner (Buffy and Isabelle, now with temporary owners as my family prepares for a sabbatical in England), but I am keenly aware of the role felines have had in neuroscience. For example, the primary visual cortex (V1, and to a lesser extent V2) has been described as the single most studied brain system – and the huge majority of research about that region has been in cat.

    Perhaps the Russians were waging a sort of neuroscience cold war in the 60s and 70s, when vision research started its heyday. 🙁

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