“We Are All Descended from Monkeys”

The Russian foreign ministerial archives are extremely difficult to work in, and that makes uncorroborated gems all the more frustrating. What follows is a remarkable account of a conversation between Mustafa Kemal (not yet but soon to be Atatürk), Iakov Surits  (longtime Soviet ambassador in Ankara), and Mark Lambert Bristol (U.S. Navy, U.S. representative in Turkey). Surits was ambassador in Ankara for ten years, and I have read scores of his reports. By all accounts, he was an excellent diplomat. This document reads like all the others he wrote and I have no reason to think that he exaggerated. Unfortunately, however, I don’t have records from anyone else who was present for the incident in question.

Surits’s report describes a diplomatic event that occurred in Ankara on 31 January 1927. Surits was already in attendance when Mustafa Kemal arrived “in high spirits.” The Turkish president immediately called the Soviet ambassador to his side. Tevfik Rüştu (foreign minister) and Şükrü Kaya were with Mustafa Kemal, and they insisted that it would be impolite not to invite Mark Bristol to join them as well. Bristol was in Ankara on slightly awkward terms. Less than two weeks earlier, the U.S. Senate had refused to ratify an agreement negotiated between U.S. and Turkish representatives at Lausanne in 1923. Official Turkish-U.S. diplomatic relations did not begin until December 1927 – more than four years after Lausanne brought the Independence War to a formal conclusion. In addition to diplomatic tensions, Mustafa Kemal’s alleged remarks to Bristol were influenced by the aggressive program of secularization that Turkey was pursuing at the time. The United States had recently made global headlines when the state of Tennessee prosecuted John T. Scopes for teaching evolution. That case was commonly known as “the monkey trial.”

When Mustafa Kemal was told by his colleagues that he would have to speak to Bristol, he turned to Surits and remarked: “I don’t like these Americans. The world’s greatest evil lies in the fact its largest purse is in the hands of these ignorant people. They have no idea what’s happening beyond the borders of America” (the Russian-language originals for this and the next quotation are at the end of this text).

Mustafa Kemal was apparently no kinder when Bristol and his wife finally joined them. Mustafa Kemal abruptly asked the American representative whether he believed the world had a creator. Bristol avoided a direct answer but ultimately conceded that, yes, he believed in a creator. Surits reported Mustafa Kemal’s response as a direct quotation: “We are all descended from monkeys. The skin color of your wife’s face” – Mustafa Kemal seemed to begin intentionally with reference to the American representative’s wife – “the color of your face and my face, all of this comes from monkeys. Those who deny the idea that we evolved from monkeys are nothing but beasts themselves.”

Just a couple of weeks later, Bristol and Tevfik Rüştü signed notes that paved the way for the reestablishment of U.S.-Turkish relations. Bristol soon left the country, to be replaced by a formal ambassador – Joseph Grew. Yet even after Grew arrived in Ankara, it took another seven months for the U.S. Congress to confirm his appointment. When Laurence A. Steinhardt arrived as ambassador in 1942, he found that life in Ankara was still difficult for American diplomats. How could he be expected to do his job, he asked Washington, if we have “between the two buildings in Ankara and Istanbul only four finger bowls, three liqueur glasses, 7 wine glasses, 11 water glasses and 3 highball glasses.” The Soviet ambassador could be forgiven for thinking that Mustafa Kemal spoke frankly to him on that evening in 1927 because of the commitment the Soviet Union had made to Ankara. Moscow was one of the first foreign countries to recognize the government in Ankara, and the Soviet Union quickly built an ostentatious embassy that was the site of grand receptions throughout the interwar period.

Unfortunately, without corroborating evidence from Turkish or American sources, I cannot use this story for an academic work. If anyone should find evidence that something like the above account transpired, I’d be delighted to hear about it.


– Samuel J. Hirst


Source: Arkhiv Vneshnei Politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii, fond 4, opis 39, papka 242, delo 53268, list’ia 42-45.


Quotation 1: «Я не люблю этих американцев. Основное зло для всего мира заключается в том, что самая толстая мошна находится в руках этих невежественных людей, которые совершенно не отдают себе отчета в том, что происходит за пределами их Америки».

Quotation 2: «Все мы произошли от обезьяны. Цвет лица м-м Бристоль, цвет вашего и моего лица – все это от обезьяны. Те, кто отвергает теорию происхождения от обезьяны, сами принадлежат к животным».