The Strange and Often Radical Pursuit of Immortality in Russia

The Strange and Often Radical Pursuit of Immortality in Russia

The Collective Body

Russian experiments in life after death.

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I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,” venture capitalist Peter Thiel declared in his 2009 essay “The Education of a Libertarian.” His opposition to taxes and totalitarian collectives is hardly surprising; his ongoing campaign against human mortality is a bit more quixotic. For Thiel, death is just another obstacle to be overcome by the synergy of extraordinary wealth and cutting-edge technology.

Thiel’s vision can’t be called utopian, because it’s about no one but him. According to one of the more scandalous reports on his quest to live forever, he was considering injections of young people’s blood in an effort to slow the aging process, a service offered by a California company called Ambrosia. The story caught fire not only because of the dubious efficacy of the procedure but also because it looked like a literal expression of vampiric capitalism: the youth and strength of the poor harvested for the benefit of the ultrarich. This dystopian scenario was merely an exaggerated version of the grotesquely unequal US health care system, in which the wealthy buy longevity while the poor die prematurely for lack of basic care.

Thiel is not the first to explore the idea of life-extending blood transfusions. In fact, this practice has its origins in a truly utopian and egalitarian, if even more biologically suspect, experiment. Aleksandr Bogdanov, a prominent early Bolshevik and science fiction writer, investigated the rejuvenating properties of blood transfusions in the 1920s, though he soon died after exchanging blood with a tubercular student. As anthropologist Anya Bernstein discusses in The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia, Bogdanov’s hope was not merely to prolong the lives of individuals; he envisioned a sanguine communism in which all were granted an equal share of society’s collective health through blood exchanges. In his popular 1908 sci-fi novel Red Star, a revolutionary Russian scientist travels to Mars and visits a communist society that has eliminated inequality—not just in property but also in health and strength—as well as gender binaries. The happy Martians participate in regular blood exchanges that extend their lives and break down the barriers among them.

Bogdanov’s ideal of “physiological collectivism,” as he called it, didn’t make his experiments any less dangerous on a biological level (as he tragically discovered). But his project was a libertarian’s nightmare and a far cry from a model in which a rich few purchase the blood of the impoverished many. In The Future of Immortality, we meet a number of Bogdanov’s heirs, Russians who hope to extend life for all of humankind. Many are adamant in their commitment to collective transcendence, and some even have government funding. Their projects are often ludicrous from a scientific perspective, but Bernstein isn’t concerned with that. Instead, she seeks to understand what these Russian ways of “remaking life and death” reveal about human efforts to “bring the future into the present,” even as the future turns into an increasingly scary place.

The story of the Russian battle against death begins in the second half of the 19th century, when the country was in a state of entropy. Writers like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the author of What Is to Be Done?, were imagining new modes of communal, egalitarian living, while revolutionary activists and terrorists sought to eradicate the old class hierarchies. In this heady atmosphere, the Russian quest for immortality was born. At Moscow’s central library, Nikolai Fedorov, a teacher turned philosopher-librarian, was writing feverish treatises on a form of collective life that could transcend both time and death.

Fedorov believed that if humankind could train its full energy on the struggle to live forever, all war and other forms of conflict would vanish. He called this project the “common cause.” Just as he worked as a librarian to preserve the books in his care so they would be available to future generations, so too could humankind work to preserve each person in a library of eternal life. Every human being was a unique and precious repository of information and experiences, and Fedorov wanted to ensure that they would all remain available in perpetuity.

Fedorov’s ambition was not limited to those still living. He imagined resurrecting every person who had ever lived. Inverting the idea of the duty of the living to future generations, he argued that we owe a “resurrectory debt” to our parents, and he insisted that as technology advanced, we would pay off this debt by piecing our families back together from bones and even specks of dust. (A crackpot visionary rather than a scientist, he was short on specifics about how we might do this.) To solve the problem of housing the vast resurrected population, he looked to space, proposing the colonization of the galaxy—a hope shared by people like Thiel and Elon Musk today. But Fedorov imagined the work and benefits of immortality as collective and universal. He accumulated a number of followers during his lifetime and after his death, and his reputation as an eccentric visionary endures in Russia.

Leaping into the future to resurrect the past, Fedorov’s theories were a strange start for Soviet and Russian technofuturism. But nostalgia often lies at the heart of grand visions of the future. The Narodniki, followers of the movement from which many early Russian revolutionaries emerged, celebrated the traditional peasant commune as the seed of socialism. The fear of destruction can be another powerful motivator. In our moment of belated panic over the climate crisis, it might be surprising to learn from Bernstein that the potential end of a habitable planet was also discussed in Fedorov’s time. The second law of thermodynamics, according to which entropy in a closed system never decreases, was postulated in the mid-19th century and soon resulted in predictions of the universe’s eventual “heat death.”

