MUMBAI: In a war-torn, forgotten remnant of the Soviet Union a battered laboratory stands, housing the remnants of twisted experiments.
Some of the surviving tenants — part of an attempt by the veterinary doctor Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov to breed a slave race of ape/human hybrids - have escaped into the surrounding forest, their whereabouts unknown.
We're not making this up; this is happening right now at the once-famous Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, a small nation-state on the Black Sea. The institute, the eyesore of many a Western eye was the first primate testing centre in the world.
Now long gone, Ivanov was the star of the Institute in the early part of the 20th century — he made his name cross-breeding zebras with donkeys, antelopes with cows, rabbits with guinea pigs, and so on. By the 1920's it was in his head to try humans and monkeys.
He drummed up Soviet and private funding and repeatedly tried to inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm, a macabre Stalinist experiment to breed a human-ape hybrid.
According to legend, the institute was born of a secret Soviet plan to create a man-ape hybrid that would become a Soviet superman and propel the Soviet Union ahead of the West.
The Soviet elite, goes the apocryphal tale that has appeared widely in Russian media, wanted to create a prototype worker that would be inhumanly strong and mentally dulled, to carry out the gruelling work of industrialising the vast expanses of newly Sovietised territory.
Scientists at the institute today admit that such experiments did go on at the institute, though they deny it was part of any overarching plan for the creation of a new race.
"Professor Ivanov started these experiments in Africa and continued them here in Sukhumi," says Vladimir Barkaya, who started at the institute in 1961 and is now scientific director.
"He took sperm from human males and injected it into female chimpanzees, although nothing came of it." Professor Barkaya denies monkey sperm was used on human females, although letters were apparently received by the institution by people of both sexes offering to participate in the experiments.
An expert commission headed by President Dwight Eisenhower's personal doctor went to the Soviet Union in 1957 and visited Sukhumi. "They were so impressed with what they found there that when they came back to the US they recommended to Eisenhower that a similar institute should be set up in the US." In the end, seven centres were set up in the US.
The Institute became Ivanov's base of operations before he was caught up in a Stalinist purge and exiled to Kazakhstan, where he died in the 1932.
Today several hundred monkeys live on in dilapidated cages at the Institute, and some have escaped into the surrounding forests, where townspeople routinely spot them.
Ivanov's attempts at breeding a hybrid primate race are all said to have failed, though, and genetic differences between chimps (our closest genetic relatives) and humans make it unlikely that humanzees are even possible.
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