“Tarzan’s Testicles”, documentary directed by Alexandru Solomon
„In the 20s, the Soviet biologist Ilya Ivanov hell-bent on breeding a creature that was half man, half ape : Homo Comunisticus.
When details of Ilya Ivanov’s attempts to create an ape-human hybrid emerged in the 1990s from the newly opened Russian archives, they prompted a rash of lurid headlines.
Ivanov became the “Red Frankenstein” or the Mad Soviet Dr.Moreau.
His proposed liaisons were invariably dangerous. There was even the suggestion that he had been ordered to breed super-strong hairy warriors for what The Sun in London dubbed “Stalin’s mutant ape army”.
Yet Ivanov’s efforts during the 1920s to create an ape-human hybrid had been anything but secret.
In 1924, Ivanov put his proposals to the Soviet government:
to create hybrids between humans and their closest relatives.
When Ivanov approached the Soviet government, he stressed how proving Darwin right would strike a blow against religion, which the Bolsheviks were struggling to stamp out.
Success would not only bolster the reputation of Soviet science but provide useful anti-religious propaganda to boot.
The Soviet media was keen to suggest that a new species, uniting human strength with the subservience and agility of an ape, could form a more obedient workforce, a stronger army.
The Soviet Union was caught in a genetic manipulation mania, much to the amusement of one novelist—Bulgakov wrote of a canine that became a Soviet bureaucrat after being subject to a transplant of human testicles.
But there’s another theory.
In “The Rabbit King of Russia” (1939), Reginald Oliver Gilling Urch suggests that Ivanov’s plan was “to fertilize the apes by artificial methods and bring back the mothers with their little human apes to gladden the hearts of the anti-God Society in Soviet Russia and prove that ‘There is no God’.”
Perhaps in gaining access to the powers of creation, Stalin was hoping to cement the Soviet Union’s passage into Darwinist anti-theism, and to bring down his only political rival, God.
Despite the disapproval of the scientific establishment Ivanov got the go-ahead – and the funds to mount an expedition to Africa to collect apes.
Ivanov headed home in 1926 with 20 chimps to stock a new ape nursery in Sukhumi in the subtropical Soviet republic of Abkhazia.
He knew now that his best chance of creating his hybrid was to find Soviet women willing to carry half-ape babies in the interests of science. In the event, only four chimps made it to Abkhazia and so while the nursery set about acquiring more apes, Ivanov looked for volunteers.
At least five women volunteered.
But although the nursery did get hold of an assortment of apes, they never flourished, and by the time Ivanov was ready to proceed the only adult male left was Tarzan, a 26-year-old orang-utan.
Ivanov pressed on until fate dealt his project a fatal blow. Tarzan had a brain haemorrhage. “The orang has died, we are looking for a replacement,” Ivanov cabled the woman he had lined up to receive Tarzan’s sperm.
More chimps arrived in 1930 – but Ivanov fell victim to the widespread purge of scientists and was exiled to Kazakhstan.
In the course of a general political shakeup in the Soviet scientific world, Ivanov and a number of scientists involved in primate research and experiments lost their positions. In the spring of 1930, Ivanov came under political criticism at his veterinary institute.
Finally, on December 13, 1930, Ivanov was arrested. He was sentenced to five years of exile to Alma Ata, where he worked for the Kazakh Veterinary-Zoologist Institute until his death from a stroke on 20 March 1932.
Inspired by Ivanov’s monstruous totalitarian “research”, “Heart of a Dog” (Russian: Собачье сердце, Sobach’e serdtse) is a novel by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov.
A biting satire of the New Soviet Man (Homo Comunisticus), it was written in 1925 at the height of the NEP period, when communism appeared to be weakening in the Soviet Union.
It’s generally interpreted as an allegory of the Communist revolution and “the Bolshevik revolution’s misguided attempt to radically transform mankind.”
Its publication was initially prohibited in the Soviet Union but circulated in samizdat until it was officially released in the country in 1987.
It is “one of novelist Mikhail Bulgakov’s most beloved stories” featuring a stray dog “named Sharik who takes human form” as a slovenly and narcissistic incarnation of the New Soviet Man.
The novel has become a cultural phenomenon in Russia, known and discussed by people “from schoolchildren to politicians.” It has become a subject of critical argument, was filmed in both Russian and Italian-language versions, and was adapted in English as a play and an opera.
The novel has been interpreted both as a satire on the Communist attempts to create a New Soviet man and as a criticism of eugenics.
