A Dream of Soviet Ape-Men

[All photos by Mari Bastashevski / Galerie Polaris]

IIn November 1926, Soviet biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov travelled to the botanical gardens in Conakry, French Guinea, with his son and vials of human semen. A year earlier, Ivanov had received a grant from the Soviet Department of Scientific Institutions. His proposal: the artificial insemination of chimpanzees to create human-ape hybrids. Together, father and son oversaw the capture of thirteen chimps, three of which were inseminated in Conakry. No pregnancies followed, and ten of the chimps were sent to a new primate research centre in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, where Ivanov continued his experiments—this time inseminating human females with chimp sperm.

This story has left few artifacts: some pale manila folders, a story about a dog, an unfinished opera. The setting is the Institute of Experimental Pathology, now a complex of bullet-ridden buildings sitting on a hill above Sukhumi, a former Soviet holiday haven turned by war into a half-deserted political limbo. To get to the Institute, you walk up the weatherworn stairs leading to the top of the city. At its entrance is a stone monument, surrounded in a wide semicircle by rusted animal cages. The monument’s plaque reads: “Polio, yellow fever, typhus, encephalitis, smallpox, hepatitis and many other human diseases were eradicated thanks to tests on primates.”

One day two winters ago, I arrived at the Institute with photographer Mari Bastashevski. The few tourists who still visit Sukhumi do so in the summer, and we found ourselves in an empty park populated by cages and crumbling Soviet-era architecture. Cows had taken residence in many of the structures. Some of the buildings housed industrial equipment. In others, unused gas masks were scattered ankle-high over the floor. A blackened train wagon sat in a courtyard miles from the nearest railroad. And by the Institute’s main offices was a small building of concrete and glass, with dials and controls on its walls and sprinklers on the ceiling. It was green with moss. Weeds sprouted through the floor.

At the other end of the offices, there was a hollow building pocked with bullet holes. Shelling during Abkhazia’s brief, vicious war of secession 20 years ago had carved large chunks from its edges. Inside, there was equipment left over from the Soviet period: a metal chamber, its dials labelled with the names of gases; and a cross between a bar stool and a dentist’s chair, large enough to fit a human toddler, with a metal crank to raise and lower the backrest. There were thick metal doors visible from the outside, but the staircases were padlocked and sealed by a thin mesh rising from floor to ceiling.

The most surprising thing about this industrial wasteland is that it was still in use. On the second floor of the pockmarked building, locked cells housed the Institute’s research subjects. Stuck below the staircase, we heard cages rattling and the incessant wail of monkeys.

Ivanov created the mouse-rat, the cow-antelope and zebra-donkey. He created the zhorse.

Ilya Ivanov’s early research revolutionised artificial insemination. It allowed one stallion to fertilise up to five hundred mares—natural insemination allowed a maximum of thirty fertilisations. His later experiments were some of the earliest successes in interspecific hybridisation. Ivanov created the guinea pig-mouse and mouse-rat. He experimented with larger species, too, creating the cow-antelope and zebra-donkey. He created the zhorse, a combination of zebra (46 chromosomes) and horse (64 chromosomes). We can see why the idea of an apeman might have seemed plausible: humans have 46 chromosomes and chimps have 48.

Ivanov’s experiments had already gained notoriety in 1927, when a Paris-based Russian newspaper raged against his attempts to inseminate women with chimp sperm. This claim was widely disbelieved then—it would take decades before the more deviant aspects of Soviet ideology caught the West’s attention. But there are records of these experiments in Soviet archives, as well as Ivanov’s own notes, preserved in manila folders in the document stores of the Sukhumi Institute.

As two foreigners nosing around the Institute’s campus, Mari and I quickly attracted attention and found ourselves sitting at a large dark-wood desk across from Zurab Jakobsonovich Mikbabia, the Institute’s director. Dr. Mikbabia, a broad man with a curt, business-like manner, allowed us to interview him but remained wary of the recording device we placed in front of him. He kept his answers crisp and pointed. His desk sat in a large room decorated with photographs of the Institute’s luminaries and notable visitors. In the interview, he skimmed over details of Ivanov’s project, and as his secretary brought in tea and chocolates, he told us to make note of the Institute’s other achievements. To him, Ivanov is more of an origin myth than a legacy. “In any case,” he said, “it’s unclear how many of Ivanov’s experiments had succeeded.” Ivanov was keen to safeguard his methods and, Dr. Mikbabia told us, the Institute’s records of his work are incomplete.

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But it’s clear that by 1927, Ivanov had attracted attention. Particularly impressed was Nikolai Petrovich Gorbunov, a one-time secretary of Lenin, who had earlier helped secure funding for Ivanov’s experiments in Conakry. With Gorbunov’s help, Ivanov gained the support of the Society of Materialist Biologists. They would fund his experiments in Sukhumi, where Ivanov had already started working with chimps he had brought from Guinea. He needed female volunteers for the project. The women, Mikbabia told us, were found among local prisoners.

