The Sacred Cats of The St.Peters Burg

CAT ADOPTION, RUSSIAN STYLE

Cat Glorifying Poem #1

  • Oh, cat-breath! How I miss the sound
  • of your little fuzz-feet,
  • Your claws, your jaws,
  • ouch, ouch,
  • Your climbing on my head,
  • Your fuzz-cakes-shoe-lace sitting pretty
  • On the corner of my tub,
  • Bouncing, trouncing “mousie”
  • your stuffed pet.
  • My stuffed pet,
  • oh cat of fuzz-fun-flake-cakes
  • Biting me in the morning!

What has happened to my brain? I wrote that thing hovering above there like a flying saucer from another planet. Where has the deep depressed literary seriousness of my poetry gone? What is going on here? —I came to to St. Petersburg of course, and have been adopted by a cat, and life, particularly depressed literary life, has gone straight out the window.

girlwithcatonstreet A little girl shares her “gamborger” with a street cat.

It began last July: I and my roommate Milla are coming home very late one night, and as we are about to enter the street door of our apartment, a small, furry, rat like creature weighing perhaps 8oz begins to make loud noises at our feet. I look at Milla, and Milla looks at me, and we both look down and check out the situation. On the ground before us is a three week old, starving, flea ridden cat, “meow-ing” with considerable lung power. Any American kitten in that sad condition would be terrified and intimidated by two sets of great galumphing human feet suddenly appearing before her. But this little fuzz ball, with oversize eyes, ears, and tail, is obviously already aware that cats have special status here in Russia. Instead of running away in terror, she just gently sinks her tiny claws into the cuffs of my 501’s and demands (in cat of course) to be fed with a rapidly increasing volume. She does not let up with either voice or claws until she is safely ensconced in our flat eating a tiny cheese omelet and drinking sterilized milk.

womensroom Ladies’ room sign on Nevsky Prospekt with a cat as the symbol of femininity

She knows her rights of course, she is after all one of the sacred cats of St. Petersburg. Where in parts of India cows are venerated, and in Alaska (where I come from) killing a raven once merited the death penalty, here in St. Petersburg it is cats that have special privileges. I have always suspected that this originated in the time of Peter the Great when the city was being founded. At that time the political caricaturists of the Lubok (wood-cut) form frequently used a cat to stand in for Peter. Peter had a round, catlike face, and wore a whisker-like moustache instead of a traditional full beard, so the substitution would hardly be misunderstood. Additionally, Peter’s court, busy adopting European customs as fast as they could, would not have been left out of the great 18th Century European cat revival, where the upper and middle classes of Europe, previously scorning cats as “witches familiars”, now bought and bred thoroughbred house cats, to the disgust and envy of the poorer classes.

At our home the little cat, having eaten half its weight in omelet, now seeks a suitable sleeping area for herself and the, perhaps, 100 fleas adorning her slender form. After a thorough over view of her new flat, and her two new servants (us), she decides to take her rest in the shoe rack near the door, wedged between my best flats. Resigned to our fate, we talk over possible names. The cat is skinny, no question, with a tail more appropriate to a rodent than a feline, so Milla goes back to the rack and brings me a tennis shoe. She pulls at the string and says “What is this in English?” “A shoe-lace.” And so, we call her “Shoe-lace” or “Shoolia” for short, and get used to the idea of being owned by a cat.

compukit Shoelace on my laptop

Fact is, cat adoption here is so impressively easy. Like Milla and I, you can find yourself a cat “owner” just by weakening for a moment at your doorstep. There is a Russian saying, “You do not adopt a cat, a cat adopts you.” Then there are also the cleaner, and disarmingly innocent looking, kittens for sale around many Metro stations. You get off the train, look for groceries for dinner, and between the cute little old lady with the onions, and the cute little old lady with the lettuce, is a cute little old lady with cute little cats! You are almost never faced with this shopping dilemma in the produce department of Safeway.

And you have no excuse like at home: “My landlord won’t let me.” or “I can’t afford the pet security deposit.” According to my friend Andrei, a Russian would regard a landlord (particularly the government) interfering in cat ownership a major breach of a tenant’s right to privacy. Only in communal flats is it considered politic to ask your flat-mates for permission to keep a cat. Even then it often isn’t necessary. At present, Milla and I are taking a trip to the Embassy in Moscow. While on this trip we asked Sasha, another friend, to cat-sit the Shoe-lace during our travels. Yesterday Milla called to ask him how he was doing with the cat. “No problem! I was afraid my flat mate would object, but I found her this morning, digging in the cabinets for a saucer—she had gone to a kiosk especially to buy her milk! If you stay away too long, I think we will keep her.”

