Stalin's space monkeys

It looks like a neglected zoo. But the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy has its own macabre chapter in the history of the Soviet Union. Shaun Walker reports from Sukhumi, Abkhazia

Tuesday 15 April 2008 00:00 BST

From the old railway station, now a hollow shell covered in weeds, a long concrete stairway, sheltered by sub-tropical foliage, winds from the centre of Sukhumi up to a collection of buildings, many pocked with bullet holes or crushed by bombs.

The first thing that registers is the putrid smell of animal faeces, then from inside one building comes a primeval squawking that sounds like a child being tortured. Cage after cage of distraught-looking monkeys come into view, nearly 300 in all, gnawing at mandarins and scampering around their enclosures.

This is what remains of the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy, the first primate testing centre in the world, and possibly the site of a macabre Stalinist experiment to breed a human-ape hybrid. Set amid palm trees and lush greenery on a hill just outside the centre of Sukhumi, it was once the envy of the West. Its behavioural and medical experiments set it at the forefront of groundbreaking medical discoveries, and trained monkeys for space travel.

But the years of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, then the Georgian-Abkhaz war, took a heavy toll on the centre. Most of its scientists left to set up a new centre in Russia, along with most of the monkeys that were not killed. What is left today is a disturbing shadow of the institute's former glory.

Legend has it that the institute, which opened in 1927, 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 these experiments did go on at the institute, though they deny it was part of any overarching plan for the creation of a new race. The tests were performed by Ilya Ivanov, an eminent Russian biologist who had also collaborated with the Pasteur Institute in Paris. About the turn of the century he had perfected the technique of artificially inseminating mares, and had also produced cross-breeds between various different species. Then, Europe was alive with ideas of eugenics, and the Soviets were out to prove once and for all that Darwinism had superseded religion.

"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.

In time, the institute evolved from science fiction to evidence-based practice. Work at the institute was instrumental in the creation of a Soviet polio vaccine, and its scientists worked on all the major diseases of the 20th century.

One man's name is synonymous with the centre. Boris Lapin was born in 1921 and after a heroic turn in the Second World War, started work at the Sukhumi monkey colony in 1949. In 1959 he was appointed director of the institute, and ran it up until 1992, when during the Abkhaz-Georgian war he fled along with the majority of employees and monkeys across the border to Russia. Despite being in his late eighties, he still runs the institute set up at Adler in Russia.

"My biggest achievement over all this time is that we were able to build the institute up from scratch again," he says, from his Adler office, plastered with photographs of famous visitors to the Sukhumi institute over the years, from Nikita Khrushchev to Ho Chi Minh.

In the 1950s, as Professor Lapin was taking over, word got out to the rest of the world about the uses to which monkeys were being put at Sukhumi. "At the time of Sputnik, there was a huge amount of curiosity in the West about what else the Soviets might have up their sleeves in the fields of science and technology," says Douglas Bowden, an American primatologist who has co-operated with the Sukhumi, then Adler centres since 1962. 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.

As time went on, the centre also became closely involved with the Soviet space programme, training six monkeys to send into space. "We had to make sure they were intelligent monkeys to perform all their duties in space," Professor Lapin says. "Not every monkey was capable of that sort of thing." After the monkeys blasted off, the centre's employees would watch them on television at Sukhumi.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was a disaster for scientists across the vast empire. They went from the pride of the country to being neglected and unfunded. "They were terrible times," says Professor Barkaya. "Many monkeys died, and many people too. We had nothing to feed the monkeys with, and there was no electricity or heating. Many of them simply froze to death."

Violeta Agrba, who was the acting director of the institute during the war, while Professor Lapin was arranging the transfer to Adler, says: "I remember walking around the cages in the winter of 1992, during the war, and seeing a baboon shivering in his cage. It was so sad. But even though we couldn't do any medical work, and there was a war on, we all came to work every day." Professor Agrba once found an unexploded shell on the conference table in her office. There was a huge hole in the ceiling.

The centre also had 1,000 monkeys that lived freely in a special zone in the mountains in the south of Abkhazia, where they were monitored and their behaviour studied. When the war started, many died in the crossfire; some were stolen by troops and used as mascots. "Some are still alive," Professor Agrba says. "But after everything that happened in the war, they are so scared of people they don't approach anyone. We need to do a helicopter survey and find the remaining ones, but there's no money for that."

Today, the centre at Sukhumi, where a few staff who refused to leave during the war have bravely remained and tried to resurrect their scientific work, is struggling to get back on its feet. A German scientist who worked with the institute before the war and took pity on their situation ships them medicines and equipment each year. But most of the best employees went to Alder, and the monkeys seem to have nothing to eat except mandarins.

"The level we had before is very difficult to attain now," Professor Barkaya says. "But while we used to write to people asking to co-operate with them, now they're again coming to us. We had an interesting proposition from St Petersburg, from a company that has produced medicine to reduce blindness in old people. They've tested it on dogs and horses and now they want to test it on monkeys."

The Adler centre in much better shape, with all the most modern equipment and is still at the forefront of medicine, working on stem-cell research and birdflu vaccines, and testing the effects of radiation on monkeys in preparation for a manned flight to Mars. "We've discovered that their immune systems are severely weakened by the radiation given off by solar flares," says Professor Agrba. "Now we need to see how serious this is and how long it lasts."

But even at Adler, the financial situation isn't easy. "One girl used to work here as a lab assistant and got paid 3,000 roubles (£65) a month," Professor Agrba says. "She left to work selling blankets in the market and now she makes 15,000 roubles (£325)."

Obtaining new monkeys is almost impossible now, with most countries banning their export. The days when Professor Lapin and colleagues would simply fly to Nigeria and spend weeks negotiating with tribes for the purchase of monkeys, as happened in the 1960s, are long gone. The Adler institute has a breeding programme, which ensures that its population of 3,700 monkeys is refreshed each year. But for Sukhumi, with just 286 monkeys, inbreeding is a serious problem.

The staff at both centres is split between dignified octogenarians with decades of scientific experience, and budding young scientists. The middle ground is missing. "It's a problem across the former Soviet Union," Professor Barkaya says. "The generation of scientists who came of age during perestroika went into business. Now there is again an interest in science, and it's left to us to pass on our knowledge as best we can to the younger generation to ensure the good work continues."

Ethical concerns that would undoubtedly surround such ventures in Europe are absent both in Abkhazia and in Russia. Neither institute has any security; the thought of animal rights protesters attacking does not even occur to the scientists.

"Of course, we're aware of the ethical difficulties," says Professor Lapin. "But in some cases monkeys are the only animals we can use. Thalidomide was tested on mice and other animals but not on monkeys, and you remember what happened there."

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