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From The Cradle To The Vat, Russia's 'Temporarily Dead' Await Immortality

  • Tom Balmforth

Danila Medvedev, one of the founders of KrioRus, stands in front of vats that contain the frozen remains of his customers.

Danila Medvedev, one of the founders of KrioRus, stands in front of vats that contain the frozen remains of his customers.

SERGIYEV POSAD, Russia -- In this sleepy, conservative town in the heartland of Russian Orthodoxy, an experiment aimed at resurrecting the dead is under way in a frigid backyard laboratory.

Bathed in the glow of a floodlight inside a white metal shed, two frosted vats tower before Danila Medvedev. They contain his patients: dozens of cadavers and brains cryogenically frozen at -196 degrees Celsius in the hope that they can one day be brought back to life.

"They are floating in liquid nitrogen, like a child in the mother's womb," Medvedev says, his freezing breath clouding in the air as he surveys his work.

Medvedev is a co-founder and ideologue at KrioRus, one of the world's three leading companies offering cryopreservation -- the deep-freezing of the dead so they can be reanimated when presumed breakthroughs in science and technology have consigned death to the history books.

"According to existing predictions, the technology needed to reanimate patients at the level of nanomedicine could appear within 40 to 50 years," Medvedev says. "We are fairly strongly sure that reanimation will happen in the 21st century."

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The practice of cryonics lies within the broader church of transhumanism, a utopian ideology or worldview positing that leaps made in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will one day eradicate disease and allow humans to reverse aging, attain immortality, and accelerate their evolution to "post-humans."

There is no scientific evidence that reanimation will be possible, but Medvedev has unwavering faith in the inevitable advance of technology. What's more, he says this tiny service sector is growing in popularity and KrioRus is clocking up about 10 new clients a year and an annual turnover of around $250,000.

Last year the company was in advanced talks to open a new storage facility in Tver, about 180 kilometers northwest of Moscow, before the region's governor was fired by the Kremlin, requiring KrioRus to restart talks with his replacement.

'Massive Thermos Flasks'

The current storage facility is located on a quiet lane between rows of wooden dacha homes in Sergiyev Posad, a community best known for its Trinity Lavra monastery, a spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Medvedev visits every few months, leaving the bodies under lock and key to be watched over by Sergei, a man of few words who lives in a semidetached cottage a few meters across the garden.

The cryonics newbie rapidly encounters an array of euphemisms. Instead of corpses, Medvedev refers to "patients" or the "temporarily dead." The term "neuropatients" is a byword for heads or brains.

The quiet lane where the current cryonic storage facility is located.

The quiet lane where the current cryonic storage facility is located.

The vats, which cost around 1 million rubles ($17,420) apiece, are made of composites similar to those used for ballistic missiles and racing yachts. The high vacuum between their walls means they function as massive thermos flasks, and the temperature is checked regularly by Sergei. Every three weeks, they are topped up with fresh deliveries of liquid nitrogen to keep the temperature at -196 degrees, Medvedev says.

He says the vats are not dependent on electricity and are disaster-proof, so even a prolonged blackout wouldn't derail the project. (In a gruesome incident that cast a shadow over the fledgling cryonics industry in the early 1980s, nine cryopreserved bodies thawed and decomposed at a facility in California.)

Founded in 2005 by the Russian Transhumanist Movement, KrioRus offers full-body cryopreservation for $36,000 and the same for heads or brains for $12,000. KrioRus boasts 54 patients, some of whose remains are held in private, offsite storage.

The company's two U.S. competitors, Alcor, founded in 1972, and the Cryonics Institute, founded in 1976, have around 300 cryopreserved individuals.

Alcor offers full-body preservation for $200,000 and $80,000 for the head, facts that Medvedev says has helped relative newcomer KrioRus accrue its international clientele of 13 foreign patients. In 2014, KrioRus even cryopreserved its first patient from the United States, a Polish-born mother of two from California.

"A capsule like this holds up to eight people whose whole bodies have been preserved, as well as containers with patients who have only preserved their brain or head," Medvedev says. "The bodies are packaged in normal sleeping bags that have the contract number and surname written on them."

The vats containing cryogenically frozen bodies and heads are monitored on CCTV from the relative comfort of an adjacent dacha house.

The vats containing cryogenically frozen bodies and heads are monitored on CCTV from the relative comfort of an adjacent dacha house.