Modern St. Petersburg, with it’s average of only 59 square feet of living space per person, renders cat ownership the norm, and dog ownership both an expensive luxury and a personal nuisance. The relatively primitive state of sanitation and pest control common in most apartment buildings also renders cats a general community benefit. In our own apartment block, the local cats, as if to remind us of this fact, dump a disemboweled rat corpse at the street entrance about once a month, just to keep all us humans properly grateful.

No, cats here are definitely in charge. Within 24 hours of Shoolia’s adoption of Milla and I we were buying her an imported flea collar to rid her of her pests, arranging toilet facilities near our own, and were finding it increasingly difficult to please her palate. She now makes it clear that we will provide her canned cat food on demand or we instead will endure loud screeching, take our pick. If I do not wake up when she is hungry, she simply jumps on my head and bites my toes until I do. Never have I been in a situation where the authority structure was clearer.

Shoelacecloseup2 Shoelace.

Milla is an artist and I am a costume designer. So thoroughly does the cat hold us in her power that I designed and made a costume for the cat to be amused with. It provides a firmly anchored hat which she climbs on. and a surrounding net and noisemaker “cage” for her to enter. Shoolia happily climbs into it and plays with the noisemakers until my neck hurts from the strain. Mila also spent some time trying to design cat amusement sculptures, until she found that one of her existing creations is the best of all. It is a metal mobile of brass and steel objects that Shoolia plays like a one-cat-band, making wonderful noises that fill our apartment.

milalamp Milla’s lamp

But it is not only in apartments that cats are kept and cared for, but in nearly every shop, restaurant and workplace. It’s amazing how many cats in this city have achieved the ultimate level of Cat-Nirvana: living in a fish shop. Our local branch of Detsky Mir (Children’s World) has two massive round beasts who lay sprawled on the counters like tourists on an Hawaiian beach. It may rain and snow outside, but the cats neither know nor care.

I ask Milla, “Where do they come from? Does the store take interviews for the position of store cat? Does the government issue them, so many cats for so many feet of floor space?” “The people who work there just adopt them.” Right. More like the cats just adopt the people…How is it, with 70 years of socialism, with the government regulating everything, interfering in everything, sticking its nose into everything, with shortages, with quotas and well, with, with everything, Russians retained the God given right to keep a cat at home, at work, anywhere? No free speech, no property rights, no free elections, nothing but the Right of Cat Ownership? Huh? What is going on here?

Last week Mila had to go visit the KGB to try to get a police certificate for the U.S. Embassy for her fiancée visa. “Milla, at the KGB office, did you see any cats?” “No.” “Do you think, where the public can’t see, they keep any cats in their offices?” “No! It’s too gloomy.” So there you have it. The one subversive element in a perfect Soviet society that not even the KGB could eradicate except in their offices: cats. Cats, the ultimate symbol of the private domestic life, flourishing through 70 years of government “control” of that domestic life. An unbroken line of fuzzy footed feline companionship through all the ups and downs of the Century.

When people get all bent out of shape at the apparent callousness and “hurry up” attitudes emerging in the new capitalist Russia, they should remember that some small things like this show an equal attitude of kindness and care for the little things in life, even through the worst of times. A good example comes from an article my mother sent me recently from an American paper. It describes how a nice man in Wusendorf, Germany has taken on the task of feeding the approximately 150 abandoned cats in the former Red Army base there. The article faintly sneers at the Russian soldiers for leaving the cats in Germany in “filthy deserted barracks”. What apparently has not occurred to the author is, why were the cats there in the first place? Did he think the Red Army issued them? Knowing that the troops must themselves have had to live in those “filthy” barracks before they were pulled out, should have provided a clue. Out of their miserable Army pay, and living in “filthy” barracks, the Russian soldiers managed to feed and house (against all Army regulations, I am quite sure) 150 stray cats! Given what I’ve read in the papers here about the appalling conditions for soldiers in the Army, this was, in itself, no small achievement. Who can then be surprised that the troops, called to return home to an uncertain future, could not, while traveling in troop trains, stuff 150 cats into their backpacks? The idea is ridiculous.

But I bet one or two did. I know I plan to. If you are an American like me. and you think that you have an excuse to avoid cat ownership: “I can’t take it with me to the States.” Wrong! According to U.S. Government Printing Office pamphlet 1990-249-187:QL 3 “Pets, Wildlife: U.S. Customs,” cats are the easiest animal to import to the States. The only restriction is “all domestic cats must be free of evidence of diseases communicable to man when examined at the port of entry…vaccination against Rabies is not required for cats.” In other words, Shoolia has special “visa” privileges that Russian humans don’t.

