TAMAN, Russia — Mornings are spent walking amid the latest construction work. Lunch is a bowl of hand-peeled jumbo shrimp, fed one by one. By evening, Mostik settles down in one of his favorite huts, with hard hats and piles of paperwork for company.
So goes each day for Mostik, or “Little Bridge,” a chubby, fluffy, ginger-and-white cat that has become an improbable superstar in Russia and something of a cuddly alter ego for the normally forbidding Kremlin.
Mostik is mascot, talisman and all-around symbol of one of the Kremlin’s flagship political projects — the bridge linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
President Vladimir Putin’s control of Crimea brought international condemnation and sanctions from the United States and the European Union. Ukraine remains locked in a battle with Moscow-backed separatists in the country’s east, and Russia has still not released dozens of Ukrainian sailors seized in the nearby Azov Sea last year.
But in Russia, the takeover of Crimea is widely supported.
This is where Mostik comes in.
His scavenger-to-shellfish origin story — a stray kitten adopted by construction workers four years ago as bridge work began — fits nicely into the strong-Russia narrative of many pro-Putin Russians.
Mostik’s popularity also provides insight into how the Kremlin spins patriotic projects with a domestic audience in mind.
“The case of Mostik is an unsophisticated example of Russian propaganda aimed at humanizing the Russian annexation of Crimea,” Ukrainian lawmaker Viktor Yelensky told The Washington Post.
Mostik has appeared on state television wearing a miniature orange hard hat and a cat-size fluorescent vest. His image graces mugs, T-shirts and even stickers for the messaging app Telegram. Artists have rendered his image in paint. Women have composed songs in his honor.
It’s still a head-spinning species shift for Russia. Putin is a known dog lover, and there are countless calendars, clocks and other items showing the Russian leader and his pooches.
Broadcasting to 46,000 Instagram followers on the account cat_the_most, someone jots witticisms and life observations under Mostik’s name next to photographs doing what he “says” he loves most of all: working.
“We don’t know what’s the bigger attraction — the bridge or the cat,” said Mostik’s veterinarian, Alexandra Lukyanova, who gives him a monthly checkup at her clinic in Taman, a tiny port town straddling the Black and Azov seas, and where the Russian side of the bridge begins.
To the delight of his adoring fan base, Mostik’s health is in excellent shape. “His only disease is fame,” Lukyanova said. She had no comment on his shrimp-heavy diet.
Mostik’s soaring popularity comes as approval for Putin has sharply dropped. Economic stagnation and government plans to raise the retirement age have caused the Russian population’s trust in Putin to plunge to a 13-year low. After he annexed Crimea from Ukraine five years ago, Putin’s popularity rating hovered around 90 percent.
The bridge — at 12 miles long, the longest in Europe — is very much Putin’s personal project. Ukraine and the West deem the annexation and the multibillion-dollar double bridge over the Black Sea’s Kerch Strait as illegal.
Special-edition metro tickets picturing the bridge were issued in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and billboards of beaming construction workers popped up across the country, carrying the messages “This is my land!” and “This is for my children!”
By the end of the year, wine made from grapes from both sides of the bridge, a marriage of Crimean and Russian harvests, will go on sale under the name “Crimean Bridge.”
The bridge receives plenty of negative coverage in the Ukrainian press. There are regular reports that its infrastructure is poor and parts are crumbling into the sea — claims Moscow dismisses as “myths.”
Surprisingly, Mostik has escaped mention.
Either way, for the burly construction workers who coo over him, pausing from their duties to scratch under his chin in search of an especially audible purr, the affection is genuine.
“To abandon such a cat would be sacrilege,” said Dmitry Siderenko, one of the bridge’s construction managers.
When Putin inaugurated the bridge in May, in a flashy event showcasing his authority, Mostik rode four trucks behind him. Videos showed the cat on the dashboard of a Russian-made Kamaz, luxuriating in a strip of sunlight.
A day earlier, Mostik surprised Kremlin-watchers when the cat’s Instagram account boasted that he was the first to traverse the full length of the bridge, a day ahead of the Russian leader.
Around 4 million cars have since made the journey across the bridge. Construction of a parallel rail bridge is ongoing; the first passenger train is expected in early December. That maiden voyage is likely to have at least one furry passenger.
Mostik’s handlers, from the government-run Crimean Bridge Information Center, who also oversaw public relations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, say his messages are intended as interpretations of the feline’s mood that day.
They say Mostik is his own master, but an investigation this year by the Russian media outlet Proekt said he is part of the Kremlin’s PR machine. According to the report, Mostik’s image is promoted by Danila Gromov, the son of Putin deputy chief of staff Alexey Gromov. (A spokeswoman for the Crimean Bridge center confirmed Danila works with it but gave no more details.)
“If you stroll about and work in the fresh air, you can be as beautiful as me, only without a medal,” Mostik’s Instagram account said last month with a winking emoji. In the photo, his white chest stands proud as his four paws balance on a heap of gray stones. Piercing green eyes gaze off into the distance.
Mostik’s “medal,” a metal cat tag saying “Chief Supervisor,” was a recent gift from one of the thousands of construction workers he has befriended.
“He is our handyman,” said Siderenko, cradling Mostik by a dusty metal container. “Of course, he helps morally more than physically. He brightens our mood and encourages us to get going.”
Spending most of his time on the Tuzla island in the Kerch Strait — about equidistant from Russia and Crimea — Siderenko has become one of Mostik’s favorites.
The feeling is mutual. Behind Siderenko’s desk is a cat tray, a mound of shrimp and a cardboard box containing a gently folded blanket.