Interspecific hybridisation was seen to hold great potential. Animals that combined the strongest qualities of two species could become popular house pets. The Soviet media was keen to suggest that a new species, uniting human strength with the subservience and agility of an ape, could form a more obedient workforce, a stronger army. The Soviet Union was caught in a genetic manipulation mania, much to the amusement of one novelist—Bulgakov wrote of a canine that became a Soviet bureaucrat after being subject to a transplant of human testicles. The buildings on this hill above Sukhumi were to be the Soviet answer to Darwin’s insights, where chimeras were born and biology became another tool in the propagandist’s arsenal.

We can at least entertain the thought that Stalin, in his characteristic blend of utilitarianism and paranoia, would have considered building an army of apemen. But there’s another theory. In The Rabbit King of Russia (1939), Reginald Oliver Gilling Urch suggests that Ivanov’s plan was “to fertilize the apes by artificial methods and bring back the mothers with their little human apes to gladden the hearts of the anti-God Society in Soviet Russia and prove that ‘There is no God’.” Perhaps in gaining access to the powers of creation, Stalin was hoping to cement the Soviet Union’s passage into Darwinist anti-theism, and to bring down his only political rival, God.

If the subtropical haven started out as an ideological playground, it eventually came to support more sober research. The Institute helped cure polio and made significant advancements in the development of penicillin. In the Khrushchev era, visiting American scientists made the “Sukhumi model” a standard in Western primatology. And the institute prepped six monkeys for space travel, including Yerosha and Dryoma, who flew out for two weeks on Bion 7—Dryoma was later gifted to Fidel Castro. The institute was also renowned for its work in radiology. By 1959, radiation tests were performed on 232 baboons. A report from a conference held in Sukhumi at the end of October of that year confirmed that among mammals, primates were the closest to humans in terms of their responses to radiation poisoning. Within a week, they developed lesions and their production of white blood cells was inhibited, increasing the risk of infection. They bled profusely—the report states that the onset of the haemorrhagic syndrome followed a “stormy course with more serious symptoms than in other mammals.” Such experiments are said to have intensified after the Chernobyl incident, when Soviet scientists were particularly keen to explore the effects of radiation poisoning. They turned to Sukhumi, where the primate Institute worked with the nearby Physical-Technical Institute, now an alleged dumping ground for Russian radioactive waste, to irradiate primates and study the results. Relics abound. In one alcove, there was an abandoned controlled-atmosphere glove box. Walking around the Institute’s grounds, we had to avoid some doors—scribbled in the rust were words of caution left during the war: “WARNING, DO NOT ENTER! CANCER!”

Posing for a photograph in the pathology laboratory, Vladimir Spiridonovitch Barkaya, chief of the Institute’s Neuroscience Department, cautiously navigated a narrow gap between a flaking wall and a cracked window. The gap is small, and he was dispirited that every backdrop yielded proof of the laboratory’s dilapidated physical state. He finally settled on a place between two worktables, and corrected his lab coat. “Please take care when photographing,” he said, “we want people to see the good side of this institution. Many people come here looking to uncover conspiracies. We don’t want to give off that impression.” Then, standing timidly beside a yellowing laboratory centrifuge, he casually told us something that gave me pause.

Barkaya said he was approached in January 2010 by a middle-aged Muscovite who claimed he had found the cure for cancer. The man said that he had tested his medication on human volunteers diagnosed with osteosarcoma and malignant fibrous histiocytoma; his patients showed some progress but quickly regressed. The man wasn’t allowed to patent the medication in Russia, which he blamed on its “lousy ethical codes”, fierce competition, and corruption in Moscow’s scientific circles. Dr. Barkaya wouldn’t name the man or the substance—referring to it by an invented codename that sounded suspiciously like the English word “clusterfuck”—but he could hardly conceal his enthusiasm. He said that the Institute had accepted the medication and its initial tests had shown promising results.

Here’s the rub: the Institute is the only laboratory of its kind located in a region whose political status is in dispute. Abkhazia, which has been de facto independent from Georgia since the 1992-1993 war, is straddled between Russian influence and Georgia’s claims to territorial integrity. Entry into the region is granted via a paper application, scanned and sent to the gmail address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Georgian-Abkhaz border is marked by the 870 metre-long Inguri Bridge, sealed off on both sides by concrete barriers pocked with bullet holes. The bridge is only crossable by foot or donkey-drawn cart, where the fellow passengers are old women huddled between Soviet-era furniture.

At the crossing, authority gradates from the lax—a Georgian police checkpoint and military outpost—to the unyielding—the Abkhaz border crossing, based in a repurposed container, where a Stakhanovite figure greets hopeful crossers with insults. That’s a tourist’s welcome to Abkhazia, a territory whose independence was recognised by Russia, Nauru, Venezuela and a handful of other states eager for rubles or perhaps a larger role on the international arena. The wider international community has been cautiously supportive of Georgia’s denial of Abkhaz independence. But the lack of steps in either direction has created a political and bureaucratic standoff, a side-effect of which is a lack of regulation. One outcome of this is a difficulty in finding funding from foreign investors—a considerable source of frustration for Dr. Mikbabia. The other consequence is the potential for unaccountable experimentation.

