Tag Archives: russia

Russia’s museum cats

Lovely piece by Sally McGrane in The New Yorker: Winding beneath the magnificent halls of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, with its Da Vincis, diamonds, Greek statuary, Egyptian parchments, enormous number of paintings, mechanical peacock clock, and other treasures, there is a catacomb of cellars. It was into this windowless nether region—far below the Winter Palace’s expansive view of the waters of the Neva—that Maria Haltunen and I had cautiously descended. As I followed her through a narrow, imperfectly-lit corridor, full of large pipes and jutting wires, Haltunen gasped. “Look!” she said.
In the semi-darkness, a little being had appeared. He perched, a foot-tall shadow, on a water pipe.

“Oh, you are a fat one!” said Haltunen, jangling the chain of her I.D. pass like a talisman as she approached the pointy-eared creature. “How nice you are!”

The cat sat, perfectly still. Then he vanished.

“Some of them like to be around people,” said Haltunen, who has been the personal assistant to the museum’s director for the last eighteen years and, in addition to her regular duties, also serves as the museum’s semi-official Press Secretary to the Cats. She peered behind the pipes to see where the creature had gone, but found only a blanket, tucked against the wall, and a bowl. “Some of them prefer to be by themselves.”

Once a motley crew of frightened strays hiding, half-starving, in the palace’s basement, the Hermitage’s cats are now a well-loved, well-fed part of the museum’s family. Some seventy former street cats live at the Hermitage, where, thanks largely to Haltunen’s efforts, they have their very own underground cat infirmary and three full-time volunteers to care for them.

Underground, in their domain, there were signs of them—tiger-striped cat beds, bright pink and blue plastic bowls, places where the heating system’s pipes had been covered in soft, flowered material so that the cats could nest there. Now and then, a pair of bright eyes glanced out from a shaft; in a fenced-off corner, beneath blue and red water pipes, sprawled a little black kitten with white paws. As we passed, he jumped up, sprightly, and sidled out of the off-limits area.

“Our director is always saying they are the spirit of the place,” said Haltunen. “The museum’s genius loci.”

It wasn’t always this way. Fifteen years ago, Haltunen came upon the cats, sheltering in beleaguered prides in the museum’s heating system. Troubled by the animals’ plight, she and a colleague started feeding them, donning maintenance uniforms and lugging leftovers from the cantina to do the rounds of the extensive basements each day after work. “It was awful, after
working all day, to put on ugly clothes, to carry stinky beans through these dark basements,” said the diminutive Haltunen, who, with her large, bright eyes and button nose is not entirely un-catlike, herself. “But if you start, you can’t stop.”
Then, they decided to organize. They took up a collection—“A rouble for a cat”—and used it to buy food. Newspaper articles appeared. People became interested. The museum’s director gave them permission to use some little rooms in the basement to keep ill and elderly cats, and hooked up running water. “You know how it is,” said Haltunen, “You see a problem, and then you have to do something.”

In theory, the cats now form a fanged, clawed army with one goal: to catch and kill mice who might want to chew on the artworks. In practice, “they are fat and lazy,” said Haltunen, with evident pride. (A security guard once took a picture of one looking on, in astonishment, as a rat drank from his bowl of milk.) Still, according to Haltunen, when an exterminator came, they found fewer rat corpses afterwards than usual. She says that the mere presence of the cats, their bodies and smells, serves as a deterrent.

There have been cats in the palace since Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, issued a decree, in 1745, that the biggest cats, capable of catching mice, be sent immediately from Kazan to the court of her imperial majesty. Catherine the Great is thought to have favored Russian Blues as indoor palace cats; under the last Czar, the royal family’s pet cats, who were left behind in the palace, fared better than the dogs, who were taken along to Yekaterinburg with the family to their deaths. During the three-year siege of Leningrad, all of the animals in the city died—except for the rats, said to have been so numerous as to form a gray, moving mass in the streets. When the blockade was lifted, Haltunen said, as we continued our walk beneath the museum, Russians sent their cats to the city to help fight the vermin.

