“On the Designation of a Person to Cats” The Day of the Hermitage Cat is celebrated on an increasingly wider scale every year in St. Petersburg. The festive day is based on a legend that the first cat was brought to the city by Peter the Great. Later, in 1745, his daughter Empress Elisabeth issued a decree ordering cats from Kazan to be brought to the capital city in order to rid the Winter Palace of mice and rats. But was it really so?
Cats have always featured prominently in various legends, but, fortunately, there is documentary evidence saying when and how Peter the Great “registered” these pets in St. Petersburg. It can be found in the Complete Code of Laws of the Russian Empire, published in 1830. As he was busy improving office management in the Admiralty (in Peter’s times, this word did not mean the building where admirals were sitting, but the shipyard and auxiliary premises), the emperor ordered that a special person should serve in the warehouses and keep cats, and that pop holes should be made in the doors of the warehouses so that cats would be able to move freely around the grounds and destroy rodents wherever those could be found (Admiralty Regulations. April 5, 1722. Chapter 14, “On the Position of an Officer in Charge of the Warehouse,” Paragraph 15, “On the Designation of a Person to Cats in the Warehouse”). The Admiralty occupied a larger territory than it does now: It stretched from the Neva River approximately to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with the Admiralty Church standing on its present site. Cats were entrusted with the protection of this territory from rodents.
Possibly, the inclusion of a regular position of a “person to cats” in the list of laws of the empire is not an example of effective management, but this was the characteristic style of Peter the Great, as issues related to the management of the Admiralty were very dear to his heart.
It is not so important where exactly Peter the Great borrowed the idea of keeping cats in shipyards — in Holland, England or Venice. The idea worked to perfection everywhere, at least until the time when ships and buildings were no longer made from wood, and other means of protection against rodents were invented. But one million cats in St. Petersburg today, 99% of which do not catch mice, are the successors of those very first Admiralty cats.
Cats are quite common at shipbuilding enterprises even nowadays, although it is not everywhere that they hold an official status. The most famous shipbuilding cat of Russia lives at the Northern Shipyard. He is quite often interviewed by the media, since he now “works” as a curator of the shipyard’s museum, and, at the same time, as a rodent fighter.
The cat’s first name was Kuzma, which quickly changed to Vasily Kuzmich. At first, he lived at the checkpoint of the enterprise and was so loved by the workers that they made a special booth for him where he could take a rest from intense service. The workers gave him a last name, Steregushchy (literally: Guardian), in honor of the corvette of the Baltic Fleet, built at the Northern Shipyard between 2001 and 2008 (this was the fifth ship of the Russian Navy with that name). On March 30, 2019, Vasily Kuzmich Steregushchy suddenly disappeared. He went missing for a year and a half, and all that time the search for him continued.
The return of the animal to his native harbor occurred quite unexpectedly. In December 2020, a “new” cat appeared, and was nicknamed Sailor. But then it turned out that he was Steregushchy in person, as he was identified from existing photographs. Various guesses were made as to what could have happened to him, from the return of a “copycat” to a hypothesis that Vasily Kuzmich could have made a voyage around the world. The search, wanderings and the miraculous return made him a celebrity known all over the city. At the competition “Cat-Cultural Capital 2021”, he was acclaimed as the best service cat in St. Petersburg. By the way, Vasily Kuzmich Sailor Steregushchy also became the absolute leader of the competition according to the results of an online poll. The winner received a diploma from the organizers, a few varieties of cat food, and a special cat bed with a striped mattress.
Peter the Great was surrounded by cats from his childhood — all thanks to his father. Tsar Alexis honored and favored cats. In 1663 (nine years before Peter’s birth), the first Russian-made art image of this domestic animal appeared on the engraving “The Genuine Portrait of the Cat of the Grand Duke of Muscovy”, attributed to Wenceslaus Hollar. This engraving is believed to be actually a caricature of the tsar himself, because people often acquire some features of similarity with their favorite animals. Don’t you agree?