One commonly accepted interpretation is that Bulgakov was trying to show all the inconsistencies of the system in which Sharikov, a (pseudo)man with a dog’s intelligence, could become an important part.
Sharik is seen as “a reincarnation of the repellent proletarian”, and the professor represents a “hyperbolic vision of the bourgeois dream”, according to J.A.E. Curtis.
Names figure prominently in the story. Preobrazhensky’s name is derived from the Russian word for “transfiguration”.
“Sharik” is a common name for dogs in Russia meaning “little ball”.
The name and patronymic “Poligraf Poligrafovich” echoes a tradition of nonsense double names in Russian literature that goes back to Nikolai Gogol’s heroes Akakii Akakievich in The Overcoat and Pifagor Pifagorovich in The Carriage. The name is also a satire on new naming conventions in the early Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the name was chosen following the Russian tradition of “consulting the calendar,” with Poligraf’s name day being March 4. The name Poligraf has many possible meanings, including a printing process used for calendars.
The name of the donor of the human implants, an alcoholic and bum, is Chugunkin (“chugun” is cast iron) which can be seen as parody on the name of Stalin (“stal′” is steel).
A comic opera, “The Murder of Comrade Sharik” by William Bergsma (1973), is based on the plot of the story. The story was filmed in Italian in 1976 as Cuore di cane and starred Max von Sydow as Preobrazhensky
A very popular 1988 Soviet movie, “Sobachye Serdtse” (Heart of a Dog), was made (in sepia) by Vladimir Bortko. Major sequences in the movie were famously shot from an unusually low dog’s point of view.
In 2007, Guerilla Opera staged the premiere of “Heart of a Dog“, an opera by Rudolf Rojahn, directed by Sally Stunkel. In 2010, the second production was directed by Copeland Woodruff.
In 2010 De Nederlandse Opera staged the premiere of “A Dog’s Heart“, an opera composed by Alexander Raskatov, directed by Simon McBurney. This was staged again by the Opéra de Lyon in January 2014.
In March 2011, “Heart of a Dog” was staged at the University of Leeds, directed by James Ahearne and Matthew Beaumont.
A new musical adaptation of “Heart of a Dog” has been developed in Australia and is premiering in May, written by Jim McGrath, composed by Marc Robertson and Directed by Nick Byrne.
In 2016, rock band The Kills released a song ‘Heart of a Dog’, the title inspired by the book.
Ivanov’s work was one of the sources of inspiration for the unfinished satirical opera, “Orango” whose Prologue was sketched in 1932 by Dmitri Shostakovich with a libretto by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Alexander Osipovich Starchakov but the whole was later abandoned and discarded.
The manuscript was found by Olga Digonskaya, a Russian musicologist, in the Glinka Museum, Moscow in 2004 and orchestrated by Gerard McBurney; this work was premiered on 2 December 2011 in Los Angeles, California by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) and staged by Peter Sellars (director).”
„Whatever you might be expecting from a documentary with the eye-catching title of “Tarzan’s Testicles,” it’s unlikely to be quite what you get with Alexandru Solomon’s disquieting, strange and peculiarly philosophical film.
As an outsider venturing into the little-known and only partially recognized state of Abkhazia, the Romanian director approaches his already outlandish subject — an institute in the capital city of Sukhumi where monkeys and apes are bred for live medical experimentation — from an evocative remove.
Without over-reliance on exposition, Abkhazia’s fascinating and all-pervasive recent history can be gleaned piecemeal from inferences and digressions, while mainly the film prowls through the corridors and cages of Sukhumi’s “Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy,” exploring much broader ideas about man’s bestial nature and the divide between faith and science.
The idea of sacrifice for the scientific good is complicated. Abkhazia’s population seems to follow the opposite path of many more developed nations in that the former communists are turning back to the Church — culminating in a jaw-dropping scene in which the young student scientists at the Institute reveal they do not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. “I refuse to believe I was ever an ape” says one, with an incredulous smirk.
By the end, the Institute has become an exemplar of Abkhazia itself, an uncanny microcosm reflecting a jumble of conflicting dichotomies — old and new, scientific and religious, kind and cruel, proud and pitiful, forward-thinking and backward-looking — that can somehow co-exist within the same space, or even the same person.
“Tarzan’s Testicles” quietly but forcefully suggests not only that it’s possible to live on the front line of the war between such opposing forces, but actually that maybe that’s all human beings are: sentient monkeys who somehow developed the ability to live in a state of ongoing paradox.”