Archive Cat: Tales from Moscow

When visiting an archive you prepare yourself for the usual bureaucracy and strict regulations. Yet it seems there are also those who slip in unnoticed, coming and going as they please. RETROGRAD meets some of the Russian State Archive’s more unusual inhabitants…

The Russian State Archive, a grey, Stalin-era fortress of a building, sits on a corner not far from the centre of Moscow. As with any archive, gaining access to documents requires navigating a unique bureaucratic process – as well as considerable patience. Once inside, the building is vast: a warren of corridors and small rooms wrapped around four sides of a large, open courtyard. And it is in this courtyard that you find the building’s most curious (and secretive) residents: the archive cats.

The feline conspiracy.

Peering around corners, sunning themselves in flowerbeds and, in the case of one adventurous black kitten, trying to climb a stack of crates, the archive cats silently keep watch over the comings and goings inside the gateway to a large part of Russia’s history. Above propuski (pass cards), opening hours and other formalities, these stealthy creatures have free reign over the self-contained world that is the Russian State Archive. And judging by the number of empty plastic dishes dotted about the courtyard, their presence is tolerated, even indulged, by the many archive workers.


After long days spent trawling through documents, eyes glazing over from reading reams of minute cursive handwriting, it is easy to start imagining what these feline inhabitants have seen over the years. Did they see them unload the supposed remains of two of the last Russian Tsar’s children, recently reported to be stored in the archive? Perhaps they know of secret rooms, basements, tucked deep inside the building? Do they notice the excitement on researchers’ faces when they hold a piece of history in their hands or stumble across forgotten manuscripts? Or their weary disappointment after spending hours scanning through documents seemingly to no avail?

Patrolling the courtyard.
Patrolling the courtyard.

These are just fanciful musings but they help us to think beyond the archive’s documents to the processes, history and people that have shaped the building and the institution itself. On the surface, it appears little has changed in the building since Soviet times: the décor, the (excellent) stolovaya, old-fashioned cars in the garages. Yet it is clear, not only from the archive’s vast collection, that the building and its workers have experienced many upheavals and transformations over the years. Who knows what changes descendants of the archive cats will see in years to come…

Camera shy.

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