Russian cat theater feels claws of greed

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- The raid at the Moscow Cats Theater went down on a Friday afternoon after the curtain went up.

The men bought tickets as if they had come, like everyone else, to witness the world-famous spectacle that must be seen to be believed: a troupe of more than 100 cats - not tigers, not lions, but the kind that curl up on the living-room couch - leaping, climbing, springing, swinging and somersaulting their way across the stage.

But the men were not interested in cats.

They had come for Yuri Kuklachev, the head clown and the theater's founder. And after sealing off backstage offices, seizing all the theater's bookkeeping documents and suggesting Kuklachev had stolen state funds, it was a scandal they left behind.

For 17 years, Kuklachev and his family - he is a clown, his wife is a clown, one of his sons is a clown and his daughter creates sets for the show - have run the cat theater out of a building on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a prestigious address in central Moscow that has become an avenue of high-end fashion shops such as Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan.

But now, they fear, the theater's existence may be in jeopardy, like a cat in its ninth life.

The recent raid - which, according to the family, was carried out by men who identified themselves as officers of the city's Department for Combating Economic Crimes - is not the only sign someone wants to cause trouble for Kuklachev and his cats.

People who live above the theater recently began lodging complaints about the "smells," which never seemed to exist before or bother anyone if they did.

"They thought they would find something" incriminating, Kuklachev's son, Dmitry, 31, said in a recent interview, not long before donning his clown costume and pancake makeup for another performance, this one featuring a cat named Boris. "Unfortunately for them, they didn't find anything."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Combating Economic Crimes, Irina Volk, denied that the agency, which tackles smuggling, fraud and counterfeiting, had anything to do with the raid. But Valentina Titova, spokeswoman at the city prosecutor's office, where Kuklachev has since filed a complaint, contradicted that account; she declined to comment further, saying the matter was under review.

The pressure on the cats theater is hardly new, if the tactics are. Businessmen and others have long visited the theater, asking Kuklachev to sell or rent his space, even though the building and the cats theater has been acquired by the state (with the blessing of the family). Some have offered the theater a new home, albeit one far from the city center in a neighborhood less desirable than Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

The family suspects the raid was the work of a commercial interest hoping to take over the coveted first-floor space - and that more pressure, in one form or another, will follow. Since the building is owned by the city government, the theater theoretically could be kicked out at any time if the right person gave the order.

Yuri Kuklachev, who is 58 and looks astonishingly like a clown even when he's not in costume, made his living as one in Soviet times with the state circus. His calling as an animal trainer - though he has said the cats train him more than the other way around - stemmed from a chance encounter with a stray kitten he found in a bush and decided to bring home.

That was 30 years and hundreds of cats ago; Kuklachev has since taken his troupe across Russia and abroad, including the United States. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has as much control over the city's public and private real estate as anyone, is said to be a fan.

All of Kuklachev's cats are housed backstage at the theater, along with unicycles, hoops and other acrobatic props. There is a reddish cat named Chubais after Anatoly Chubais, the red-haired chairman of Russia's electricity monopoly and architect of the economic "shock therapy" of the 1990s.

Another orange one is Morkovka, or Little Carrot. Then there is Koshka Kartoshka, or Cat Potato, and Begemot, or Behemoth, named after the cat in Mikhail Bulgakov's fantastical novel Master and Margarita.

Enormous plastic bins in each of two glassed-in enclosures where the cats can move around freely serve as litter boxes, and wire fencing at the top provides for off-duty climbing. The cats eat twice a day and require an immense amount of food that has long been a drain on the theater's budget.

It's easier now that Boris earns his keep as the face of the Russian cat food brand Kitekat (pronounced "kitty cat"). Chubais also does a commercial for an allergy medication.

According to Dmitry Kuklachev's account, officers from the economic crimes department tried to shut down the 4 p.m. performance, which was already under way. But a shaken Kuklachev persuaded them to let the show go on. The rear offices were sealed, and two men sat backstage, apparently to make sure no one fled.

"It was funny and not so funny at the same time," said Kuklachev's son.

The officers implied that Kuklachev had stolen state funds. Their so-called evidence was the discrepancy between the modest amount of cash in the register and a 300-seat theater packed with families and children. Where, they wanted to know, was the rest of the money?

Kuklachev said only a few dozen tickets had been sold - and that the majority of spectators were children from orphanages who were admitted free, as they are regularly invited to do when there are empty seats.

Last week, the senior Kuklachev held a news conference at the theater, appealing to the public.

"I decided to ask you for help," he told the assembled press corps, wearing a tie adorned with cats. He doesn't go to parties, he said, and doesn't have big connections. "My whole job is cats."

If the theater is ultimately forced out of its present quarters, the family will likely be forced to take the show abroad for good. "He doesn't want it to happen," said Dmitry Kuklachev. "Neither do I. We love the country."

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