[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.