This “secular eschatology,” as Bernstein calls it, and the loss of faith in Earth’s immortality prompted a deep anxiety among some European intellectuals. Darwin wrote that it was “an intolerable thought that [humans] and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress.” One of the characters in Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent asked, reasonably enough, “Why should I unequivocally love my neighbor or your future mankind, which I’ll never get to see, which won’t know about me and which in turn will turn into dust, leaving not a single trace or memory behind…when the Earth [becomes] an icy rock and [flies] off into the void with an infinite number of similar icy rocks?” (Not everyone bought the theory. In an 1869 letter to Marx, Engels denounced the notion of the planet’s heat death; dialectical materialism demanded an indestructible universe.) Fedorov’s theories promised to restore meaning and purpose to existence—to overcome the death of the individual, of humankind, and of the planet.

The focus on human extinction also began to yield real scientific results. Among those who studied at Fedorov’s library was an impoverished young autodidact named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who went on to prove the possibility of spaceflight through his calculations for liquid-propellant rockets. Although his proof was rejected by serious journals, it eventually became the basis for Soviet rocket design through the efforts of amateur spaceflight enthusiasts beginning in the 1930s. Like Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky wanted to “help humans populate the universe” in preparation for the moment when Earth became uninhabitable. Journeys into space were only one step in the creation of a more perfect version of humanity in which, as Tsiolkovsky explained, human bodies would be transformed into radiation, allowing all human beings to merge “into the radiant state of a higher order.” Fedorov’s ideas were suffused with his devout Russian Orthodox faith, making them a bad fit for the atheist Soviet Union. Tsiolkovsky, on the other hand, offered a more scientific approach to space exploration and the transcendence of human boundaries and was therefore far more palatable. He became a hero, the founding father of cosmonautics.

Fedorov’s writings were eventually banned in the USSR because of their religious content and their general dissonance with Soviet doctrine. But in part for this very reason, his ideas continued to percolate. In the 1960s and ’70s, “Moscow’s Socrates” was resurrected by a new generation of dissidents. Intrigued by his link to the Soviet space program and by forbidden spiritual matters more generally, some members of the Soviet underground took up the study of his ideas. A young woman named Svetlana Semenova wrote a samizdat text on him and then published her work legally after official censorship loosened.

Deeply religious, Semenova considered Fedorov’s teachings to be “the only meaningful advance made by Christianity since antiquity,” in Bernstein’s words, pairing futurism with a faith in spiritual immortality. She viewed the discovery of DNA as confirmation of her theory that every particle of the body carries an imprint of the soul. In the 1980s, as Soviet citizens watched the TV funerals of one Communist Party general secretary after another, Semenova indoctrinated her teenage daughters with a firm belief in resurrection. The planet hadn’t died, but by 1991, the Soviet Union had. As they watched the spectacle unfold, she and her daughters imagined eternal life.

The Future of Immortality opens with a wonderfully vivid scene that illustrates how the legacy of Fedorov, Bogdanov, and Tsiolkovsky has become the nostalgic futurism of the new millennium. It’s 2012, and a few dozen people have gathered in front of Moscow’s Karl Marx statue for a demonstration:

A middle-aged man held a poster demanding “Old People Should Live.” Others read, “We Are for Regenerative Medicine” and “I Want to Be a GMO.” One young man rode a futuristic-looking electric unicycle around the giant rock slab with Marx’s torso emerging out of it, held up by the inscription “Proletarians of the world, unite!” A fifty-something woman walked by with a sign declaring “We Are for Immortality.”

The Soviet Union is a thing of the past, but Marx is still standing. Moscow may be filled with creative professionals and entrepreneurs who click-clack on MacBook Pros in Instagram-ready coffee shops, but not every Russian has renounced utopias or embraced the new order. One of the speakers at this Rally for Radical Life Extension is Anastasia Gacheva, who is Semenova’s daughter. Gacheva followed in her mother’s footsteps and is now the face of Cosmism, as Fedorov’s philosophy is called. She runs the Fedorov Society, which holds regular open seminars at the Fedorov Museum-Library in southern Moscow.

“All social doctrines…all the social utopias humanity has tried to achieve have stumbled up against the short-breathedness of man,” Gacheva tells the crowd. “The utopias stumbled on man’s deepest misfortune, which is his mortality. Mortal man cannot be made happy. This is why communism did not succeed.” Needless to say, this is a novel diagnosis of communism’s failure. It wasn’t the command economy, the Cold War, or growing popular resistance that brought the Soviet Union down but rather the failure to achieve eternal life. Until all people unite in the common cause—the struggle against death—the world will be rife with conflict, whether or not the state professes itself a utopia.

