Cats, people and rats. The year 1942 was doubly tragic for Leningrad. In addition to the starvation, which claimed hundreds of lives daily, there was another plague, an infestation of rats. Eyewitnesses recall that the rodents were moving around the city in huge colonies. When they crossed the road, even the trams had to stop.
Kira Roginova, a resident of Leningrad, recalls that -
"The rats moved in long lines, led by their leaders, along the Shlisselburg Tract (nowadays Obukhovskoy Oborony Prospect) straight to the mill, where flour was being milled for the whole town. The rats were shot at and tried to crush them with tanks, but nothing worked: they climbed onto the tanks and rode them safely onward. This was an organised, clever and cruel enemy...".
All kinds of weapons, bombing of the city and fires claimed thousands of lives, but the "rat army" did not care about all these disasters. They were swiftly devouring the starving siege survivors. The gray creatures ate what little food was left in the city. Rats also threatened the city with an epidemic. But no "human" methods of controlling the rodents worked. And cats, the main enemies of rats, had been gone for a long time. They had been eaten by humans.
Cats, people and rats. The cause of the rat infestation
At first the people around them judged those who ate cats. But the longer the siege of the city lasted, the less judgmental it became: a cat dinner was often the only way to stay alive.
"December 3, 1941. Today we ate a fried cat. Very tasty," a 10-year-old boy wrote in his diary.
"We ate our neighbour's cat back at the beginning of the siege of the city," recalls Zoya Kornilieva.
"In our family it got to the point where my uncle demanded that we will eat our cat Maxim, almost every day threatening to slaughter the animal. So my mother and I would lock Maksim in a small room when we left the house. We also had Jacques the parrot. In good times, Jacques used to sing and talk. But here, he's all shriveled up and quiet because of hunger. Our cat Maxim could hardly walk either - his hair came out in wisps, his claws could not be cleaned, he even stopped meowing, begging for food. One day Maxim managed to climb into Jacques' cage. Any other time there would have been drama. But what did we see when we got home! The bird and the cat were asleep in the cold room, huddled together. It affected my uncle so much that he stopped trying to kill the cat...".
"We had a cat called Waska. He was a family favourite. In the winter of 1941 my mother took him somewhere. She said that she would take him to the orphanage, they would feed him with fish, we couldn't... In the evening my mother cooked something resembling cutlets. Then I wondered where we got the meat from. I didn't understand anything... Only later I guessed... It turns out that thanks to Vaska we survived that winter...".
"In the house, during the bombing, the panes of glass flew out of the windows, and the furniture had long since been burnt in the stove. And Mama slept on the windowsill - fortunately it was as wide as a bench - she covered herself with an umbrella against the rain and wind. One day, someone found out that Mum was pregnant with me and gave her a herring - she wanted salty food so much... Mum put the present in a secluded place, hoping that she would eat it after work. But when she returned in the evening, she found only the tail and fat stains on the floor - the rats had eaten. It was a tragedy that only those who survived the siege will understand," says Valentina Osipova, an employee of Serafim of Sarov Church.
Loyalty to friendship and hunger are no hindrance.
Nevertheless, some of the townspeople, despite the brutal famine, rescued their pets. In the spring of 1942, an old woman, half-dead from starvation, took her cat outside for a walk. People came up to her, thanking her for saving her.
A former siege survivor recalled seeing a skinny cat in the city street in March 1942. Several old ladies were standing around it, crossing themselves, while a gaunt and skeletal-looking policeman made sure that no one caught the animal.
A 12-year-old girl in April 1942, walking past the Barrikada cinema, saw a crowd of people at the window of a house. They were looking at an unusual "picture": on a brightly sunlit window sill lay a striped cat with three kittens. "When I saw her, I knew we had survived," she recalled many years later.
Cats and humans. One story of saving people from rats
As soon as the siege of the city was broken in 1943, a decree signed by the chairman of the Lensoviet was issued ordering that "smoky cats be brought from Yaroslavl Oblast and delivered to Leningrad". The Yaroslavl inhabitants could not but fulfil the strategic order and caught the required number of smoky cats, then regarded as the best rat-catchers.
Four train carriages of cats arrived in the dilapidated town. Some of the cats were released immediately at the station, some were distributed to the residents. The distribution was instantaneous and many did not have enough.
Л. Panteleev wrote in his diary in January 1944: "A kitten in Leningrad costs 500 roubles. A kilogram of bread was then sold by hand for 50 roubles. The wage of a watchman was 120 roubles.
- We gave the most expensive thing we had - bread - for the cat. I myself kept some of my own rations to give this bread for the kitten to a woman who had a cat that had calved," recalled Zoya Kornilieva.
The cat army
The cats arrived in the dilapidated town and, at great personal cost to themselves, managed to drive the rats away from the food stores.
Cats have not only caught rodents, but also fought. There is a legend about a ginger cat that took up residence with an anti-aircraft battery near Leningrad. The soldiers nicknamed it "the listener" as it accurately predicted the approach of enemy aircraft with its meow. The cat was even made allowance and a soldier was assigned to look after it.
Another "batch" of cats was brought from Siberia to fight the rodents in the basements of the Hermitage and other palaces and museums of Leningrad. It is interesting, that many of the cats were pets - the residents of Omsk, Irkutsk and Tyumen brought their pets to the collection points to help the people from Leningrad. All in all 5 thousand cats were sent to Leningrad and they fulfilled their task - they cleared the city from rodents, saving for people what remains of the food supplies, and saved the people from the epidemic.
The descendants of those Siberian cats live in the Hermitage even today. They are well cared for, fed and treated, but most importantly, respected for their diligent work and help. And a few years ago, the museum even set up a special foundation for "friends of Hermitage cats".
Today, more than fifty cats serve in the Hermitage. Each has a special passport with a photo. All of them successfully protect museum exhibits from rodents. The cats are recognised by sight, from the back and even from the tail staff museum.