FAREWELL TO A FAMOUS ‘FOX’: Кеша, a mythological cat in Svalbard despite a 1992 ban, dies after a long and legendary life in Barentsburg where he was ‘mistaken’ for an Arctic fox

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One of Svalbard’s most loved and yet battle-scarred longtime residents, whose too-good-to-be-true mythological existence made him world famous, has departed for the happy bird-hunting grounds in the sky.

Кеша (“Kesha” in non-Cyrillic letters), a legendary occupant of the Russian settlement of Barentsburg – who contrary to “common knowledge” was not the only cat in the archipelago nor officially classified as an Arctic fox to prevent his exile due to a 1992 ban on felines – died on Jan. 20 at roughly the age of 14, according to human residents there.

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A youth plays with Кеша in one of the many famous photos of the feline during his life in Barentsburg. Photo courtesy of GoArctica.

“Кеша was more than a cat to us – he was a part of Barentsburg,” Ivan Velichenko, a tourism manager for the settlement, wrote in an online interview. “His death made a lot of citizens very sad because mostly all of us have met Кеша many times and took care of him. Now the most common places where you could meet Кеша (the canteen or near the Culture House) look empty without him.
Now we are closely working on a tribute to Кеша. So he will not be forgotten. There were many stories with Kesha – he has a long and interesting life.”

The best-known of those stories, however, about being the only cat in Svalbard and being classified as a fox, are local myths ranking with the likes of “more polar bears than people.A lengthy”myths and legends” Facebook post about the ban on cats in Svalbard and Кеша’s existence despite it published by settlement officials in December notes how those “facts” became common knowledge is a mystery.

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Irina Kubas, a Moscow resident, shares a Facebook post of his encounters with Кеша during a visit to Barentsburg in 2019. Kubas describes Кеша as “a combat cat who’s all in scars, with torn ears.”

“But this myth, as well as some other fun and interesting facts on the subject of cats, continues to take place, but what is true and what is fiction is difficult to understand,” the post notes. “And we share these stories with our guests during the long polar days and evenings only here in Barentsburg.”

Besides, the post added, “Kesha really is a real-world star. Some pop stars could be jealous of that number of (social media) mentions.”

Cats have been banned in Svalbard 1992 due to disease concerns and to protect the vast bird population. But there are three other cats officially registered in Barentsburg – Ryzij (“Red Head” in Russian), Mila and Nyurawho – who, while appearing in occasional photos, have much lower profiles.

It’s unknown exactly how long Кеша lived in Barentsburg, but Denis Yurison, a resident of the settlement, told AltaPress in an article published in December the cat was secretly brought in by Russians in the 2000s, having registered him as a polar fox.

WhileКеша spent much of his time wandering free about the settlement, Olga Kostrova, a local tour guide, told AltaPress Kesha had a permanent owner.

“He is not ownerless, but freedom-loving,” Kostrova said. “He loves to go for walks, but lives in a house with his owner. If people feed him, he’ll happily oblige.”

The critter bore plenty of scars on his face from his encounters with other native wildlife. But in his latter years he became more of a homebody with his young human family, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda.

“During the pandemic,Кеша’s popularity increased even more,” the newspaper reported. “The cat living at the end of the Earth has inspired and supported people in difficult situations. They dedicated poems to Кеша, wished the cat health and dreamed of meeting him.”