On Monkies and Lost Colonies

Having just finished my last classes for my modern Russia survey, I wanted to share some thoughts on a documentary that I used to discuss Post-Soviet Russia. The 2008 documentary is entitled The Lost Colony. For a clip, see: http://hotdocsaudience.bside.com/2008/films/thelostcolony_hotdocs2008.

The action takes place in the tiny sub-tropical region of Abkhazia on the coast of the Black Sea. While Abkhazia is ostensibly a part of the post-Soviet nation of Georgia, it has been a de facto protectorate of Russia since the early 1990s. Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, provides the backdrop for the documentary’s central subject: a famous primate center created in the city in 1927, when Abkhazia was part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. The original primate center’s mission grew directly out of the utopian Soviet project to create a new Soviet man and woman—in this case an ape-man and woman spawned from the cross breeding of monkeys and humans. Researchers at the center injected monkeys with human semen and vise-versa, all to no avail, as they pursued the apparently desirable outcome of an ape-man hybrid.

Ultimately, however, the documentary is less about the bizarre early history of the Sukhumi Primate Center—though it contains fascinating snippets of that history—than about the tragic fate of Abkhazia during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia where most of the documentary was filmed in 2007, is a land locked in the chaos and economic collapse of the Soviet Union of the 1990s. Using the ignominious demise of the primate center as a kind of microcosm of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the documentary provides a fascinating window into post-Soviet history.

The film captures the intense nostalgia among Abkhazians for the old Soviet Union. Far from viewing America’s main ally in the region (Georgia) as a liberator, Abkhazians harbor an intense suspicion and anger toward the supposedly democratic and liberated Georgia. Georgia seized Abkhazia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. A Civil War followed in 1992 and ended in a so-called frozen conflict when Russian peacemakers entered Abkhazia, still formerly a part of Georgia, and prevented the Georgian authorities from establishing their power (and committing more war atrocities). The Russians have been there ever since, greeted by most Abkhazians as protectors and liberators. Abkhazians have paid a high price, however. The region’s uncertain status means that no one, except Russia, has been willing to invest money or aid.

The documentary recounts the story in 2007 of the primate center’s attempt to dig itself, and Abkhazia, out of the ruins of Soviet civilization. It skillfully weaves three interconnecting story lines. The first is the story of the new director of the primate center and his efforts at reviving it. The chain-smoking director, a bear of a man, is a nervous wreck, full of self doubt about his mission and about his beloved Abkhazia. He begs for money from potential donors, Abkhazian officials, Russian bigwigs, and entrepreneurs. He phones one donor about creating a “safari park” filled with exotic animals of the Caucasus, but concerns about Abkhazia’s uncertain political status thwart the effort. His major gambit is to hold an international conference of primatologists for the 80th anniversary of the Sukhumi Primate Center, which he envisions as a kind of springboard for restoring the center’s former glory. He enlists the aid of the famous Soviet era manager of the center, the esteemed primatologist Boris Lapin. Lapin realizes the primate center has much more to do with politics and Abkhazian identity than with primate studies (unless, of course, the primates under study would be the Abkhazians themselves.) He offers wry comments on the futile efforts of the new director to attract money and scientific support as if he were observing an elaborate baboon mating ritual.

The second story line of the documentary involves a long-time employee of the center, a former monkey keeper who is on a quest to find the lost primates. Like the Abkhazians, the primates became refugees of the war between Georgia and Abkhazia in 1992. In the midst of war, when the center came under direct attack from Georgian troops, the monkeys were released from their cages and they headed for the hills after splitting into two groups (presumably one pro-Russian group and one pro-Georgian). Georgian soldiers attacked the center and seized remaining primates as trophies of war, taking the poor beasts with them in their Soviet-made tanks and jeeps. But most of the primates had already absconded to the nearby mountains of Abkhazia, following on the tails, or rather heels, of their human refugee cousins.