To one side, tools including a thermometer, cold box, and metal container about the size of a kitchen colander for neuropatients lie on top of a bulky casket used to transport frozen cadavers. Across the room, a vacant vat lies on its side, propped up by sandbags. The otherwise sparse space is decorated with over a dozen flags, including the British, Japanese, and American, to represent the nationalities of patients and of visiting delegations of businessmen -- most recently from China -- hoping to learn about the technology.

KrioRus has also cryopreserved 20 pets, including eight dogs, eight cats, three birds, and a chinchilla named Knopochka (Little Button). As KrioRus's website tells it, Knopochka was a family favorite until he died prematurely from a bump on the head. He was cryopreserved in 2015.

Medvedev dismisses reports that the animals are stored together with the humans, saying the pets are at a separate site where KrioRus obtains its liquid nitrogen and storage vats.

Top-Secret Brains

While the key to reanimation eludes scientists and entrepreneurs alike, the cryopreservation process is fairly simple. After clinical death, bodies are cooled and an anticoagulant is injected to prevent the blood from clotting. Then a procedure called "perfusion" is performed -- preferably within hours of death -- to remove blood from the body; it is replaced with a freeze-resistant chemical that prevents ice crystals forming that would destroy tissue when thawed.

KrioRus issues metal tags that it asks customers to keep on their person at all times that bear emergency contact numbers. If KrioRus representatives are not on hand at the time of death, they advise doctors to keep the bodies cold until they arrive.

A container for "neuropatients," a byword for people who have had only their brains or heads frozen.

A container for "neuropatients," a byword for people who have had only their brains or heads frozen.

Medvedev is transparently proud of the patients (and neuropatients) KrioRus has already netted, and talks excitedly of two patients "whose brains contain very secret information."

One of them was "a leading cryptography expert in Soviet times."

"That means his brain contains a huge amount of information that is classified, secret, or top secret," Medvedev says. "Happily, there is for the time being no danger that hackers can get to him; but if you pause to think this person really does have information on how the whole Soviet system was encrypted, all the way to the nuclear program and how it functioned."

Other customers include people like Irina Mnyova, 67, a pensioner from Moscow who worked as a researcher for decades in the Institute of Space Technologies and who paid for her mother to be cryopreserved in 2012. She also saved up for her own cryopreservation once she passes away. She admits it was hard to scrape together the $72,000 but says she managed it through "business."

Mnyova cites two principle motivations. She says she wants to be on hand for her mother once she is brought back to life: "Let's suppose they restore Mom in the future -- who is going to help her?"

Perhaps even more importantly, Mnyova pines to live in a world with good health care. She excoriates the Russian state health-care system, saying her mother suffered terribly after a stroke in 2000 because of botched medical care. She insists that "they could have cured her, but they did nothing." Instead, she says, her mother was sent to intensive care and what happened at that point is "unclear."

"Every person wants not only to live, but to be healthy. I hope that in the future, life will be different," Mnyova says. "That's it. Everyone has this thought, this is the motivation for everyone. There's nothing special about it."

Danila Medvedev hopes his company will eventually be freezing up to 1 million customers a year. (file photo)

Danila Medvedev hopes his company will eventually be freezing up to 1 million customers a year. (file photo)

Medvedev says he has witnessed the full gamut of intrafamily relations in connection with his work. "The biggest enemy of a cryopatient is his relatives," he warns would-be clients.

He tells the story of a woman sabotaging the cryopreservation of her husband, who had paid up and arranged to undergo the procedure. Once he died, Medvedev says, his widow arranged to have him cremated in the misguided hope that she would get a refund. Medvedev says the woman got no money back, and he expresses regret that his team couldn't prevent the cremation. "Unfortunately this issue is not well-regulated. In principle, any person can go to the morgue and can take whatever body unless it's clear that the body has nothing to do with them," Medvedev says.

In another case that Medvedev cites, a man cryopreserved his father, only to die suddenly himself shortly afterward. The son was buried and his mourning family held an alcohol-fueled wake over the course of 40 days, according to Medvedev. "After that, they still wanted to continue the festivities," he says. "They started phoning us, asking if it wouldn't be possible to return the father for him to be buried."

'Definitely Not Science'


Cryonics has never made it into the mainstream, and many scientists balk at the lack of evidence underpinning it and, more broadly, transhumanism.

"This is definitely not science," says Alexei Grinbaum, a Paris-based philosopher of science. "It's a worldview, an ideology, a set of beliefs, or a superstition -- call it what you wish. Transhumanism talks about future technology, but it is not a scientific theory or a set of existing technologies."

