Legends of the inhabitants of the Sukhum/i monkey nursery
The Sukhum/i monkey nursery is a place where, according to urban legend, a human and a monkey were interbred in order to create a superhuman.
The place where the elixir of life was created and where an unprecedented experiment was carried out; monkeys were trained for a space flight.
This story is about those fantastic projects and today’s Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy in Abkhazia, which is better known as the Sukhum/i Monkey Nursery.
Let’s start with the present.
Harsh conditions for the institute’s inhabitants
The important Soviet-era scientific centre was heavily damaged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and especially during the Abkhaz–Georgian war in the early 90’s. Maintaining the huge scientific centre single-handedly turned out to be very hard.
It is situated in a picturesque place, on Mt. Trapetsia in Sukhumi.
At the beginning of the 20th century there was the summer residence of Aleksey Ostroumov, a Russian doctor and philanthropist. His house, which is considered a historic and architectural monument, is falling apart and almost in a critical condition.
Part of the institute has been preserved and it keeps carrying out experiments. However, the living conditions for the monkeys are not praiseworthy.
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Part of the nursery is open for tourists. The monkeys are kept in cages, one can buy boxes with fruit at the entrance and hand feed them.
The nursery has not been repaired since the Soviet period, the cages are rather small and old. On different Abkhaz travel websites there are a lot of negative comments.
There are experimental laboratories too, where only authorized personnel are admitted. Research and animal testing on primates are carried out there, including for medical purposes.
According to the institute personnel, there is the world’s only monkey monument in the yard.
On the plinth there is the following note:
“Poliomyelitis, yellow fever, typhus fever, tick-borne encephalitis, variola, hepatitis and other human diseases have been investigated through monkey experiments.”
The monument was erected in 1977 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sukhumi nursery. This date reminds viewers that originally the idea of establishing the centre and monkey testing was not connected with the search for a cure for terrible diseases.
The nursery and research centre were created by the order of the Soviet leaders after Lenin’s death. The task was set “simply”- they did not want to die and wanted to find a way to live forever.
Probably this is why there is still a bust of Lenin in the corner of the main hall of the administrative building.
When Lenin died, the Soviet leaders realized that they want to live eternally.
“Tourists are not shown this place, though it is worth seeing”, says Aldona Salakaia, head of the Research and Primatology Museum of the nursery.
She tells two stories which may reasonably be true.
“After Lenin’s death the top echelons of the Soviet power thought of prolongation of life as the leaders wanted to live long. With this in mind, the world’s first Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy was probably created.
Sukhumi was chosen due to the similarity to the tropical climate of monkeys native habitat and abundance of fruit for food. As a result, the city became the centre of the Soviet experimental medicine”, says Salakaia.
Admittedly, this is one of the versions as to why the institute was established.
Creation of a new race: human-monkey hybrid
Another popular legend is that of crossbreeding humans with apes in order to breed a universal Soviet soldier/worker.
From the perspective of the Soviet leaders, this kind of humanoid was supposed to possess two important qualities: to be very strong and enduring but at the same time mentally underdeveloped.
Vladimir Barkaia, an Abkhaz scientist who started working at the institute in 1961, told the British newspaper Guardian in the spring of 2008 about these experiments in breeding a new race.
According to him, the research was done in the 30’s by a well-known Russian biologist Ilia Ivanov, who collaborated with the Pasteur Institute in Paris. At that time Europe was under the influence of eugenic ideas, while the Soviet Union tried to prove that Darwinism had replaced religion.
“Professor Ivanov started these experiments in Africa and continued them in Sukhumi. He would take sperm and introduce it to female chimpanzees. But this yielded no results,” told Vladimir Barkaia.
When asked if the experiments could be carried out the other way round so that ape sperm would be introduced to women, Barkaia categorically denied it.
This theory as the reason for the institute creation is not excluded here even now. But there no direct evidence of the existence of this project and its realization.
Anyway, 15 apes were brought to Abkhazia from Guinea in 1927.
The majority of the animals were unable to survive even the transportation. Only two baboons and two chimpanzees stayed alive. They were the ones that laid the foundation for an almost hundred-year history of observations and experimental activity in Sukhumi.
The nursery-based Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy was established in 1958, which became the largest in the Soviet Union and quite a famous primate research centre all over the world. Its main area of expertise was production of anti-cancer drugs.
Monkeys from Sukhumi nursery launched into space
The Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy of Abkhazia had been a prime focus of the Soviet space programme for years. The monkeys from this nursery were used for experiments and some of them were sent for a flight in spaceships.
Rhesus macaques were selected, aged between 2 and 3, small-sized, healthy and smart and the effects of the microgravity factors, such as the lack of physical activity and support offloading, on their body.
The tests, which are considered cruel by today’s standards, are described in the Soviet research documentation as follows: electrodes were implanted in their hearts, brains and muscles; they were dressed in special overalls, were hung on to ropes and stuck in the same position up to 60 days.
The consequences for the locomotion and nervous systems were studied and after that the aspects and dates of animal rehabilitation were described in detail.
The last pair of monkeys from the Sukhumi nursery were sent into space on December 29, 1992. These macaques were called Krosha and Ivasha. They returned from the flight on January 10, 1993, both of them in good condition. In the nursery it is said that Krosha’s life span is long for his species. He lived 25 years. After the flight he used to live in the apery of Adler, a Russian town.
Monkeys in the Abkhaz-Georgian War in the 90’s
Before the Abkhaz-Georgian War in 1992-1993 there had been over six thousand monkeys in the Sukhumi nursery. A small-sized sanctuary was opened in the Gumista river valley, where hamadryas baboons were set free as part of the experiment.
An institute branch was opened nearby, in Tamish village.
Almost all the animals died in the end when the military operations started. They were either killed or could not survive cold and hunger. After the war only 250 monkeys were left in the nursery.
“We would take fruit from our gardens, went to the field by trucks to collect corn for monkeys. We did as much as possible to feed the individuals which were left ,”- remembers the post war period Aldona Salakaia.
During the economic warfare and omnishambles, the question arose as to whether the institute had to be preserved or closed down in Abkhazia. In the end it was decided that the nursery and institute would continue working.
Whooping cough and elixir of life
Nowadays about 200 workers are employed at the institute. About 600 monkeys of different species live in the nursery now.
They maintain contact only with the Russian colleagues in terms of science. One of the most important products of the institute was a new pertussis vaccine presented in 2017. The studies had been carrying out for five years, then the drug was admitted by the Ministry of Health of Russia and it is now being tested.
One of the main scientific areas of study of the institute are related to gerontology.
Namely, a new hormonal drug is being tested on monkeys. According to the preliminary data, old males have produced new offsprings, their memory has improved and even their fur has started to grow.