(CNN) — While you're strolling the grand halls of the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, Russia, you might hear the faint sound of a meow coming from pipes below.
Roaming the sprawling basement of what was once the Winter Palace -- the official residence of Russia's ruling tsars -- are nearly 50 cats who are treated like royalty. Down in the main room (the "koshachiy dom," or "cat's house") they are fed and cared for by the staff at the Hermitage, with veterinarians on call.
The palace also has a special room for the more anti-social cats that prefer little contact with their fellow felines. Then there are the ones who meander the halls of the basement, lying on large pipes and trotting freely about the nooks and crannies of the palace.
The Hermitage even has a dedicated press secretary for the cats, Maria Haltunen. Though they are not allowed into the galleries and are rarely seen by the public, Haltunen says they remain popular.
"Maybe (it's) because they are so gentle, maybe because of the strange combination of huge museum and pretty cats," says Haltunen, who happens to be allergic to the animals.
A black cat sits in front of the Hermitage Museum.
Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images
'Guardians of the galleries'
Today, the Hermitage Museum consists of five buildings open to the public -- with the Winter Palace as the centerpiece. The nearly three-century-old building has been home to cats since the beginning. Empress Elizabeth I ordered by decree that cats be brought all the way from the city of Kazan, roughly 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) southeast of St. Petersburg, to catch mice in the palace basement.
The cats now prowl the basement of one of the largest museums in the world, which boasts some 233,000 square meters of space and more than three million works of art and artifacts, including a substantial collection of Rembrandts, Matisses and rare ancient Greek vases.
The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg at sunset.
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Strolling through the museum is like dancing in the footsteps of Russian tsars. Visitors can move through the crests and coat of arms room into the military gallery and then arrive at the throne room, standing in front of what was quite literally the seat of power for the Romanov dynasty.
Empress Elizabeth I approved the Baroque style for the palace, which was built in the 1750s and 1760s in the last years of her reign. Her father, Peter the Great, who founded St. Petersburg, had made it his mission to westernize the country, commissioning buildings from leading Italian architects. Under the reign of Catherine the Great, who acquired the first works of art, the Hermitage collection was born -- and the legend of the museum cats grew, with Catherine reportedly dubbing them the "guardians of the galleries." She commissioned the Small Hermitage (next to the Winter Palace) that was established as a court museum, with the Winter Palace remaining a private gallery. It wasn't until 1852, under Nicholas I, that it was opened to the public.
The Throne Room at the Hermitage Museum, the seat of power for generations of Russian tsars.
The museum through the eyes of its director
The current director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, knows every inch of the palace. His father was the director for nearly 40 years; Piotrovsky grew up wandering the halls.
"It is an encyclopedia of world art and culture. It is encyclopedia of Russian history," Piotrovsky tells CNN. "No other museum has such a combination of beautiful views and beautiful places."
Piotrovsky says his favorite spot is always changing. He loves that the art and artifacts are not housed in a "white cube," like the minimalistic backdrop of many of the world's art museums, but instead on display amid the grandeur of a palace.
While the director insists everything in his museum is a must-see, one of the big draws is the famous Peacock Clock, one of Catherine the Great's acquisitions. From its perch overlooking the gardens, the gilt-bronze clock consists of three life-sized, moving mechanical birds.
During a recent visit to the Hermitage, CNN's Richard Quest (left, standing) was able to see the clock in action.
"The peacock is the bird of paradise, gardens are the symbols of paradise in a way," says Piotrovsky. "It makes a kind of small paradise inside the museum."
The Soviet Union and the resurgence of cats to the Hermitage
When Piotrovsky took the helm at the Hermitage in the early 1990s, the country was in turmoil. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the country faced an economic crisis so dire it forced people to throw their pets into the streets.
The museum decided to take in some of the stray cats, adding to the few felines left in the basement at the time.
Piotrovsky says his thinking was to "give (people) a symbol of humanity, a symbol of people's love to the animals."
But, he adds, "not everybody liked it. Not everybody likes the smell of cats."
The palace cats have even been immortalized in these portrait illustrations, featuring costumes from the Hermitage collection. On the left is "Cat Tigrik" sporting a traditional court outrunner's ceremonial uniform. On the right, "Cat Gavrila Ardalionovich" models the court chamber herald's ceremonial costume.
The Hermitage Museum XXI Century Foundation
For many years, the museum staff would use their off hours to feed and care for their furry colleagues, but now the cats also depend on the generosity of donors. Every year, the museum hosts a "cat day" where children come to learn about and paint pictures of the felines.
To this day, the palace cats faithfully carry out their mice-catching duties -- even the eldest cat, at 22 years old.
"Well, if mice would pass close to our cats -- they will catch," says Haltunen. "They do their job very well."
A cat prowls the basement of the museum, looking for mice.
With cats in the basement and art above, the museum draws visitors from every corner of the world. During the early stages of the pandemic, the Hermitage's works were only available to view online. But Piotrovsky says he believes that people now recognize the importance of seeing the collection in person, in all its majesty.
"I think it is a great symbolic museum," he adds, noting that the museum has endured wars and political upheaval throughout the centuries. "No other museum, frankly, has such a history as the Hermitage."