The Red Frankenstein

The spotted lady pressed her hand to her bosom, and looked hopefully at Filipp Filippovich.
He frowned his eyebrow, sat down at the table, and began to write.
– Madam, I will implant into you the ovaries of a monkey
– he said, and looked very severely.

Bulgakov in one of his harshest satires on the new Soviet regime, the Heart of a Dog (1925) describes how a devout and grateful stray dog becomes after the implantation of a human pituitary a pretentious and primitive Soviet proletarian. The allegory is so perfect and flawlessly finished that you are absolutely convinced it must have been Bulgakov’s own invention. Perhaps only the hundred years older Frankenstein (1823) by the Shelleys comes to mind as a source of inspiration. However, just as Frankenstein was partly inspired by the galvanic experiments performed on dead corpses by Giovanni Aldini of Bologna, so Bulgakov also draw the model of Professor Preobrazhensky from his own era.

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics (1921)

Following the spreading of Darwinism and the rediscovery of the Mendelian rules of inheritance, the first decades of the 20th century were marked by the genetic and other kind of biological experiments to improve the human body. This was the heyday of eugenics, which aimed at improving the human gene pool, as well as of hormone treatments and the various forms of xenotransplantation, which tried to delay the aging of the human body with the implantation of elements from other living organisms. Of these methods, by the Russian professor Serge Voronoff (1866-1951) working in Paris received the greatest publicity. He transplanted some millimeter large pieces from the scrotum of young monkeys into that of old men, who then allegedly looked spectacularly younger. Voronoff became world famous. Until the 1940s, when his earlier fans turned their backs to his method, he performed several thousands of operations, including on the aging Atatürk and many football players of the British League. Later he also tried to rejuvenate women through the transplantation of monkey ovaries. His results were widely promoted by the European and American press, and they inspired a large number of science fiction novels and comedies, songs (“If you’re too old for dancing / Get yourself a monkey gland”) and even cocktails.

“Had the philosophical Goethe known about the monkey gland, we had better have a ‘Voronoff’ and an ’interstitial gland’ operation instead of the historical Faust and his mystic dealings with Mephistopheles of the underworld, to attain eternal youth” (Medical Council, Chicago 1920)

Bulgakov, who changed his medical profession for that of the writer only after the Russian Civil War, certainly knew Voronoff’s work, whose Rejuvenation by grafting was published in the same year when Bulgakov – probably terribly luckily – unsuccessfully tried to publish and then to stage the Heart of a Dog. Soviet cenzorship was well aware of the ideological importance of the work, and the book, which for long decades spread only in samizdat, was first published in 1987 in the Soviet Union, which was immediately followed by Vladimir Bortko’s brilliant film version.

But Voronoff was not Bulgakov’s only model. The homunculus, the new man created from scratch, was, so to speak, in the air in Russia of the 1920s. Nothing seemed impossible for the new Soviet leadership living in the euphoria of the successful revolution. The genetic improvement of agriculture and even of human beings through the necessary concentration of forces and with the direction of sufficiently visionary scholars seemed just as feasible as the social transformations ordered from above. Such expectations converted into the director of Soviet genetics the modest Siberian apple breeder Ivan Michurin, whose motto, “We can not expect alms from nature, it’s our task to extort them from her”, happily coincided with Lenin’s Feuerbachian slogan: “The philosophers have only explained the world in different ways, our task is to change it.” This elevated into the dreaded ruler of Soviet genetics between 1930 and 1960 the Ukrainian agronomist Trofim Lysenko, the prophet of the inheritance of acquired properties, whose objective was “to chase randomness from the science of biology,” but instead he chased for thirty years the science of biology from the Soviet Union.

Lysenko in 1935 speaks in the Kremlin in the presence of Kosior, Mikoyan, Andreev and Stalin

And it raised into a leading position a now almost completely forgotten scholar, a successful pioneer of artificial insemination, Ilya Ivanov (1870-1932), who set no smaller goal to himself than to create, by crossing the monkey and man, “a hybrid ape-man, whose characteristics are close to that of man, but it grows much faster, and by the age of three or four it already has incredible power, while is much less sensitive to pain and hunger… The utility of such a species would be inestimable in several fields, from heavy work in swampy terrain to military service.”

We do not have to stress how convincing these arguments might have sounded for the Soviet power. In 1924 Ivanov received huge amounts and a research institution from the Soviet academy, as well as a long-term mission first to Paris, then to French Guinea, for experimenting with monkeys. Three times he inseminated female monkeys with human sperm, but the desired results failed to take place. And when he attempted to inseminate African women with monkey sperm on the pretext of gynecological examination, the French authorities expelled him from the colony.

Ivanov returned in 1929 with a male monkey to his research institution in Sukhumi, where he was waiting for female volunteers from the Komsomol to perform his experiments. However, not even the climate of the best Russian party holiday resorts was sufficient for the monkey, which died shortly after the arrival. Ivanov applied for the import of some more male monkeys, and while waiting for their arrival, he worked in his institution on bringing to perfection the process of artificial insemination.

Students of the Workers’ University familiarize with their future relative in the State Darwin Museum

We do not know whether the required monkeys arrived, and if yes, to Sukhumi or elsewhere. We do not know either whether Professor Ivanov committed some slip, or the authorities saw it opportune to continue his top secret research in a less frequented Kazakhstani institute. The fact is that in the subsequent year Ivanov vas arrested and taken to Alma-Ata. Here he was allowed a relatively large degree of freedom, and besides his research he could also teach in the local veterinarian institute. In 1932 he died in a heart attack. We do not know anything about the further fate of his research.

The professor’s work diary from the 1920s was recently found, under the guidance of his archivist friends, by author Oleg Shishkin, who in 2006 made a documentary film about the story with the help of director Dmitry Demin.

In the film we hear that the prisoners returning from the Gulag after Stalin’s death recalled of having seen “ape-men” working in certain places in Siberia. Allegedly, sensational articles were also published about it at that time, but then the news quickly disappeared. As the film does not mention any source at this point, it is quite possible that it only intends this as a sensationalist introduction, and even if the prisoners saw something, we cannot already know what it was. It is unlikely that the experiments of Professor Ivanov would have been successful. However, his objective, the mass production of an unassuming manpower suitable for all purposes from working on marshy terrains to military service, was successfully realized in the 30s and 40s by the Soviet state, who by the way also made Bulgakov’s vision come true. The title conferred to Professor Ivanov by the directors of the film is properly due to them.

2 comentarios:

MOCKBA dijo...

The Frankenstein story may be pure sensationalist garbage by a guy who makes living penning ultra-cheap paperbacks about UFOs and stuff, but one real monster did come out from the dead body of the early Soviet "experimental medicine". It was an A-bomb, developed at the mothballed campus of the Institute of Experimental Medicine (handed over to Kurchatov in the 1940s).

BTW Oleg Shishkin was so given to invention that he famously lost a court case about Nicholas Roerich's NKVD connections (I mean the real story was pretty much unassailable, but Shishkin stuffed his book with such an abundance of fantasy that Roerich's followers made him detract it!)

(And I assume that the broader issues of xenografts, HRT, New Man, bioethics etc. are too far outside of the scope of the blog to be commented here)

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you for the informations: I did not know about Shishkin’s oeuvre, and I found his film only by chance, when searching for Ivanov. This film, besides a few sensationalist points, such as the one I have quoted at the end of the post, and of course the cover, was rather sober, and most facts in it controllable. As it did not contain anything new in respect to the other sources I read and referred to earlier, I did not take anything specific from it, just quoted it as an illustration.

However, the story of the A-bomb would be really interesting if you would want to resume it for Río Wang.