Stepping into the little cat hospital, a cozy, cluttered space that the oldest and sickest cats call home, Haltunen greeted Irina Popovetz, one of the volunteers who looks after the cats. Then she greeted Kusya (“Oh, this one has no tail!”), Jacqueline (“Look how fat we are!”), Sofiko (“You are very old!), and Assol, a tabby named for an impoverished literary heroine who waited at the seaside for a man sailing a ship with scarlet sails to come for her.

Taking a seat in the warm, pungent room and stroking Sofiko, she explained that, thanks to in part to donations from the German society Pro Animale and the pet-food company Purina, there is now an official Hermitage “cat account”—which always in the black. However, the cats are not just charity cases: last year marked the first official “Catfest,” in which all the entries for a contest for the best cat painting (there were nearly three hundred, mostly submitted by children) were exhibited for a day in the basement. For the second annual Catfest, held this spring, a scavenger hunt for children in the museum led to the museum’s only cat mummy, put on display that day only. Catfest was so popular that there is talk of extending it to two days next year. “We were astonished,” said Haltunen. “Crowds come to our dirty basement! It is really popular.”

The cats themselves, who are no longer afraid of people, have a positive effect on staff morale, she said. “People here become kinder, because they have the possibility to show this kindness,” said Haltunen, as we made our way back outside, where an orange cat was asleep in the sun beneath a classical statue. “It is very good when you have the possibility to show your best qualities.”

While cats are not allowed in the galleries or in the museum director’s wing, the people-loving felines have free rein in the former apartments of the ladies-in-waiting, where staff offices are now located. In the deputy of security’s office, “Little Hooligan,” a kitten abandoned in the countryside, where a security worker saved her from being used to train someone’s dog, was drinking milk under the Xerox machine. Frida, a black cat found in the garbage, posed on top of the bookshelf like a nineteenth-century Parisian lithograph, though—according to the photographic evidence that was immediately produced—she still likes to sleep in plastic bags. Niko, who looks like a mini-tigress, was fast asleep on a desk, with her tongue out (the desk’s putative owner assured us that this was no problem: grabbing hold of the sleeping cat’s long, bushy tail, the woman said that whenever she needed to sign anything, she just dips the tip in ink).

“People from Western countries, they say unfortunately they cannot permit cats in their offices,” said Haltunen, looking around, contentedly. “We are very lucky here.”

Photograph by Dmitry Lovetsky/AP.

The Russian Empire – full colour photos

Between 1909 and 1912, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii embarked on a photographic survey of the Russian Empire. His technique of using a specialized camera that caught images in rapid succession with red, blue, and green filters allowed them to be later recombined and run through filtered lanterns to create “near true colour” photos – a bit like the old projectors you used to get on aeroplanes and stuff. Click here to see the full set (that’s a self-portrait of his by the river).

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Peace at any cost

Eisenhower’s worst fears came true. We invent enemies to buy the bombs

Britain faces no serious threat, yet keeps waging war. While big defence exists, glory-hungry politicians will use it

Fascinating article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian:

Why do we still go to war? We seem unable to stop. We find any excuse for this post-imperial fidget and yet we keep getting trapped. Germans do not do it, or Spanish or Swedes. Britain’s borders and British people have not been under serious threat for a generation. Yet time and again our leaders crave battle. Why?

Last week we got a glimpse of an answer and it was not nice. The outgoing US defence secretary, Robert Gates, berated Europe’s “failure of political will” in not maintaining defence spending. He said Nato had declined into a “two-tier alliance” between those willing to wage war and those “who specialise in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks”. Peace, he implied, is for wimps. Real men buy bombs, and drop them.

This call was echoed by Nato’s chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who pointed out how unfair it was that US defence investment represented 75% of the Nato defence expenditure, where once it was only half. Having been forced to extend his war on Libya by another three months, Rasmussen wanted to see Europe’s governments come up with more money, and no nonsense about recession. Defence to him is measured not in security but in spending.

The call was repeated back home by the navy chief, Sir Mark Stanhope. He had to be “dressed down” by the prime minister, David Cameron, for warning that an extended war in Libya would mean “challenging decisions about priorities”. Sailors never talk straight: he meant more ships. The navy has used so many of its £500,000 Tomahawk missiles trying to hit Colonel Gaddafi (and missing) over the past month that it needs money for more. In a clearly co-ordinated lobby, the head of the RAF also demanded “a significant uplift in spending after 2015, if the service is to meet its commitments”. It, of course, defines its commitments itself.

