In 1932, Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most significant composers of the 20th century, started writing a satirical opera that he ultimately left unfinished. Its title, Orango, refers to the name of the unlikely protagonist of an almost surreal plot about the life of a Parisian journalist, a hybrid between a man and an ape. This unusual premise echoed some controversial human-animal crossbreeding experiments conducted in the Soviet Union during the 1920s by biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov.

Shostakovich, then a very young man at 26, began composing Orango as a commission from the Bolshoi Theater to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. The premise was to have a theme focusing on “human growth during the revolution and socialist construction”, and so the opera was conceived as a satire against the bourgeois press. He started composing the music while Aleksei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, writers specializing in fantasy and science fiction, worked on the libretto.

The hybridization theme was quite popular at the time, as demonstrated by the Russian artistic production of that era. In 1929, Shostakovich had already provided the musical accompaniment for the premiere of the play The Bedbug, by playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, where the protagonist wakes up fifty years after being frozen to find an ideal communist society that contrasts with his dismal past. As a result, he is seen as a misfit, with a bedbug that had revived with him being his only companion.

Mikhail Bulgakov in 1928
Mikhail Bulgakov in 1928. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, in 1925, the writer and doctor Mikhail Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog, a short novel in which a scientist grafts the testicles and pituitary gland of a worker killed in riots onto a stray dog.

The obvious, surprisingly critical, reference to the novy sovietski chelovek (“new Soviet man”, the socialist citizen archetype defined by Trotsky in his book Literature and Revolution) led to the work being banned until 1987 (though it circulated as samizdat, i.e., clandestinely) and contributed to the downfall of its author, who was considered disloyal to the regime.

Alexander Starchakov himself had published a story about a French embryologist who experimented with human-ape hybrids. Along with Tolstoy (who was a distant relative of the famed Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as fellow writer Ivan Turgenev), they conceived a libretto with a prologue and three acts, where Orango, a hybrid man-ape created by a French biologist, fights in World War I, becomes a journalist, buys a newspaper, speculates on the stock market, and travels to the USSR, developing an intense hatred for communism and workers.

Alexei Tolstoy en 1945
Alexei Tolstoy en 1945. Credit: ИППИ / Wikimedia Commons

As his life progresses, Orango increasingly emphasizes his animalistic, simian side: he marries a Russian émigré in Paris, rapes his stepsister, goes bankrupt in the 1929 crash, and ends up being sold by his wife to a Moscow circus, spending the rest of his life in a cage. In short, a critical and subtle allegory of capitalism, as requested.

The issue was that while Shostakovich made rapid progress on the music, using earlier pieces and ideas, the libretto faced delays, leading to the project’s cancellation. It’s unclear whether this was because the revolutionary anniversary had passed or because the topic was no longer relevant.

Tolstoy, who embraced communism after initial hesitations, had a prosperous literary career compared to Starchakov, who was considered disloyal and was executed in 1937 during the Great Purge. Shostakovich navigated the ambiguity, sometimes penalized, sometimes acclaimed, until he joined the Communist Party in 1960, ending his troubles (he even became a member of the Supreme Soviet). He then dedicated his efforts to another opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the few texts and thirteen pages of piano music from Orango languished, forgotten, until 2004.

Dimitri Shostakovich photographed in 1925, at the age of nineteen
Dimitri Shostakovich photographed in 1925, at the age of nineteen. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

That year, his widow Irina, accompanied by musicologist Olga Digonskaya, found them in a cardboard folder preserved at the Glinka Central State Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow. They got there thanks to a curious serendipity: a family friend had acquired them after bribing a Shostakovich maid to hand over discarded originals, which somehow ended up among the museum’s collection along with hundreds of other documents. So, the widow commissioned British musician Gerard McBurney to orchestrate her husband’s forty minutes of music (aiming to emulate his style), leading to Orango’s premiere in Los Angeles in 2011.

But this story wouldn’t have happened without a contextual base. In 1929, Shostakovich visited – and recommended as “a show worth seeing” – the Sukhumi Laboratory, a city on the Black Sea coast that’s now the capital of the Republic of Abkhazia (a state only partially recognized because Georgia claims it for its namesake region). Here, primate research experiments were conducted under Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov’s direction, a biologist renowned for his success in artificial insemination applied to horses.

Ivanov, a native of Shchigry (a city in the Kursk Governorate), where he was born in 1870 into a middle-class family – his father was a local treasury official – left Moscow University, where he was studying Natural History, to enroll in Biology at Kharkov University, graduating in 1896. He completed his studies in St. Petersburg, Geneva, and Paris, then worked in various state veterinary institutions before founding his laboratory in Sukhumi.