As the West grows uncomfortable with primate research, the temptation arises for less regulated research in places like Sukhumi.

Laboratories in the West have long used primates for a wide range of tests designed to replicate the effects that various stimuli have on humans. The most notorious of these subjected monkeys to physical and psychological stresses that would break any human—isolation, sleep deprivation, induced strokes, infection with HIV and other diseases. The growing public distaste for these experiments has led to the banning of testing on great apes in several countries. The National Institutes of Health in the United States suspended new grants for research using chimpanzees at the end of 2011. When Harvard announced two weeks ago that it is closing its primate research center—one of the nation’s oldest—officials cited increasing costs, but the lab had also faced high-profile animal welfare violations in the deaths of four monkeys in recent years. The research potential remains valuable, however, and as the developed world grows uncomfortable with primate research in its own backyard, the temptation might arise to embark on far less regulated research in places like Sukhumi.

Dr. Mikbabia said that the Institute had a number of international partners that provided a strong source of funding. He spoke of a group of German scientists from Leipzig who contacted the Institute through a Moscow intermediary, offering a generous grant in exchange for permission to conduct oncology and neuroscience research. Dr. Barkaya confirmed that scientists from Germany and the United States frequent the Institute, but he offered no details. I called and e-mailed, among others, primate researchers in Leipzig, but only one or two admitted to even knowing about the Sukhumi Institute. Either the scientists are unwilling to concede interest in working with an institute on the margins of the scientific world, or the Institute is exaggerating its partnerships in an effort to revive some residue of its scientific prestige.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a group of scientists from the Institute travelled to Ethiopia and brought back one hundred chimpanzees. They released them along with other monkeys from the Institute into a forest near Tumisi, a short drive from Sukhumi, to study them in a natural habitat. The area, a semitropical landscape of dense hills and valleys, is sealed off on all sides by a river. The monkeys quickly multiplied to five hundred and became, for a short while, something of a local menace. They stole mandarins from nearby properties. So did local militant groups, whose presence in the area was intensifying.

The first year of the Abkhaz-Georgian war, 1993, was said to be unusually cold. Temperatures dropped as low as -7 degrees Celsius. Crossing the Kodori Gorge, Georgian refugees followed cattle tracks in the snow. Many of them died of exposure. In Sukhumi, Abkhaz separatists had taken over parts of the Institute and used the buildings for storage and shelter—relics of their presence are scattered over the grounds to this day. The monkeys in captivity were severely affected. They began to shed hair, developed neurosis and died in numbers as high as fifty a day. During the war, employees of the Institute would risk their lives to bring food for the starving monkeys from their homes in the city.

“When the war ended,” Dr. Barkaya said, “we were left with a unique research opportunity: to study the effects of war and post-traumatic stress disorder on apes. No one had ever had an opportunity to conduct this kind of research.” They found that chimp mothers would grieve as much for their killed children as human mothers do. In some cases, the effects of the bombings and incessant shooting were more pronounced on monkeys than they were on people. Unlike us, Dr. Barkaya said, they couldn’t understand what was happening.

While the war fed new research subjects to an ailing institution, all attempts at finding the monkey colony failed. There were no remains, no bones. “It’s as if they vanished,” Dr. Mikbabia said. Some have suggested that retreating Georgian soldiers had taken the monkeys as trophies, or that they were shipped across the Black Sea and sold to businessmen in Sochi, where, incidentally, a rival research institute is based. In any case, efforts to find the colony are underfunded and the search has become a symbol of the institute’s—and Abkhazia’s—futile attempts at reclaiming a past that had disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Ivanov was summarily convicted of counterrevolutionary activity.

Like many a protégé of Stalinist ambitions, Ivanov heard a knock on his door one night in 1930. It was the secret police. They arrested him and drove him to a police station or prison, where he would have been interrogated. Ivanov was summarily convicted of counterrevolutionary activity and sentenced to exile in Kazakhstan. He died two years later, of a stroke, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

That same year, the Bolshoi commissioned an opera to celebrate the anniversary. Librettists Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov teamed up with composer Dmitri Shostakovich to write “Orango”. In the then-unpublished opera, a French biologist inseminates a female chimp with human sperm. A Paris-based journalist discovers the project, and his article creates widespread uproar. But the biologist continues his work. One day, he learns that his chimp had given birth to a human child. Orango, the product of the fertilisation, grows up as and finds work in the newspaper that first exposed the experiments. He rises up the ranks, and eventually takes charge. His new position gives him considerable political and social influence. But his fierce anti-Communist views estrange him from society and the woman he loves, the biologist’s daughter—like her father, she had become a staunch Communist. Orango marries a Russian woman in Paris. But as his hatred for the working classes grows, he begins to regress into ape form. In his increasing isolation, he turns to the Catholic church, but is rejected by the Pope. At the end of the play, Orango’s metamorphosis into ape is complete, and his wife sells him to the circus. We see him one final time, caged and despondent, just before the curtains close.

Pawel Wargan
Pawel Wargan has completed his postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford and is pursuing a legal career in London. You can follow him on Twitter @PawelWargan.
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