Reflecting on her upbringing in a conversation with Bernstein, Gacheva makes it clear that she and her family were not Soviet apologists but that she values the way the USSR “fostered a collectivist consciousness, put a value on friendship and mutual aid…qualities that are important for society and for any collective undertaking.” Her parents, who struggled to publish under Soviet censorship, were poor, but that wasn’t really a problem. “We were fine,” she recalls. “In the Soviet period…it was even shameful to be rich.” This is, of course, hardly the case in post-Soviet Russia, with its dwindling social safety net and rampant inequality. Bernstein notes that at least one of the participants in the Fedorov seminars is occasionally homeless.

The Cosmists of today are vintage futurists, many of them elderly. Despite the vast medical and technological advances that have occurred since Fedorov’s day, they pursue their passion through philosophical debate and exhaustive analysis of his writings. Though they advocate for life extension research and maintain some ties with other, more scientifically oriented groups, the Cosmists do not engage in much practical activity. They are holdovers from an era when pure theorizing was considered a viable means of transforming reality. The exigencies of post-Soviet life will likely make it difficult for their movement to survive.

Other Russian life-extensionist groups are (somewhat) more practical and scientifically minded. The next speaker we meet at the rally is Valerija Pride. Though she is a militant atheist, she and Gacheva are friendly and regularly exchange ideas. They are, after all, united in Fedorov’s common cause. Trained as a physicist in the Soviet days, Pride is the director of KrioRus, Russia’s first cryonics company, which she founded in 2006 with an economist and a biophysicist. The trio’s primary goal was to offer free or low-cost cryonics for the relatives and pets of activists. In 2008, Pride froze her mother. Like Gacheva, Pride retains some fondness for the Soviet ways. When she informs Bernstein that KrioRus has just frozen four people in a single month, she adds excitedly, “That means society is ready for this. Maybe because we’re used to grand projects—the Soviet Union, the exploration of space.”

Unlike the Soviet space program, however, KrioRus is a shoestring operation, staffed mostly by volunteers. Its storage facility, at a volunteer’s dacha plot an hour outside Moscow, consists of a simple concrete and metal structure with two dewars. Named for James Dewar, the inventor of the thermos, these insulated vacuum vats currently hold 71 patients from 15 countries, as well as 19 cats, 10 dogs, four birds, four hamsters, two rabbits, and a chinchilla. Would-be cryopatients make arrangements in advance so that KrioRus can take charge of their bodies at the moment of death, cooling them to –196 degrees Celsius and replacing their blood with cryoprotectant. The patients are then placed in a dewar to await the invention of technologies necessary for a “gut renovation.” The international scientific consensus remains deeply skeptical of cryonics’ promise, but Bernstein doesn’t mention this fact. She’s interested in the ideological and cultural aspects of cryonics, not its medical feasibility.

Regardless of their scientific credibility, KrioRus’s activities have provoked much ideological and theological debate, especially among the facility’s neighbors, who fear that they will “soon be invaded by zombies, animated corpses, or the soulless living dead.” In Russian Orthodox tradition, the soul leaves the body 40 days after death, which makes cryonic “corpse storage” appalling to believers. Cryonicists are not troubled by the prospect of zombies; they consider death to occur in stages. Only when the body has begun to decompose is the process complete. In their view, selfhood resides in the brain and its memories, so preservation of the brain is preservation of the self. For this reason, KrioRus offers two options: freezing the whole body or just the brain. The second option is about 66 percent cheaper and avoids quarrels with relatives and priests, since the body can be buried with the signs of brain extraction concealed. It is also considered “more advanced ideologically,” as it implies agreement with the idea that personality consists entirely of long-term memories stored in the brain.

KrioRus is the world’s third-largest cryonics company and the only one outside the United States. Though early Russian scientists researched anabiosis, or suspension by freezing, and despite the epic preservation of Lenin’s corpse, the idea of freezing the dead in the hope of reanimating them later found more popularity in the United States than in the Soviet Union or Russia. Is KrioRus simply an effort to import this big American business to Russia? Bernstein argues that KrioRus is profoundly different from the more profit-oriented American cryonics companies because it was founded as a kind of cooperative endeavor (and a nongovernmental organization) and because it represents “a form of long-term and intergenerational caregiving.” Those who sign up entrust KrioRus and future generations with the care of their bodies, she continues, putting their faith in the continuation of society and in the promise that living people will maintain the vats and bring the frozen back to life whenever it becomes possible. In the best-case scenario for cryonics, the living will fulfill Fedorov’s ideal of “filial duty” by resurrecting their forebears.

