Decapitate and Freeze Now. Figure Out Immortality Later
The only obvious sign this is the office of a cryonics company sits on the windowsill: a stainless-steel vacuum vessel about the size of a lobster pot. It’s meant to transport a human brain, and if used for its true purpose and not as a decoration, it would deliver that brain to a larger storage container filled with liquid nitrogen. The brain would be preserved there—the liquid nitrogen topped off once in a while—for however long the science and technology community takes to solve some vexing problems. First, how to repair the tissue damage caused by freezing. Second, and more important, how to gain access to the data inside—the neurons and connections and impulses that constitute a person’s memories, emotions, and personality—and bring it all back to life, either in another, healthier body or uploaded into a computer.
Otherwise, the office looks like a small apartment, and it is also that. It’s the pied-a-terre of Danila Medvedev and Valerija Pride, life partners and co-founders of Moscow-based KrioRus, as well as a crash pad for eager young transhumanists who need a place to stay while working on projects intended to expedite the quest for immortality.
But on an evening like this, it’s just an office. Medvedev, 36, sits beneath a light fixture that looks like a set of giant jacks fused together (a gift from one of Russia’s leading modern furniture makers, a client) at a desk in front of a large Apple monitor. Pride, 56, sits at another desk, working on a laptop. They’re discussing the fate of a brain in Spain—the brain of a man described by Medvedev as “Spain’s leading cryonicist,” who’s just died. Despite running a Spanish-language site dedicated to cryonics, the man had no plans in place to actually be frozen upon his death. His wife has managed to get his body put on ice, and now Medvedev and Pride are trying to figure out how to have his brain removed and stored in a way that will allow it to be transferred into KrioRus’s care. These are the kinds of logistical challenges Medvedev is trying to iron out as he and Pride work to make KrioRus the leading cryonics company for Europe and Asia.
“The main thing is that low temperature stops molecular and atomic activity, so essentially time stops,” Medvedev says, taking a seat on a futon covered with a large sheepskin. He has short hair and a trimmed goatee, both red and several shades lighter than the deep, almost rust color of Pride’s hair.
The best way to cryopreserve is to replace all the water in the body with a chemical that essentially turns the tissue into glass as it freezes. Vitrification, as the process is known, prevents the damage caused by ice crystals when a body is frozen in its natural state. But vitrification has its own flaw: No one knows how to reverse it. Medvedev describes this as a minor challenge. The important thing, he says, quoting American nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle, is that “information is not destroyed” by freezing. They’ll work it out later.
On another day, I might have seen a cryopreservation in progress, because this same office is sometimes sterilized and converted to a surgical suite for the preparation of pets. “A chinchilla doesn’t take much space,” Medvedev jokes. Human patients are handled at the hospital, using one of several cryonic surgeons, led by Yuri Pichugin, formerly director of research for the U.S.-based Cryonics Institute.
“Of course, the goal is to have the perfect preservation, but it depends on the situation,” Medvedev says. “You can have the best technology in the world, but if it’s not available in Barcelona it doesn’t help you much.” And any preservation, cryonicists say, is better than none.
Truly, it’s all just a best guess. Cryonics was first proposed by the physicist Robert Ettinger in his 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality. Five years later, the first human was frozen, and a small, devoted community of cryonicists (almost all of them in America) have been debating best practices ever since. Today, the world leader is Alcor Life Extension Foundation, started in 1972 and based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Alcor has 148 patients stashed in tanks filled with liquid nitrogen, including the baseball legend Ted Williams. Then there’s the aforementioned Cryonics Institute, established in 1976. It has 114 patients in storage in a suburb of Detroit and is known for being cheaper than Alcor and for having a strong preference for freezing heads over full bodies.
KrioRus, founded in 2005, is the only active cryonic storage company outside the U.S. and has grown far more rapidly than either of its American competitors. As of the end of September, KrioRus had preserved 51 humans (26 full bodies and 25 heads) and 20 pets (mostly cats and dogs but also three birds). The human patients are overwhelmingly Russian, but 12 are from abroad, including one American. The cost for a full-body preservation is $36,000, but the price drops to $12,000 if KrioRus freezes only your head. International transportation costs will add an additional $6,000 to the tab, so it’s preferable to die in the Moscow area if at all possible. Most clients pay their fee in installments, beginning at sign-up.
For now, patients are stored in double-walled vessels, known as dewars, on a customer’s property outside Moscow. Unlike its American rivals, KrioRus doesn’t use stainless steel for its dewars. Instead, it uses a fiberglass and resin composite made by a company that builds racing yachts from the same material. (Ballistic missiles are made from it, too.) The dewars stand inside a 2,000-square-foot hangar, but they don’t really need to. “The walls of the building are actually weaker than the walls of the dewars,” Medvedev says. “People tend to think that patients should be stored in buildings. There are few technical reasons behind it, just tradition and irrationality.”
“First you need everything functional,” adds Dmitry Kvasnikov, who’s been listening quietly. “Then once it is functional, you can make it look pretty.”