The monkey keeper’s mission in 2007 was to find the colony and put the monkeys back in their cages in time for the 80th anniversary conference. At one point, the former monkey tender takes a four-wheel drive vehicle as far as it will take him down washed out roads and up to the mountains. And then he sets out, leaving food for the missing beasts and returning later to find, or so he hopes, evidence of a monkey feeding. Hope springs eternal, even as the old Soviet-era director Lapin dismisses as senseless dreaming the possibility that the monkeys could have survived 12 years in the post-Soviet wilderness.

The third and final story line involves the fascinating history of the primate center in its glory years. The Soviet Union was a sociological as well as zoological experiment — and it was often unclear which was which. Pavlov (he of the salivating dogs) became a Soviet hero. The laugh-out-loud subject of a vicious 1925 satire by the Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov involved attaching human testicles and a human pituitary gland to a dog named Sharik, eventually creating a Soviet commissar. The documentary suggests that the truth at the center was often as strange (and more terrifying) than Bulgakov’s tale. There are horrific archival images of monkeys under the surgical knife, hooked up to wires and machines, and injected with a witch’s brew of viruses. The footage was originally intended to glorify the monkeys as heroic actors in the onward march of human and scientific progress.

The documentary recounts the center’s emergence after World War II as a leading world center for primate research. During the Khrushchev thaw U.S. primatologists were allowed to visit the center. They were so impressed that they came home and started primate centers on the Sukhumi model. While resting in the glorious seaside resort of Sukhumi, cosmonauts and Soviet leaders such as Brezhnev visited the center to check in on their cousins lower down the evolutionary ladder.

The film concludes with the run-up to the conference at the center in 2007. It is fascinating to see how the participants seemed to believe that the fate of Abkhazia, and not simply of the primate center, turned on the outcome of the conference. It’s as if restoring the center to its glory days would make the trauma of Soviet collapse go away. There was only one problem: the monkey keeper could not locate the monkeys in the mountains, and thus re-cage them in order to re-liberate the Abkhazians. Still, the conference went on. The director was as proud and nervous as the father of a newborn baby as he awaited the busload of VIPs from Europe and the United States. His associates swept and cleaned and whitewashed the dilapidated structures and cages of the center, minus their primate inhabitants, still missing in the mountains.

By the time the conference unfolded, it became clear to everyone involved that science was beside the point. Giddy foreign VIPs snapped photos of themselves in front of a gigantic bronzed baboon in front of the center—the Lenin of the primate world—a socialist realist monkey erected in happier Soviet times. American and European scientists waxed nostalgic about the wonderful things the primate center used to do for science and humanity (though not for the monkeys) in the good-old, bad-old days of the Cold War. A party with much dancing and many shots of vodka ensued and in the aftermath the sweaty, besotted director declared (perhaps prematurely) the conference a great success.

And so the fate of the primate center, and of the human primates in Abkhazia, remains in limbo, just like Abkhazia itself. At the end of the documentary the intrepid seeker of the lost colony is shown back in the mountains, playing monkey noises to the forests from a boom box to a non-existent audience. It is a sad and touching scene, emblematic of the fate of so many former Soviets (Russian and non-Russian) who have gained little except dashed dreams and economic suffering from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The seeker of the lost colony played his monkey music to an empty forest; one suspects he would have had more success playing the Soviet national anthem on Abkhazian television.

Perhaps after watching this documentary, students can appreciate why so many people of the former Soviet Union look back fondly on the late Soviet era as a kind of golden era in comparison to the terrorist-infested, rat-race of wild east capitalism and the farce of so-called liberal democracy (which replaced the farce of so-called socialist democracy in the Soviet era). No one in Abkhazia, at least in this documentary, seems to see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a liberating moment. Indeed, just the opposite is true. As one of the workers in the primate center wistfully remarked regarding life in the old Soviet Union: “These were probably the best years of my life.”

