The tragedy gripped Russia for days. Federal lawmakers convened a special committee and an investigation was launched, as hundreds of volunteers searched for the victim in subzero temperatures, and state news media ran live updates on the fallout.
Eventually, the victim — Twix the cat — was found dead.
A national outcry over the demise of a pet who was mistakenly thrown from a long-distance train by an attendant has highlighted both the limits of and the demand for an emotional outlet in wartime Russia.
A national poll found that about two out of three Russians were familiar with Twix, a very high proportion in a country where people increasingly tune out negative news, like the war in Ukraine, according to Denis Volkov, director of the country’s largest independent pollster, the Levada Center, which conducted the survey.
A combination of propaganda, a crackdown on dissent and public fatigue with the inconclusive war has turned internet curiosities into a focus of national attention for days, even weeks. Last month, a video of a Russian influencer tossing his 2-month-old baby in a snowbank in an apparent stunt received thousands of comments, the majority of them negative, and led to a criminal investigation.
Part catharsis, part political theater, events like Twix’s death are providing Russians with rare opportunities to vent and bond with like-minded people without running afoul of the police or censors.
“People have grown tired of political adversities, and here you have a helpless creature that has created all this resonance,” said Olga Kudriashova, a retiree who organized a weeklong search for Twix, a 4-year-old ginger male, in the provincial capital of Kirov, in temperatures that reached minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit at night. “It’s the injustice of it all, the indignation.”
The government of President Vladimir V. Putin has long understood the value of providing escape valves for public discontent, as it gradually monopolized power and erased alternatives to its rule.
The story of Twix is just the right fit for the kind of narratives Russia’s government hopes to amplify.
“This story has lowered the temperature, and helped to shift the attention from the gloom,” like the horrors of the war and rising food prices, said Mr. Volkov, the Levada Center director.
The story of how a local pet tragedy came to dominate the national conversation is a case study in how information spreads in modern Russia.
Ms. Kudriashova, the volunteer, said Twix’s owner, Edgar Gaifullin, contacted her through social media on Jan. 12, and asked for help finding the cat, who was traveling on the state-run train with one of Mr. Gaifullin’s relatives.
An attendant on the train mistook Twix for a stray and threw the cat from a passenger carriage while the train stopped in Kirov, in Russia’s northwest, according to Mr. Gaifullin and Russian Railways.
Ms. Kudriashova began posting about the missing cat in local animal chat groups.
The search effort mobilized hundreds of volunteers from across the Kirov region, drawing coverage from local news media outlets and eventually attracting the attention of state television.
Cats tend to dominate the internet everywhere, but feline content is particularly popular in Russia.
Nearly half of Russian households own a cat, one of the highest rates in the world. The exploits of cats are prominently covered in national news media, and a new Russian television series called “Catastrophe” is not about the war, as some might assume, but about a free-spirited ginger cat that talks.
The discovery of Twix’s dead body after a week of searching added an emotional element that catapulted the furry victim into a cause célèbre, with an online petition calling for the punishment of the offending attendant rapidly gathering 380,000 signatures. The propaganda machine responded.
Ruling party lawmakers formed a congressional committee to overhaul animal transportation rules. A public prosecutor’s office announced that it was looking into a possible case of animal cruelty. A conservative activist proposed erecting a statue to Twix in Kirov.
And dozens of pro-government commentators issued hot takes about Twix’s role in Russia’s zeitgeist.
“What Is Known About the Death of Twix the Cat: Main Developments,” read the headline of an article by a state-affiliated newspaper, Izvestia.
Reporters pressed the head of the state-run Russian Railways about the episode, using a hardball style rarely seen in the questioning of a senior official.
“I have two dogs and a cat at home,” the railways’ executive, Oleg Belozerov, who runs the country’s largest employer and oversees nearly 100,000 miles of rail track, told state journalists.
“Could anyone compensate me for their loss? I’m not sure,” he added.
He described the cat’s death as “force majeure,” a legal term for an unforeseeable catastrophe usually reserved for natural cataclysms and terrorist attacks.
The Russian Railways suspended the attendant, opened an internal investigation and changed its animal handling guidelines just days after Twix’s death. (The attendant, whose name has not been made public, has not commented on what happened.)
In a statement, the company apologized to Mr. Gaifullin, Twix’s owner, but blamed the person who accompanied the animal for letting him out of sight.
The state news media has helped to turn Mr. Gaifullin into a minor media personality. He has hired a lawyer to handle a compensation claim against the train company, made an official account on Telegram for Twix, and is regularly interviewed by state news media. Mr. Volkov, the poll center director, said most of the respondents in his survey blamed the person accompanying Twix for his death.
Mr. Volkov said the Twix scandal turned much of the national conversation away from discontent over shortages of eggs, heating failures in a cold winter and other negative quality-of-life issues.
State-approved public outrage is often directed at what the government frames as inappropriate, or immoral behavior, which in turn supports Mr. Putin’s larger effort to present himself as a global champion of what he calls “traditional values.”
But the government’s rapid, and seemingly disproportionate, response to viral phenomena has also allowed it to create a sense of accountability at a time when genuine political expression is increasingly criminalized.
The country’s chief federal investigator personally announced a criminal case against Sergei Kosenko, the influencer who threw his baby into the snowbank. Mr. Kosenko, who has seven million Instagram followers, had titled the video “Leo’s First Flight,” before deleting it.
When conservative commentators voiced outrage against an erotic-themed celebrity party in Moscow in December, the authorities responded by jailing one of the attendees, blacklisting others, fining the host and temporarily closing the venue.
The search for acceptable targets of moral outrage has even added a darker undertone to the Twix story. One Russian woman received numerous threats after being mistakenly identified on social media as the train attendant who threw out the cat, according to the woman’s daughter.
Decrying the death of a cat in Russia is, of course, much safer than expressing a political opinion or protesting the war.
“The country has missed being able to express itself freely, and to be humane,” Boris B. Nadezhdin, a long-shot antiwar candidate planning to run against Mr. Putin, said on a talk show this week as a large photo of Twix sat in the background. “To express support for a kitty that you have never seen in your life is to show humanity.”
Alina Lobzina contributed reporting, and Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed research.