Sleek, Stealthy, Untamed: Cats of Russia

We’ve all watched a cat video or two, but did you know that Russia has been deemed the cat-loving capital of the world? According to a 2017 study by the research company Dalia, cat ownership is highest among Russians, with 59% of Russian households featuring at least one cat! Ukraine was second on the list, coming in just above the United States. Russians even celebrate Cat Day annually on March 1. To celebrate Russia’s love for felines, we’ve curated some cat-related resources below—the purrfect way to spend an afternoon!

Hermitage Cats

The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is the second-largest art museum in the world. And while it contains countless paintings, sculptures, and artifacts, some of the most endearing parts of its collection have four legs and a tail!

The Hermitage was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 as the royal court museum. During her reign, Catherine collected thousands of books, gems, coins, and over 4,000 paintings, but since the museum was not open to the public, no one outside of the royal court could view any of these artifacts. The Hermitage’s collection soon became one of the most impressive in Europe, and helped Catherine to show that Russia was an enlightened society. In 1852 the Hermitage was opened to the public for the first time by Tsar Nicholas I, who was also known for bringing the first Egyptian artifacts to the museum.

The modern-day State Hermitage Museum is made up of the former royal art galleries, and the Winter Palace, the home of the Russian imperial family. The first Winter Palace was constructed in 1708 for Peter the Great, the first emperor of Russia.  The finished palace had over 460 rooms and was known across Europe for its beauty and opulence. The royal family continued to live in the Winter Palace until the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

Today the museum consists of five separate buildings, and has over three million items dating all the way back to the Stone Age! If you visit you will find European paintings, ancient Greek sculptures, an impressive collection of Central Asian art, and, if you are lucky, a cat in the courtyard too!

Follow-up questions

After watching the video and reading the text, please think about the following questions:

  1. What might you find if you visited the State Hermitage Museum today? 
  2. Who created the museum? What other purpose did the museum buildings once serve?
  3. What was the original job of the Hermitage cats? What is their job now?
  4. What other type of animal might be useful in a museum?

Draw a fancy cat

Artist Eldar Zakirov drew a series of paintings of the Hermitage cats dressed in colorful historical clothing. What would your cat (real or imaginary) wear if it wore clothes? Draw us a picture and share it with us! 


Olbia Cat

Image of Olbia Cat in the Hermitage Museum

Do you have a soft spot for big cats? You are in luck! Room 111 at the Hermitage Museum is guarded by a pair of marble lions. The cats were a gift to the museum from a wealthy nobleman in 1876, but their history goes much deeper. They were made in Olbia, a Greek city-state on the northern coast of the Black Sea, in the 6th century BCE, which makes them very old. But what makes them cool is that they are covered in graffiti—Scythian graffiti, to be exact. The Scythians were tribes of nomadic warriors who lived in a large area, from what is now southern Siberia all the way to the Black Sea. Between them, the lions have 272 pieces of graffiti carved into their surfaces. Scholars have created maps of the markings—called tamgas—and discovered evidence of the deep entwined relationships between the Greek and Scythian peoples in the Black Sea region. The markings—and through them, the marble lions—are a unique source for understanding tribe identity, property ownership, and symbolism in an era of political change.

Follow up question

Often, graffiti on a wall or an object makes that wall or object less valuable. In this case, it seems the Scythian graffiti made the Olbia lion more valuable. What do you think?

If you were going to leave graffiti on an object that historians would view years and years into the future, what message might you leave that helps illustrate the world you live in?


Lady Lion Tamer

See, Think, Wonder 

Take a look at the picture of the woman and the lion. 

  1. What do you see?
  2. What does it make you think?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

Celebrated lion tamer Irina Bugrimova during one of her circus acts.

Irina Bugrimova was the first female lion tamer in the Soviet Union (this country dissolved in 1991 into 12 smaller countries, including Russia). Ms. Bugrimova was born in Kharkhiv (currently in Ukraine), and as a child she had many interesting hobbies—gymnastics, speed skating, and eventually, motorcycling! In 1929 she joined the Moscow State Circus, where she began her career as a big cat trainer. Just ten years later she had trained lions to ride on a giant swing, leap through rings of fire, walk a tightrope, and ride on the back of a motorcycle. 

