The creation of the Primate Institute in Sukhum, in 1927, is linked with Doctor Ivanov’s experiments and his plans to create a hybrid between man and ape. This piece of amazing history is what stirred me in the first place to make Tarzan’s Testicles. But Ivanov’s experiments where not at all isolated in the interwar period.
Medicine was starting to ambitiously play with human nature in those years. In France, Dr. Voronoff was making implants with monkey testicles on old rich men. Dr. Brinkley was transplanting goat testicles in the US. In the USSR, Alexandr Bogomolets tried to prolong life with blood transfusions and the injection of a special cytotoxic serum that bore his name. Rejuvenation (which is, to this day, one of the major research areas in Sukhum) or engineering species, everything seemed possible: Science was the new Religion.
It’s obvious that The Heart of a Dog (1925) is Bulgakov’s sarcastic, provocative take on these experiments, and on Soviet Revolution itself as a failed experiment on the human race. In the novel, a doctor implants human testicles and a brain gland into a stray dog named Sharik. In Orango, an unfinished opera that Shostakovich composed in the 30’s, the main character is a man-and-ape hybrid who becomes an enemy of the Soviet Union and slowly decays back into being an animal… The Ape as Man’s double was haunting the imagination of this epoch. Johnny Weissmuller embodied for the first time on screen Tarzan – The Ape Man in 1932. King Kong was born a year later.
In 1932, Doctor Ivanov died in the Gulag, but by then men and apes were already living together in the Primate Institute of Sukhum. The photos taken during those years show them surrounded by palm-trees, banana and orange-trees, eucalypti… Abkhazia is situated on the Black Sea coast, opposite of Romania, but its lush vegetation looks more like a tropical jungle than the Caucasus. The subtropical micro-climate warranted by the proximity of the mountains and the sea is just one explanation. When I went there, I was too fascinated by the richness of nature in this tiny republic. Then I found in the archives some documents. They speak about how Soviet botanists massively planted in the 1920’s and 30’s imported species of plants. They played with nature and succeeded. The man-ape hybrid didn’t come to life in this territory, but what we see today is partly a man-created landscape…