Ilya Ivanov in 1927
Ilya Ivanov in 1927. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

His specialty was in reproduction and crossbreeding, focused on the livestock sector. In this field, he achieved significant success by fertilizing half a thousand mares with a single stallion (normally, one stallion could only fertilize twenty to thirty mares), attracting breeders from around the world seeking help. He also used artificial insemination to create domestic hybrids: the zebroid (a mix of zebra and donkey), the zubron (a cross between bison and cow), and many more from combinations like antelope and cow, mouse and rat, mouse and guinea pig, guinea pig and rabbit, rabbit and hare, etc.

As mentioned earlier, this scientific field, just gaining traction in the first quarter of the 20th century, became quite popular. Not only in the Soviet Union, but also in other countries like France, where Dr. Serge Voronoff transplanted chimpanzee and baboon testicle tissue into men to cure impotence (or thyroid glands, if that was the issue), and the U.S., where John Romulus Brinkley did something similar, but using male goat genitalia. Notably, Voronoff was the model for Mikhail Bulgakov’s professor Preobrazhenski in Heart of a Dog.

Between 1926 and 1927, Ilya Ivanov led an expedition to West Africa to obtain specimens for experiments on human-ape hybrids. His facilities in Sukhumi had their own animals, allowing him to shift from equines to primates. Back in 1910, during a conference at the World Congress of Zoologists in Graz (Austria), he speculated about the possibility of creating a human-primate hybrid, and in 1924 he received permission from the French government to capture chimpanzees in French Guinea. With the help of his son, he gathered thirteen and proceeded to inseminate three female chimpanzees with human sperm – donated by volunteers.

Nikolai Gorbunov in 1936
Nikolai Gorbunov in 1936. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

He got no results, so he thought about trying the reverse; however, the French government denied him permission, so he returned to Sukhumi with his new group, where he received approval from Nikolai Gorbunov, Lenin’s personal secretary and head of the Department of Scientific Institutions of the Commissariat for Education and Science.

He had enthusiastic support from the Society of Materialist Biologists, a group under the Communist Academy (an institution focused on research in various fields: biology, mathematics, philosophy, law, history, literature, art, language, economy, and politics).

Five female volunteers were needed, but the project was delayed because there was only one adult male primate, an orangutan, which died in the summer of 1929, just as the experiment was about to begin, requiring a new shipment of chimpanzees expected the following year.

Plaque in memory of Ilya Ivanov located in the building of the Russian Research Institute of Experimental Veterinary Medicine in Kuzminki
Plaque in memory of Ilya Ivanov located in the building of the Russian Research Institute of Experimental Veterinary Medicine in Kuzminki. Credit: shakko / Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately for him, political changes occurred; Stalin’s fiftieth birthday led to a cult of personality that gave him greater personal power and facilitated a series of reforms – the Great Turn – to industrialize the country, improve the economy, and end private property.

This also resulted in the suppression of the kulaks and an ideological cleansing in several sectors. Science was one of them; Gorbunov was reassigned, leaving many researchers without support, including Ivanov, who suddenly became viewed as a suspect eccentric. Arrested in mid-December 1930, he was sentenced to five years of exile in Alma Ata, then the capital of the Kazakh SSR, where he found work at the local Veterinary-Zoological Institute.

He didn’t last much longer, as a stroke ended his life a year and a half later, in the spring of 1932. As a curious fact, it can be mentioned that Ivan Pavlov (the famous physiologist who in 1901 had formulated the law of the conditioned stimulus-response reflex) collaborated in writing his obituary, which was published in 1933 in the journal Nature, and he sent a letter to his widow in which he said: It is impossible not to cry over the untimely death of a figure in science and practice like Ilya Ivanovich.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 22, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los experimentos soviéticos para conseguir un híbrido de hombre y simio que inspiraron una ópera inacabada de Shostakovich


Gerard McBurney, Orango (estreno mundial) (orquestación de Gerard McBurney) (en LA Phil) | Carlos Prieto, Dmitri Shostakóvick. Genio y drama | Sergei L. Loiko y Reed Johnson, Shostakovich’s ‘Orango’ found, finished, set for Disney Hall (en Los Angeles Times) | Kiril Rossiianov, Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes (en Science in Context) | Sean B. Carroll, Una serie de eventos afortunados. El azar, el mundo, la vida y tú | Wikipedia

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