It was the Soviet dictator's dream: Soldiers with no fear, with superhuman strength and endurance, who would follow any order, eat anything, and ignore pain or injury. Workers who could do the labor of ten men without complaint, with no thought of personal time off, and no desire for pay. A force to carry the Soviet Union through its Five-Year Plan for economic development, and to make the nation invincible in war. Stalin's goal, according to modern mythology, was no less than a slave race of scientifically bred beings that were half human and half ape; a race he hoped would combine tremendous physical strength, dumb loyalty, and a human's ability to follow direction and perform complex tasks. But how much of this is true, and how much of it is the invention of modern writers and filmmakers looking for the sensational story?
It's no secret that a renowned Russian biologist, Il'ya Ivanovich Ivanov, spent much of his career working on just this. Around 1900 he gained great fame and national acclaim with his work on artificially inseminating horses, increasing the number of horses that could be bred by a factor of about twenty. For a preindustrialized nation, this was a tremendous economic accomplishment. Primarily funded by the Veterinary Department of the Russian Interior Ministry, Ivanov carried this technology to its next logical step, the creation of specialized hybrid animals for agricultural and industrial purposes, as well as for the sake of advancing the science. His artificial insemination experiments successfully crossed many closely related species: donkeys and zebras, mice and rats and other rodents, birds, and various species of cattle.
As early as 1910, Ivanov lectured on the possibility of crossing humans and apes, citing artificial insemination as the method of choice due to prevailing ethical objections to, well, interspecies partying, for lack of a better term. However, before he could make any progress, Ivanov's work came to an abrupt halt in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, which effectively dissolved most existing government programs and eliminated all of his funding. The new Soviet government was committed to technical innovation and science, but it took seven long years for Ivanov to rebuild his network of support. Ivanov's entire career could be fairly characterized as a constant fundraising effort, desperately seeking resources for his hybridization dream and other projects, and failing nine times out of ten. He should have been so lucky as to have the government come to him with an offer, much less an order.
Interestingly, many modern articles about Ivanov portray his work as a religiously motivated crusade. It's often said that the Russian and Soviet governments funded Ivanov not for any practical purpose, but merely out of atheist activism to prove evolutionary biology and to show that creationism has no place. Amid the developing nation's immense problems with famine and agricultural development, this would seem to be a bizarre reason to explore the capabilities of animal insemination. Nevertheless, there's an element of truth to it. In voicing support for Ivanov's 1924 grant proposal, the representative of the Commissariat of Agriculture said:
"...The topic proposed by Professor Ivanov...should become a decisive blow to the religious teachings, and may be aptly used in our propaganda and in our struggle for the liberation of working people from the power of the Church."
It's not clear whether this was the Commissariat's actual position or whether it was simply a sales tactic; either is plausible. Ivanov himself is not known to have ever expressed interest in this interpretation of his work; after all, he'd been studying reproduction as a scientist for almost 30 years, since long before the Soviet state existed.
It took another year for this particular proposal to be funded. Apes were prohibitively expensive and rare in Russia, so Ivanov set off for Africa to set up a new lab. After some false starts, he finally launched his own facility in Guinea with chimpanzees netted for him by local hunters. Using sperm from an unidentified man, Ivanov made three artifical insemination attempts on his female chimps. Because Ivanov observed that the local Africans viewed chimps as inferior humans, and viewed humans who had had contact with chimps as tainted, he performed these inseminations in secret with only his son present as an assistant. Ivanov knew that a mere three attempts was inadequate to hope for any success, but the difficulties and expenses of maintaining and inseminating the chimps was too great. So he conceived a more sustainable experimental technique: Collecting the sperm of only two or three male apes, and then using that to artificially inseminate human women.
He found no support for his plan in Africa — in large part because he had proposed to inseminate women in hospitals without their knowledge or consent — so he returned to the Soviet Union with his remaining chimps and founded a primate station in Sukhum (today called Sukhumi) on the Black Sea. Only one mature male survived, an orangutan named Tarzan. By 1929, the plan was to have five women be artificially inseminated, and then live at Ivanov's institute with a gynecologist for one full year. But just as the first woman volunteer was secured, known only to history as "G", Tarzan died. Ivanov ordered five male chimps, but just as they were delivered, his life suddenly turned in a new direction, driven by the constant turmoil of philosophies and favoritisms in the Soviet Union. Ivanov was accused of sabotaging the Soviet agricultural system and various political crimes, leading to his arrest a few months later. G never visited the Sukhum station, and no sperm was ever harvested from the new chimps. Ivanov died after two years of exile.