This part of Bernstein’s argument is somewhat shaky, since American cryonics (which she mentions only in passing) has been heavily focused on the preservation of relatives, especially parents, and since any people who agree to be frozen inevitably put their trust in future generations. But KrioRus’s collaboration (as at the Rally for Radical Life Extension) and philosophical disputes with the Cosmists do give Russian cryonics a special flavor. When Semenova, the grande dame of Cosmism, was dying, KrioRus offered her a free place in one of its dewars. Her daughter declined on her behalf, citing a desire to remain faithful to Fedorov’s vision of universal immortality. Semenova was not categorically opposed to cryonics, but she was unwilling to participate until it became a socialized and universal practice. Until the very end, she remained adamant that the pursuit of immortality was meaningful only if it included everyone.

The Cosmists represent an older way of imagining immortality in Russia. KrioRus stands for a version that is more global and less socialist, albeit one that is still informed by the distinctive egalitarian legacy of Cosmism, of Bogdanov’s physiological collectivism, and of Soviet hopes to transform the human race. Unlike the Soviet projects, however, Cosmism and KrioRus are small, independent entities, without substantial resources or government backing. After examining these scrappier efforts, Bernstein turns her attention to more profit-minded start-ups, some of which are backed by the Russian state.

When the Soviet Union fell, the Russian government found itself badly in need of a “national idea” to guide the much-diminished country into the future. The search prompted widespread discussion in the government and media. So far, the leading options have focused on the past, notably in the ever more grandiose celebrations of victory in World War II. But some Russians feel that their country would be better off looking to the future, as the Soviets did—for example, by reinvigorating the space program, one of the greatest sources of Soviet pride, or by helping to create a new and improved human being.

The Russian state has come around to this idea as well. The organization NeuroNet, for example, has received funding from Russia’s Presidential Council. Part of the Foresight Fleet, which is sponsored by the Russian state and charged with the search for national technological ideas, NeuroNet is focused on human enhancement rather than immortality. The project’s founders imagine connecting the entire human race using neurointerfaces, essentially linking brains directly. Timour Shchoukine, one of its leading members, envisions a world in which neurointerfaces allow humankind to solve problems together—a more direct and comprehensive version of the hive mind—and thus overcome the difficulties caused by failures of communication.

NeuroNet acknowledges that its plan poses its own dangers. The impossibility of concealment could lead to a host of terrible conflicts—social, political, martial, marital—as every tactless thought is revealed. Other dangers include the risk of a generation that never learns how to read or communicate verbally, the possibility of hackers entering your brain and stealing its contents, and the near certainty of corporate and government abuse of this power, including mind control. Bernstein deems the last threat particularly alarming in light of the extensive sponsorship of NeuroNet by the Russian government, which has proved willing to jail its citizens on the basis of Facebook posts. But NeuroNet cocreator Pavel Luksha tells Bernstein that at this point, humankind has little left to lose: “We’ve already created a situation where we will either break through to over there or become extinct as a species.”

The idea of a neurological interface is neither new nor distinctively Russian, but NeuroNet’s vision of collective transcendence is in keeping with the Russian tradition that Bernstein identifies. Of all the contemporary projects she examines, it is also arguably the most radical. As Luksha, who was inspired by Tsiolkovsky and his vision of the radiant state, explains:

We will see the emergence of a true collective consciousness, where people have no borders separating their self from the selves of others. Where did this thought come from, how did this emotion arise?… It will be such that people in these communities will feel themselves as one body.

As the climate crisis escalates, visions of annihilation and resurrection have assumed new urgency, moving beyond the realm of the human and peering deeper into the past. Pleistocene Park, which Bernstein mentions in passing, is a project in Arctic Siberia intended to restore the steppe ecosystem that existed there during the Pleistocene. A grassy steppe should not only reflect more light (and thus absorb less heat) than an expanse of trees and shrubs, but it should also freeze more quickly in the winter. Theoretically, it could slow the disastrous, greenhouse-gas-emitting thaw of the permafrost that accounts for more than half of Russia’s territory. Extending and maintaining a vast new steppe requires the continuous tramping and tree felling of large herbivores, the kind that earlier humans hunted to extinction. Pleistocene Park’s director has been importing bison, horses, musk oxen, and other species, and he hopes to add the woolly mammoth, which went extinct about 4,000 years ago. This ambitious and perhaps fanciful project is the fruit of a Russian-American collaboration. Harvard geneticist George Church is attempting to edit the genome of the Asian elephant to make it resemble the woolly mammoth’s. He hopes to deliver within the next decade. What would Fedorov think?

Silicon Valley’s technological advances may have brought us closer to a world of neurointerfaces, but its ventures have done far more to hasten climate change than to mitigate it. Thiel, a fracking enthusiast and critic of global carbon-emission restrictions, dreams of buying off death and leaving for space—but where will the rest of us live? The Cosmists are right about one thing, at least: The battle against extinction can only be a collective endeavor.

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