Cryonics was first proposed by U.S. academic Robert Ettinger in 1962 in his book The Prospect Of Immortality, which made him a godfather of the field. In 1976, he founded the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, where decades later, in 2011, he was cryopreserved as the institute's 106th patient.

"Transhumanism is an exaggerated form of rational thought -- if you like, it takes for granted that all that is technically possible or simply imaginable will actually occur," says Grinbaum. "It makes a leap immediately into a bright technological future."

He equates transhumanism with the revolutionary socialists who wrested control of Russia a century ago and ultimately established the Soviet Union, and also with the earliest Christian acolytes.

"This is not unlike the Bolsheviks, who immediately leapt to communism in their propaganda," Grinbaum says. "In this sense, transhumanism works like any system promising a bright future -- not only Bolshevism but also like the promise of immortality made by Christianity in the centuries when it had to confront paganism."

KrioRus issues its clients with special tags they are instructed to carry on their person at all times in case of death. The emergency contact numbers allow KrioRus to advise doctors on how to correctly begin the process of readying the bodies for cryogenic freezing.

KrioRus issues its clients with special tags they are instructed to carry on their person at all times in case of death. The emergency contact numbers allow KrioRus to advise doctors on how to correctly begin the process of readying the bodies for cryogenic freezing.

The 36-year-old Medvedev appears convinced of the inevitability of reanimation, and had his own grandmother cryogenically frozen. "There is nothing fantastical about this concept," he says. "The question is how to get it into society."

A former investment banker, Medvedev co-founded KrioRus with eight other people. He gives the impression of a businessman, speaks quickly, and is so used to fielding cryonics questions that he barely pauses to think before launching into long replies.

But not everyone at KrioRus shares Medvedev's faith in the future of cryogenics, or its patients.

Igor Artyukhov says that while he is entitled to cryopreservation for himself and one other person as one of the perks of being a KrioRus co-founder, he is not so certain of the outcome.

"I am very skeptical," Artyukhov says. "Maybe yes, maybe it'll work. And if it doesn't, then I won't be any worse off."

Grinbaum argues that even if cryonics were possible, it would raise an array of perplexing questions. "Imagine that, in 50, 100, 200 years, we will be able to breathe new life into some frozen flesh," he says. "What will this person be? Will it be a new person, or will it be exactly the same person?... Will they want to live this new life, will they be able to find their place, will they be able to adapt?"

'Social Entrepreneurship'

Medvedev acknowledges reality checks along the way. "When I found out there is forced labor in Russia three or four years ago, I realized I had to do something about it -- because you can't build transhumanism and the future when in parallel a part of society has got stuck in forced labor," he says.

He says the revelation led him to dabble in activism against human trafficking, and to employ a man freed from modern day slavery: watchman Sergei was rescued from forced labor in a brick factory near Daghestan's capital, Makhachkala, about four years ago.

Indeed, Medvedev paints his activities at KrioRus, at least in part, as a service to society. And he says he hopes to increase customer numbers from the current 10 or so patients a year all the way to 1 million a year.

"This is social entrepreneurship. We want to build a huge social mechanism," he says. "Just as the ancient Egyptians had the pyramids, but only for the pharaohs, our task is to make pyramids in which all the space would be used so that every year a million people in Russia can be cryopreserved and so that they can subsequently be reanimated."

Medvedev suggests that Russians are culturally more disposed toward cryonics technology than, say, Western Europeans, and, moreover, that interest is steadily rising.

He points to research published in January by Russian Venture Company (RVC), a government-backed development institute. It found that Russians are 20 percent more likely than Europeans to be "techno-optimists" -- people who believe in the power of science and technology to solve economic and social problems.

Sitting in his office back in central Moscow, a small, ground-floor converted apartment, Medvedev suggests Russians' faith in science is derived from the emphasis the Soviet Union placed on advanced technology and industry. He also believes his compatriots are more likely to embrace cryonics because of the legacy of 19th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who postulated that humanity should unite in the battle to defeat death.

He thinks he may also have found a promising avenue into the mainstream.

"Cryonics can be sold as an alternative to funerals," Medvedev says. "It's important to find a way to communicate this to potential clients correctly so that they can understand all this, accept it, and not be surprised. If necessary, we could explain this 10 times so they laugh nine times and the 10th time say, 'Ah, right, that's logical.'"

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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