The story of the Sukhumi Primate Center is also a cautionary tale about the fate of tiny ethnicities in an age of fraternal strife and nationalism. For countries such as Abkhazia, sandwiched between the powerful Russians to their north and the U.S. sponsored Georgian nation to the south, any bid for independence invariably becomes another form of dependence. Should Abkhazia succeed in establishing its independence under Russian tutelage, which seems likely, it won’t take many years for this tiny nation of 100,000 or so to be overwhelmed by the political and economic capital of Russia. The caged primates, it seems, will then be the Abkhazians themselves. Their Russian liberators will be the new keepers, and unlike the monkeys, the Abkhazians can’t all hide in the mountains.

This entry was posted in Cold War, Films, Nostalgia and Memory, Post-Soviet Russia, Soviet Science. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Monkies and Lost Colonies

  1. // Their Russian liberators will be the new keepers, and unlike the monkeys, the Abkhazians can’t all hide in the mountains. //

    Andrew, it is very sadly to know that the Westerns see on Abkhazians as the monkeys (am I not mistaken?). I would recommend this film/article to send in Abkhazia, they’ll have a chance to evaluate such parallels with the their sense of humour.

    Interestingly, whether do the American students come to the same conclusion after watching this movie?

  2. Andrew Jenks says:

    The parallel, as I see it, is not that Abkhazians are sub-human and monkey-like (a ridiculous and insulting notion), but that given their geographical location and economic and political circumstances they feel like caged animals. As for my students, they were transfixed by this documentary, which got them thinking about the boundaries between the human and the zoological — and more generally, about the real subject of primate research (the humans doing the experimenting or the poor caged creatures themselves?).

  3. Recently, the student delegation of US universities visited Ekaterinburg (where I live), exactly they were North American Indians. They gave a several ethnographic shows: performing their distinctive national dances. It seems the only thing they remain of their ethnic identity arsenal. Once their ancestors were indigenous and the only inhabitants of North America, and now they do not even have their own independent state on the continent, at least unrecognized state, not even its autonomy state inside the United States.

    I think this is a profound underestimation of the Russian and Abkhaz peoples who for centuries lived side by side, respecting a national originality each other. Of course, the Russian capital is coming to Abkhazia, it is necessary to raise the spa industry in this region – the money should help in raising the local living standards and social welfare (at least at the level of Soviet era). It is strange to read the words on almost a “sunset” of the Abkhaz people (for some reason this motive often appears in Western mass media), while the U.S. transnational capital overwhelmed a half the world with the MacDonald’s.

    // Should Abkhazia succeed in establishing its independence under Russian tutelage, which seems likely, it won’t take many years for this tiny nation of 100,000 or so to be overwhelmed by the political and economic capital of Russia. //

    Possibly due to geographical and historical circumstances, the Americans hard to understand how we can coexist in own national autonomies side by side without being melted in general melting pot, without leveling the ethnic identity. But Russian and Abkhaz peoples both know it from the coexistence in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union – the feeling that the Western media usually refer to an idiom “a nostalgia for the USSR.”

    • Andrew Jenks says:

      As I attempted to suggest in my post, the documentary made me think that the situation in Abkhazia circa 2007 was not nearly as good for many Abkhazians as their situation before the collapse of the Soviet Union. So at least in part, I think we agree?

  4. Lucy says:

    Andrew, thanks for a thought-provoking post. It seems to me that nostalgia for the Soviet structure, so far from decreasing over time, is stronger than ever in many respects–but so is the polarization that Steve referenced a while back.

    I’m watching these developments in the former USSR with a bit of a chill up my spine, because it seems to me that in times of political and economic instability, when there’s a great deal of nostalgia and little hope, people are ready to embrace what they perceive as a strong leadership–of any stripe they can get. And maybe I’m paranoid, but I can’t help thinking of that twenty-year gap between 1919 and 1939….

  5. Pingback: Aviation Art – WW II Soviet Air Force

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