Milla fell in love with an American guy I know, and the two of them have been struggling for a year to get her a visa to the States so that they can get married. I, on the other hand can casually pack the Shoe-lace into a pre-fab carrier and zip home with her when I please. Today Milla and I are in Moscow. Why? Well, the U.S. Government insists that she spend $110 getting blood tests and medical exams out the ears (not literally, although they did check her ears too) for her visa, but Shoolia, the little street cat, isn’t even required to have a Rabies shot! Even the U.S. Government gives Russian cats preferential treatment.

Everyone here in Russia treats cats like objects of veneration. I recall, when I first came to Petersburg two years ago, standing amazed in DLT, the St. Petersburg equivalent of Macy’s, one day as a thick crowd of pushing desperate shoppers blithely bumped and shoved each other in a shopping frenzy, while carefully stepping around one of the store cats who had inconveniently chosen top center of the main staircase to nap. Today as we kill time in another store, we see a huge round tabby cat with thick fur and aggressive looking orange and black stripes sleep with calm assurance in one of the fancy new baby carriages on sale there. The customers, far from deploring the inevitable cat hair accumulation this will cause, each take turns going up to the cat and scratching its ears. They whisper soft nothings to the great purring lump of fur as the store clerks look on with approval.

kioskcat Cat in a florist’s kiosk

Step out on any street and you will see them: sleeping in the sunniest windows, stopping by the butcher shop to get free snacks, carried on the Metro by anxious humans transporting them from apartment to dacha. When a cat begins to feel distressed in a basket on the bus or Metro, watch how fast everyone comes to the basket to coo soft words to it to calm it down. No bus conductor would dream of ejecting a noisy cat from the bus like at home.

Look at the corner. Has a “Zootovari” kiosk emerged in your neighborhood overnight? With all the talk of hard times, (and hard times these are) the demand for Whiskas, Wist, Brekkies and other expensive imported cat foods keeps expanding faster than the supply. How often do you see an elderly pensioner, nothing in her shopping basket but cabbage, rice and potatoes, stop before checkout to pick up cans of fish costing more than the previous three? In every economic bracket kitty gets the best.

manwithcat2 Pensioner & cat go to buy fish

And here in Moscow now, I have proof positive of actual cat worship. I just turned into this little book shop in Mayakovskaya to get a book on mushrooms and what should appear on the book counter before me but Cat Shrines. In each shrine/bed lies a sleeping cat, so spherical as to be barely recognizable as belonging to the same species as skinny Shoe-lace. The woman behind the counter of the children’s book section, where the cats are located, is a cute elf like creature with giant eyes behind giant glasses. She herself almost resembles an illustration in a children’s book, so small and thin is her body, so big and round are her eyes. She obviously is the priestess-handmaiden of the cat shrines which she has decorated with little overhanging beads and cat photos, the better to glorify cat-dom.

Missing my Shoe-lace, stuck back at home in Petersburg, I show an interest in the cats, looking as round and sleepy as hibernating bears. The elf woman is delighted, and when I ask if I may take her photo with the cats she proudly pops out an album of her and kitties at home, in their shrines, when young, etc. For the photo-taking she puts dorky little hats on the cats. She puts a baby cap on one sleeping beast, who is so inured to the indignity he simply lies there as if dead. The other wears a fetching red straw hat with a half asleep depressed look that would do a Basset hound proud. The other book store employees look at the elf lady in kind amusement, as if to say “Well, yes, Irina is crazy, but she’s nice to cats and children, and, after all, is it so bad to be crazy about cats?”

Now, three months after the Shoe-lace appeared in my life to cause chaos and reduce my poetry to Dadaist gibberish, I’d say no. If this is crazy, I definitely want to stay this way. So, what the Hell, I can take the shame:

Cat Glorifying Poem #2:

  • My beloved golf-ball-brains!
  • How sharply your pointy little ears pierce the sky,
  • How deeply your pointy little teeth bite me!
  • Oh, cat-cakes, how I long for the sound
  • (Mraa! Mraa!)
  • Of your yowling for breakfast,
  • Your furry-fuzz-feet standing on my chest,
  • Your pointy nose, (Oh, pointy-ears) sniffing my face!
  • “Is she dead?” you wonder, oh fish-breath.
  • Nyet, oh fur buns, I am alive and kicking,
  • The proof is in the can. Can you taste it, my fur-cakes?
  • Oh fuzz-feline-hair-ball of my dreams!

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