Monkey eyes

A monkey looks through its cage at the sanctuary in Sukhumi. Like the theoretically meaningless license plates, flags and passports churned out by the Abkhazian government, the monkeys stand as thin evidence that the breakaway Georgian republic is a real country. (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)

They languish in the yard of a war-crushed research center, rattling against the rusting metal of their cages and staring down at the distant blue smudge of the Black Sea.

The inbred clans of traumatized monkeys have managed to survive long years of war, hunger and science, tucked away in the oblivion and isolation of a breakaway republic most people couldn't find on a map.

History has rolled right past Abkhazia. This strip of lush coast has lingered in a sort of non-time for 15 years, ever since a war for independence from Georgia ended in international stalemate. Since then, Abkhazia has been ruled by a government deemed illegitimate by the rest of the world, stultified by sanctions, jobless and sleepy.

The monkeys of the 91-year-old Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy have been here all the while.

Few townspeople use the fancy name anymore; they just point toward the building on the hill and speak of the "monkey sanctuary." The 286 surviving animals are descended from the thousands that populated the laboratories of the Soviet Union's preeminent primate research institute. Today, people without a country cling to the monkeys because of what they represent: the dimming memory of prestige, and the hope that better days will come.

The cash-strapped government of Abkhazia can't afford to fill bomb-cratered roads but has managed to keep the institute running. Like the meaningless license plates, flags and passports churned out by the government, the monkeys stand as thin evidence that Abkhazia is a real country.

"We are creating a state. A state cannot exist without science and without institutes," says institute director Tamaz Kubrava. "The government gives us a miserable sum of money, and our main task is simply to preserve our flock."

Today, like Abkhazia itself, the monkeys are trapped in an eerie limbo. There's barely enough money to feed and shelter the primates, let alone cash to run experiments.

Desperate to generate money, the facility has opened to the public as a de facto zoo. People pay $2 a head -- $1 for children -- to wander among monkey cages spaced haphazardly under the fir trees.

"It's not a zoo," Kubrava bristles, "it's a research institute."

But in the same breath, he muses about restoring a wider swath of the sprawling, bomb-wrecked property, dreaming up more ambitious sightseeing ventures and increasing the price of admission.

"If we restore tourist excursions down the mountain," he says, "we could increase our profits."

The animals are leftovers from a more peaceful and prosperous time, when Josef Stalin summered here and tourists from all over the Soviet Union flocked to Abkhazia's palm-shaded beach resorts. In its heyday, the monkeys provided insight to disease and ventured into space aboard Soviet craft.

Locals are proud of the monkey institute, which they list among such sights as the Russian theater and famed botanical garden. They are also irrepressibly fond of repeating the wild tales of the institute's storied mad scientist, Ilya Ivanov.

The driving force in a top-secret Stalinist scheme to invent a new breed of low-maintenance Soviet soldier-worker, Ivanov worked feverishly in the 1920s to mate humans and apes. Much of his research was carried out here in Sukhumi, according to institute officials and recently declassified documents published in the Russian press. According to colorful local lore, Soviet prisoners were drafted for the tests.

Scientists at the institute today acknowledge Ivanov's experiments but say the details were classified and lost to history.

Ivanov later fell out of favor, and died in one of Stalin's prison camps.

More mundane biological research ground along for the rest of Soviet times, until the war erupted in the early 1990s -- and raged through the laboratories. The buildings are still chewed by shrapnel, the windows busted, some of the structures left to rot.

Many of the monkeys escaped into snowy winters and harsh wilderness, or were freed by sympathetic bystanders who realized they were starving, unwittingly dooming many to death from exposure. In the wildest days of bloodletting, with primates running loose, some of the soldiers took to keeping baby monkeys perched on their shoulders as surreal mascots. Only a few of the animals survived in their cages, kept alive by a few stalwart staff members and tenderhearted locals.