Libya has cost Britain £100m so far, and rising. But Iraq and the Afghan war are costing America $3bn a week, and there is scarcely an industry, or a state, in the country that does not see some of this money. These wars show no signs of being ended, let alone won. But to the defence lobby what matters is the money. It sustains combat by constantly promising success and inducing politicians and journalists to see “more enemy dead”, “a glimmer of hope” and “a corner about to be turned”.

Victory will come, but only if politicians spend more money on “a surge”. Soldiers are like firefighters, demanding extra to fight fires. They will fight all right, but if you want victory that is overtime.

On Wednesday the Russian ambassador to Nato warned that Britain and France were “being dragged more and more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya”. This is what the defence lobby wants institutionally, even if it may appal the generals. In the 1980s Russia watched the same process in Afghanistan, where it took a dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev, to face down the Red Army and demand withdrawal. The west has no Gorbachev in Afghanistan at the moment. Nato’s Rasmussen says he “could not envisage” a land war in Libya, since the UN would take over if Gaddafi were toppled. He must know this is nonsense. But then he said Nato would only enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. He achieved that weeks ago, but is still bombing.

It is not democracy that keeps western nations at war, but armies and the interests now massed behind them. The greatest speech about modern defence was made in 1961 by the US president Eisenhower. He was no leftwinger, but a former general and conservative Republican. Looking back over his time in office, his farewell message to America was a simple warning against the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” of a military-industrial complex with “unwarranted influence on government”. A burgeoning defence establishment, backed by large corporate interests, would one day employ so many people as to corrupt the political system. (His original draft even referred to a “military-industrial-congressional complex”.) This lobby, said Eisenhower, could become so huge as to “endanger our liberties and democratic processes”.

I wonder what Eisenhower would make of today’s US, with a military grown from 3.5 million people to 5 million. The western nations face less of a threat to their integrity and security than ever in history, yet their defence industries cry for ever more money and ever more things to do. The cold war strategist, George Kennan, wrote prophetically: “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented.”

The devil makes work for idle hands, especially if they are well financed. Britain’s former special envoy to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, echoed Kennan last week in claiming that the army’s keenness to fight in Helmand was self-interested. “It’s use them or lose them, Sherard,” he was told by the then chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. Cowper-Coles has now gone off to work for an arms manufacturer.

There is no strategic defence justification for the US spending 5.5% of its gross domestic product on defence or Britain 2.5%, or for the Nato “target” of 2%.

These figures merely formalise existing commitments and interests. At the end of the cold war soldiers assiduously invented new conflicts for themselves and their suppliers, variously wars on terror, drugs, piracy, internet espionage and man’s general inhumanity to man. None yields victory, but all need equipment. The war on terror fulfilled all Eisenhower’s fears, as America sank into a swamp of kidnapping, torture and imprisonment without trial.

The belligerent posture of the US and Britain towards the Muslim world has fostered antagonism and moderate threats in response. The bombing of extremist targets in Pakistan is an invitation for terrorists to attack us, and then a need for defence against such attack. Meanwhile, the opportunity cost of appeasing the complex is astronomical. Eisenhower remarked that “every gun that is made is a theft from those who hunger” – a bomber is two power stations and a hospital not built. Likewise, each Tomahawk Cameron drops on Tripoli destroys not just a Gaddafi bunker (are there any left?), but a hospital ward and a classroom in Britain.

As long as “big defence” exists it will entice glory-hungry politicians to use it. It is a return to the hundred years war, when militaristic barons and knights had a stranglehold on the monarch, and no other purpose in life than to fight. To deliver victory they demanded ever more taxes for weapons, and when they had ever more weapons they promised ever grander victories. This is exactly how Britain’s defence ministry ran out of budgetary control under Labour.

There is one piece of good news. Nato has long outlived its purpose, now justifying its existence only by how much it induces its members to spend, and how many wars irrelevant to its purpose it finds to fight. Yet still it does not spend enough for the US defence secretary. In his anger, Gates threatened that “future US leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost”. Is that a threat or a promise?