TARZAN’S TESTICLES – The monkeys of Sukhumi

This is not an anthropological representation about the myth of the good savage and, even less so, an erotic documentary set in the African jungle.

TARZAN’S TESTICLES by the Romanian director, Alexandru Solomon, presented at the latest edition ot the Trieste Film Festival, is a complex and multi-faceted documentary in which apparently unconnected themes end up being gradually interwoven into a coherent and single narration. Both, at the same time, human and inhuman.

Alexandru Solomon raises many sensitive issues. The ethics of the research on primates, the post-Communist patriotism common to many of the ex-Soviet republics, the reawakening of religion, suppressed for a long time in the name of being faithful to Marxist Leninism.

All set around the synchronic decadence of the imperial Soviet past, and of one of its regions, Abkhazia, and the research institute for pathology and experimental therapies situated on the hills of Sukhumi, its capital, where vaccines are still tested.On approximately 600 apes and chimpanzees. At one time, before the war, there were 6,000, recounts a worker in the center.

The war between the State of Georgia and the secessionist region of Abkhazia, exploding in 1991 after, with a referendum, the Georgians bid farewell to their Soviet past to become an independent republic, is the unfolding backdrop.

The conflict, the fiercest in the ex-Soviet area (more than 20,000 victims and 250,000 displaced), signaled the end of the always difficult coexistence of the two peoples (never ethnically united) and the beginning of a conflict, that although not so relatively intense, is destined to be never-ending.

The wounds inflicted continue to exist, in the buildings and in the souls of the people. The city of Sukhumi on the Black Sea is more like a ghost city, decadent, decrepit and abandoned, than the famous bathing resort once favored by the Soviet nomenklatura.

Since 1927 Sukhumi has been home to the oldest primate research center in the world. The crowning glory of Soviet Communism. The place was chosen because of its subtropical climate making it a perfect environment for the apes. Some of them, were even “fortunate” enough to go into orbit during the golden years of the space race.

Today, for 100 rubles, children visiting what is more like a zoo than an experimental research center can have their photo taken with a chimpanzee. One from the many held captive in cages. Emaciated, aged, stupefied by the experiments they have been subjected to, by the vaccines they have been injected with, by a barbaric captivity. Most of the monkeys are old, sick and dying. Their defenseless limbs, ready to receive the umpteenth tourniquet and injection. Their sad lifeless and imploring eyes. Images that will haunt us for days after.

Some of them, the baby apes, are able to escape, thanks to women like Aunt Tanya, an employee in the center, who took home little Cicico, or another assistant who looks after a small motherless monkey, or still another who decides to save little Mitya from the experiments: «I am tired of these experiments, of what they do to these monkeys, they inject them with every kind of vaccine and then they kill them …. And then they do autopsies … I don’t like it.»

The research institute is almost exclusively run by women. Doctors, researchers, assistants, caretakers. Their number highlights the absence of men. Killed in the war, in some cases, but most having emigrated. In the park, at the entry to the institute, there is the statue of a hero – Hamadryas, a baboon, known as Murray.

«Murray is a personality here, living until 39 years, father to 400 children to 200 different mates», the guide tells the tourists and visitors. The statue, erected in 1977 for the 50th anniversary of the institute, is the due recognition of the chimpanzee’s contribution – to his detriment – to the research on yellow fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis and polio.

Today, the institute and what remains of it is involved in cancer research. But not only. There are also experiments on the effects of DHEA, dehydroepiandrosterone, the youth hormone. A 30-year old ape was subjected to three months of doses of DHEA and was still able to procreate. A point of pride for the researchers. In the three rooms set aside for the museum there are a variety of photos, skeletons of famous primates (including the orangutan called Tarzan) and images filmed in West Africa during a study trip made by Ilya Ivanov, the eminent biologist expert in artificial insemination, who was sent by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to conduct human-ape hybridization experiments.

«His expedition was a great success. He captured three female examples to inseminate with human sperm. He was specialized in hybridization, crossing cows, sheep and horses. He presented a paper before the Russian Revolution, maintaining that it was possible to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid. This was his hypothesis. But this was not achievable during the Tsarist period as religion had played an important role. But later, during the Soviet period, he requested funding for this idea. The Academy gave him a lot of money for his project but his experiments were not successful as apes do not have the same number of chromosomes as us […]» (Alisa, medical researcher)

 Professor Ilya Ivanov died in a gulag.

«In the 1920s, endocrinology was not a science […] and there are many stories surrounding Ivanov. He carried out testicle transplants to stimulate hormonal secretions, and his surgical operations were very popular at the time, in the ‘30s», recounts the only remaining male doctor with 50 years of work experience behind him in the center.

«This man lived during a time when religion had been repudiated. These experiments served to deny the existence of God, and prove that man could create a new human being. However, it was impossible. Humans need to believe in something, before there was the faith in Communism and now it has finished. We don’t even believe in capitalism.»

Paradoxically, the young researchers do not believe in the evolution theories but in divine origin. «I refuse to believe that I was a chimpanzee», says Alisa.

She is not the only one. Besides being religious, Alisa is also very nationalist. «We fought a war for this flag», she explains to her son on the day of the 22nd anniversary for the liberation of Abkhazia from the Georgian troops. «They didn’t want us to have our own flag, our own language, our own country».

Religion and nationalism, common sentiments to all in Sukhumi, in and outside the city, have replaced the ideological story of Communism that, nonetheless, as the stories of the older people have claimed, had achieved great things.

The Abkhaz are very proud of having kicked out the Georgians. «A nation of 4 million people was not able to defeat a country of 100,000 inhabitants because God sees all and knows the truth … we are only a few, but we are very strong».

And especially able to carry out in a short time an efficient ethnic cleaning against the Georgians. In 2008, after the war in South Ossetia, which saw Russian tanks at the gates of Tbilisi, Abkhazia proclaimed its independence with only Putin’s recognition. The “small empire”, as Andrej Sakharov called Georgia due to its multi-ethnic composition (Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Ossetians, Russians, Abkhaz), crumbled under the attacks of the secessionist rebels sponsored and protected by the Kremlin and its geopolitical reconquering of the post-Soviet domain.

Abkhazia (converted to Islam during the Ottoman domination) was always considered a “natural” part of Georgia. «[…] my mother studied in Georgian, not in Abkhaz», Alisa’s uncle protests. «All the teachers were Georgians, they would have completely assimilated us over time, making us disappear as a people. Instead, they preferred to attack us. And look what happened, we have three passports, an Abkhaz one, one to go to Russia with and a Russian one. With that one I can go abroad, with the Abkhaz one you can only go to Russia for 90 days. And does this mean that Russia has recognized us? Do you really think that it cares about us?»

For Georgia, the self-proclaimed Abkhaz Republic is a national territory occupied by the Russians. European Union citizens must pass through Georgia to enter the republic. It has a population of about 250,000, is under a total political and economic embargo and survives only thanks to Russia. The Georgian citizens still living in Abkhazia, mainly in the Gali district, must pay almost 2,000 dollars to have an Abkhaz passport with which they can enter Russia to look for work. Tbilisi would like to extend the agreement on visa liberalization concluded last year with the EU to Georgian citizens who are resident in the two secessionist regions. It’s something the two “Russophile enclaves” strongly oppose.  

At the beginning of the war, some apes were transferred to Russia, to Adler, where the Sukhumi Institute has an operative branch, which has been able to survive thanks to the voluntary work of its staff – the two women, the real mothers to the apes.

Survivors of the glorious USSR past, victims of its ghost, the apes of Sukhumi are a difficult image to forget. It will haunt us for days.

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