Telling the story of the Hermitage Cats

In an interview with Elena Bobrova of RBTH, American writer Mary Ann Allin, the author of “Anna and the Hermitage Cats,” talks about the story behind the children’s book.

On the bool cover: The author's graddaughter Anna. Source: Press image

In an interview with Elena Bobrova of RBTH, Mary Ann Allin talks about her first visit to the Hermitage and how she first discovered the museum’s famous cats.

RBTH: When did you first visit the Hermitage? What were your first impressions of it? What about it captured your imagination?

Mary Ann Allin: I first visited the State Hermitage Museum in 1984. My late husband was an American diplomat, and we lived in Leningrad for three years. I lived near the museum and was a frequent visitor. The museum is full of treasures and stories. In the Winter Palace, one can imagine the glorious sweep of Russian history, relive scenes of revolution, and imagine the tragedies of the Romanovs. In all six buildings of the Hermitage Museum complex one finds art in all genres, from all periods of time and all parts of the world. 

RBTH: When did you first learn about the Hermitage cats?

M.A.A.: I discovered the Hermitage Cats in 2005 while visiting the museum with my granddaughter Anna. On the day Anna and I visited the museum, we were received by the director in his office. We asked about the cats because often one would encounter cats in the corridor near the director's office.

Then he said, "If Anna would like to meet the cats, I will call the Press Secretary to the Cats." When [the director’s secretary] Maria Haltunen came in, I realized that she has another identity as Press Secretary to the Cats. On a private tour, Masha [Haltunen’s nickname] showed us the places where the cats live in the Winter Palace cellars and storage rooms.

While you cannot see the cats every day, their life in the museum is not a secret. If anyone visits the museum on the annual Day of Cats in spring, the basement rooms are open. Children’s drawings are exhibited for the cats. Games are organized and prizes are awarded. It is a special celebration day for cats and children.

Maria Haltunen organizes veterinary care and food for 50 cats that live in the basement and courtyards of the Winter Palace. Masha and her colleagues on the museum staff give their time and in many cases part of their salaries to the cats. They are protectors of animals as well as art.

RBTH: How long did it take you from developing the concept to publishing the book?

M.A.A.: First edition appeared in 2007; it took two years to publish both Russian and English versions.

RBTH: What kind of support have you had from the Hermitage staff?

M.A.A.: The Hermitage staff has been supporting their cats for many years, centuries in fact. I have simply opened their story to a wider audience. Profits from the sale of the book are given to the Hermitage for cat food and veterinary care.

12 Custodians of the Hermitage treasures

12 Custodians of the Hermitage treasures

After the success of the book, we made a musical fantasy called Hermitage Cats Save the Day with a marvelous score by American composer Chris Brubeck. Russian theater artist Alexandra Komarova designed animations of children’s drawings that are projected on a big screen while actors and musicians present the show. 

Hermitage Cats Save the Day premiered on the Hermitage Theater stage in 2013 and in the United States at the University of Alabama School of Music and Washington’s National Gallery of Art. We have a number of active discussions about performances in various cities, including Moscow and New York, but dates and venues are not yet determined.

RBTH: How did famous St. Petersburg painter Anatoly Belkin became involved into your project?

M.A.A.: Anatoly Belkin has been my friend for some 30 years. His daughter Maryana Sokolinskaya is also an artist and perhaps because we share the same name we too have been acquainted for a long time.

Together we three planned the book as a creative team—Russians and Americans working together. The artists’ prize-winning illustrations bring the story to life, mixing reality and fantasy. 

Their original drawings were exhibited at the Hermitage and at the St. Petersburg International Children’s Library. Famous Hermitage artworks are shown in the book’s final pages. Throughout the story, a reader sees these art treasures as Anna explores the museum’s galleries and corridors searching for cats.

RBTH: Can you tell me in five words what the Hermitage is for you?

M.A.A.: A great museum in a great city.

Mary Ann Allin’s book Anna and the Hermitage Cats is currently in its third printing and is available from Amazon

 

Read more about the Hermitage


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