The koschka catacombs

Cats resting on the pipes of the shelter underneath the Winter Palace (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

The secret army underneath the Hermitage

By: Catherine Barney & Till Rimmele

Underneath one of the world’s most famous museums is a refuge for tabby veteran warriors. In 1745 Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, introduced an edict which granted cats shelter to the Winter Palace, today known as the State Hermitage.

The tsars are now gone, but the cats remain in what is officially referred to as the Cat Republic. Typical of any human republic, the Cat Republic also has a governing system to make sure every aspect of the State Hermitage is protected. Stray guardians prowl the grounds outside while more polished guardians keep watch over the underground treasures.

A lesser known and typically inaccessible part of the republic houses a separate shelter for cats which are unfit for guard duty and unlikely to find a new home in St Petersburg. Strays and street cats also have access to the shelter which lies directly underneath the Winter Palace.

Portrait of one of the Hermitage cats (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

The underbelly of the Winter Palace is a labyrinth of corridors lined with lukewarm heating pipes – the purrfect place for any feline warrior who is tasked with keeping the buildings vermin-free. The stray cats living in the area around the palace can find food and shelter down in the labyrinth. They swarm the catacombs like they own it, as if Catherine the Great promised their ancestors it would always belong to them.

  • Stray cat seeking shelter in the catacombs of the Hermitage (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • Volunteers have installed various games for the cats to play (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • Cats are free to move in and out of the catacombs through deliberately open windows (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • Not only do volunteers provide games but also food and beddings for the cats (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • The catacombs offer many places to hide (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • The cats mainly come here to relax and hide (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

For those kitties ready to leave their vagrant lifestyles behind, becoming a full-fledged member of the Cat Republic begins with a health inspection. Following the catacombs underneath the great reception hall, a separated and quarantined area can be found. Before cats go on official business to the Cat Republic, they are kept here to determine whether they are suitable for visitors as official public representations of the Cat Republic.

Not all kitties are destined for state work. With some luck, they can leave the Cat Republic to protect private homes of St Petersburg––a duty only given in exchange for a loving home.

The cats who are not fit for public service will be taken care of in the shelter where they have each other for company and their human servants for all their catty wishes––except the freedom to wander outside. Their human volunteers treat them well and the shy little kitties can have peace and quiet sleeping near and on heating pipes for the rest of their lives.

  • The shelter is a transitional arrangement for the cats. Only the docile ones will be subsequently moved to the Cat Republic (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • The shelter and the catacombs are off-limits for the public so that the cats can relax undisturbed (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • Some of these cats have been rescued from poor living conditions by the volunteers (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • The shelter is a paradise in itself where the cats’ main occupations are sleeping, eating and occasionally playing (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • As some of these cats have previously been mistreated they are not docile or sociable enough to be moved to the Cat Republic (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)
  • Most of these cats can be adopted, but the older and less social ones tend to remain in the shelter (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Perhaps they are the most precious artwork in all of the Hermitage, not ready to be displayed to the public. The tsars sure appreciated these felines and the tradition of keeping them on pest control duty continues throughout the years.

You can follow the cats on Instagram or visit their republic on 10 Yakubovicha Street to meet some of them in person. Visitors should take caution as it is possible that one of these guardians of the Hermitage could claim you as human servant for adoption.

Visiting these little furballs in the shelter is usually prohibited, but a human volunteer of the kitties decided to grant exceptional access to cover the story of the koschka catacombs.

Read more about the Cat Republic and its history in St Petersburg here.

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