Ivanov's primate station survived, however, and became his only real legacy. By the 1960's it had over two thousand apes and monkeys, and was employed by the Soviet and American space programs. But nobody ever followed his ape-human hybrid research there, though conventional artificial insemination was often employed among its primate population.
So, does this history support or contradict the claim that Stalin wanted an ape-man hybrid race of slave super warriors? Well it certainly doesn't confirm it. Contrary to the modern version of the story, Stalin personally had no connection with Ivanov or his work, and probably didn't even know about it. No evidence has ever surfaced that Stalin or the Soviet government ever went out looking for someone to create an ape-man super soldier, though it's certainly possible that someone evaluating Ivanov's proposal may have made such an extrapolation.
Yet, in 2005, the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman reported the following:
The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the creation of Planet of the Apes-style warriors by crossing humans with apes, according to recently uncovered secret documents. Moscow archives show that in the mid-1920s Russia's top animal breeding scientist, Ilya Ivanov, was ordered to turn his skills from horse and animal work to the quest for a super-warrior.
The latter claim, that Ivanov was "ordered" to shift his work, we've found to be demonstrably untrue. The former claim, that "secret documents" have been uncovered in Moscow, is a little hard to swallow. The article gives no information whatsoever about these alleged documents, and no source is even mentioned. A search of Russian language newspapers reveals no news stories about this at all, prior to The Scotsman's article. Certainly there are documents somewhere pertaining to the grants Ivanov received from both the Russian and the Soviet governments, but if these are what The Scotsman referred to, they are wrong when they describe them as secret, as recently uncovered, and that they showed Ivanov was ordered to create a super-warrior.
From what I can see, The Scotsman's story was merely another in a long line of cases where a journalist fills a slow news day with a sensationalized and/or fictionalized version of very old news, just as the National Enquirer did with the Roswell UFO story in 1978. In that case, the TV show Unsolved Mysteries picked it up and broadcast an imaginative reconstruction based on the article, and launched a famous legend. In this instance, the show MonsterQuest picked up The Scotsman article and broadcast a 2008 episode called Stalin's Ape Man. The Internet has been full of articles about Stalin's supposed experiments ever since. Interestingly, a very thorough and well researched episode of Unsolved History on the Discovery Channel called Humanzee, which was all about human-ape hybrid experiments, did not mention Stalin or the Ivanov experiments at all. Why not? Because it was made in 1998, seven years before The Scotsman published its unsourced article, and introduced a new fiction into pop culture.
Humanzee focused on a particular chimp named Oliver, still living as of today, who has a bald head, prefers to walk upright, and has a number of other eerily humanlike tendencies. Although Oliver has been long promoted as a hybrid, genetic testing found that he is simply a normal chimp. This result was disappointing to cryptozoologists and conspiracy theorists, but it did not surprise primatologists who knew that each of Oliver's unusual features is within the range of normal chimps. In fact, this was established 20 years ago by testing done in Japan, and again in 1996; it's just that nobody reported it since it was not the sensational version of the story.
Oliver is not a hybrid; Ivanov produced no hybrids; and other scientists have at least looked into it and never created any. There are the usual unsourced stories out of China of hybrids being created in labs, and even one from Florida in the 1920's. Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, reported rumors of unidentified researchers in Africa growing hybrids, but even he dismissed it as "no more than the last quasi-scientific twitchings of the dying mythology." None of these tall tales are supported by any meaningful evidence.
But is it possible? Biologists who have studied the question are split, but the majority appear to think it is not, at least not from simple artificial insemination. But one conclusion can be drawn as a certainty, at least to my satisfaction: The urban legend that Stalin ordered Ivanov (or anyone else) to create an ape-man super soldier is patently false. It has all the hallmarks and appearance of imaginative writers creating their own news, and it was done at the expense of Il'ya Ivanov, whose proper place as a giant in the field of biology has been unfairly overshadowed by a made-up fiction. Treat this one as you would any urban myth: Be skeptical.