Follow-up questions

  1. Have you ever been to a circus? Did you see any animals as part of that performance?
  2. What do you think Irina Bugrimova might have had to do to get the lions to behave the way she wanted? 
  3. Did you know that many countries (but not the United States or Russia) have banned the use of live animals in circus shows over fears of how the animals are treated? Do you think wild animals should be featured in circus shows? Why or why not? Do you think there should be a worldwide ban on their use in circuses?

A Not So Tall Tail of the Siberian Tiger

Image of Siberian tiger from UNESCO

The Siberian tiger—also known as the Amur tiger—lives in the Russian Far East, in a region called Ussuria. Ussuria was almost completely unknown to Westerners until the early 20th century. In 1902 a man named Vladimir Arseniev began exploring the region on horseback along with a guide named Dersu. Dersu grew up in Ussuria, but was not Russian: he was Tungus. A hunter by trade, Dersu had survived a tiger attack when he was young. But the older he got, the more he worried about the wildlife of the forest. Russian and Chinese hunters were always fighting over rights to the Ussuri region, which was a prime hunting ground of sable and musk deer. In 1936 the Soviet Union set up a nature preserve to protect the tigers. Experts believe there were only a few dozen tigers left at that point. During World War II hunting came to a near halt, and after the war the Soviet Union set up new protections for the endangered cats. By the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were as many as 250 Amurs tigers—a remarkable recovery! In the chaos of the 1990s the tiger population fell again due to bribery, corruption, and increased logging, but in recent years the Russian Federation has stepped up protections, and the World Wildlife Fund sees reason to hope that these incredible beasts will be able to survive in the wild for a long time yet.

Check out these photos of tiger paw prints. Can you find any animal prints in your own backyard? 

One of the paw prints measures 14 centimeters (likely that of a medium-sized adult male tiger). Try making a print of your own hand and measuring it. Is your “paw” print larger or smaller than the Amur tiger's? (You can put your hand in water and then press it on paper or even on the sidewalk. If you don’t mind getting messy you could use fingerpaints. And, of course, you could use a good old-fashioned pencil to trace the outline of your hand on paper!)


Meet the Pallas’ Cat of Central Asia

Eurasia is home not just to many domestic cats, but to some of the most beautiful and rare wild cats in the world. The wild cats of Eurasia include the Amur leopard (Far Eastern leopard), Eurasian lynx, Pallas’ cat, Leopard cat, the Siberian tiger, and many more! One of the most interesting of these wild cats is the Pallas’ Cat of Central Asia. Although it is a wild cat, it looks very much like a house cat!

The Pallas’ Cat lives in the treeless grasslands across Central Asia. It has a thick fur coat, which allows it to live upward of 16,000 feet in elevation. It has a third eyelid that protects it from dust storms and cold Eurasian winds. This wild cat is not the best runner, and therefore stalks and ambushes its prey, which consists of small rodents and insects. Due to its smaller stature, the Pallas’ Cat spends its days hidden in burrows, caves, and the crevices of rocks.

The Pallas’ Cat is considered near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Its declining population is the result of habitat loss and decline of prey. 

Why is this animal known as Pallas’ cat? It’s named after a very famous German-born naturalist, Peter Simon Pallas, who is thought to be the first person to ever describe (not discover!) the cat. Pallas was invited by Catherine the Great to join the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1767. During his time in Russia, he led several expeditions throughout the vast empire, chronicling animals, plants, minerals, and people he met along the way. Many of the creatures and things that he described in his writings went on to bear his name, including a metoerite (called pallasite), several different birds, two kinds of bats, and more! The Pallas’ cat is also known as a manul, which is how you say 'cat' in Kyrgyzstan, one of the countries where this cat can be found. 

Image via Wikipedia

Follow up questions

  1. What other wild cats do you know? Where do they live? What size are they?
  2. Do you know some differences between what is termed a "big cat" (lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars) and a "small cat" (everything else, including cheetahs)?* 
  3. Do you know any other animals that are endangered? What are some things that we can do to help endangered animals?

*Answer: Big cats can roar but can’t purr, and small cats purr but can’t roar!


Vocabulary Alley

The Russian word for cat is koshka [кошка, sounds like KOHSH-kah]. How do you say “whiskers” in Russian? Bakenbardy [бакенбарды]. Meow is mostly the same: myao [мяу-мяу]. Tiger sounds similar in English and Russian [тигр, TEE-grr], while lion is lev [лев].


Did you enjoy this resource? Please let us know. Write to Davis Center Outreach Director Cris Martin at clmartin@fas.harvard.edu.