Kvasnikov has a day job selling computer hardware, but he volunteers to help the KrioRus team however it might need him. In this case, he’s on hand to translate, though Medvedev speaks immaculate English. Kvasnikov wears a dog tag around his neck that indicates his commitment. It reads: “In case of an emergency, call +7 911 KRIORUS.” He’s newly married, and it bums him out that his wife hasn’t bought into the concept. “It will be very sad if I get cryopreserved and she does not, but what can I do about it?” he says. He hopes to one day persuade her, as well as his parents, to get KrioRus contracts.
The company has big plans. It will soon move to a permanent home at an agricultural college outside Tver, a few hours west of Moscow. And KrioRus’s principals and clients all make clear that the cryonics operation is merely the opening salvo of a far larger campaign—the quest for immortality. Medvedev and Pride are also co-directors of the Russian Transhumanist Movement (RTM), an activist organization and incubator for ideas to advance the cause of extending the human life span until we’ve achieved immortality.
RTM has a few hundred highly engaged members and a mailing list of about 8,000. Generally speaking, transhumanists believe that technology is advancing at an exponential rate and that sometime in the future, death will be overcome. They like to speak of aging as a disease that can be cured, and depending on the transhumanist you’re speaking with, she probably believes either that new bodies will be engineered and hooked up to our heads or that our minds and memories will live forever inside a machine. In either case, all you need is your brain, which is why most transhumanists, Medvedev and Pride included, think it’s unnecessary to freeze your entire body—especially if it’s old or broken-down.
KrioRus was born out of their enthusiasm for the transhumanist cause. Cryonics is the starting point. “It is Plan B,” Medvedev admits. No one wants to be frozen. But dying is worse. As Mikhail Batin, an entrepreneur, transhumanist, and KrioRus client says: “It’s the only alternative we have at the moment to death. It is definitely better to be frozen than buried or burned. Cryonics is the best action in the worst circumstances.”
Ettinger’s arguments in The Prospect of Immortality are laid out as (mostly) rational and science-based, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he first stumbled on his notions in a piece of science fiction. The Jameson Satellite by Neil Jones, from the July 1931 issue of Amazing Stories, tells the tale of Professor Jameson, who arranges to have his body preserved after death, stuffed into a space capsule, and blasted into space. Jameson flies around for 40 million years until a race of alien cyborgs known as the Zoromes discover him orbiting a long-dead earth, repair his brain, and bring him back to life.
Ettinger read The Jameson Satellite as a young man and couldn’t forget it. The story was ridiculous in many ways, but the fundamental idea—that you could preserve a body after death and one day revive it—struck him as possible. By 1964 he’d made enough sense of those ideas to introduce the practice of cryonics. “The fact: At very low temperatures it is possible, right now, to preserve dead people with essentially no deterioration, indefinitely,” he asserted.
Three years later, a TV repairman named Robert Nelson, an Ettinger acolyte who’d been named the founding president of the Cryonics Society of California, performed the world’s first ever cryopreservation, on a psychologist named James Bedford. The procedure was crude and improvised, but Nelson did the job as best he could with the assistance of two open-minded physicians and made himself famous. Life magazine told the story, and Nelson published his own version the next year in a book titled We Froze the First Man.
This may have been the high point for cryonics.
Over the next six years, 17 more humans were frozen, many of them by Nelson, but a series of unfortunate events enveloped the whole practice in controversy—none more damaging than the so-called Chatsworth Incident, in which nine of Nelson’s patients, including a 9-year-old Canadian girl who’d died of cancer, were found decomposing in a cemetery vault. Nelson had run out of money for liquid nitrogen. The story horrified America, and the industry has been working to shed its image as a ghoulish practice ever since. Almost 40 years later, there are fewer than 250 Americans in cryonic storage.
Medvedev read The Prospect of Immortality as a teenager, and “it immediately made sense to me,” he says.
He was working as an investment banker in St. Petersburg in 2000, when at a party he began to translate Ettinger’s book into Russian in a quiet room using his Palm Pilot and a foldable keyboard while his co-workers drank and danced. In 2003 that translation was published, and in 2005, Medvedev and Pride—who met the previous year and bonded through their shared interest and activism for transhumanism in Russia—started KrioRus using small investments from 10 individuals.
Medvedev was determined to introduce cryonics in Russia with great care. He studied the U.S. industry to find out why it had stalled in the 1970s, and then set out to do what American cryonicists failed to do: make cryonics, as he says, a “respected and accepted” scientific practice, free of controversy. One key was transparency. “People are naturally suspicious toward anything unusual, and you can easily imagine accusations of fraud or cultism,” he says. KrioRus invited the media to its first preservation, in 2005, and to this day makes no effort to disguise the company’s limited budget and modest facilities.
Russia, Medvedev says, is a place where cryonics can start over, without the cultural and historical baggage that burden it in the U.S. The Soviet state valued science over religion, which was technically illegal, and despite the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet era, religion itself is much less a factor in politics than it is in the U.S. Several national politicians in Russia have spoken positively about the quest to attain immortality. In a recent survey, 18 percent of Russians expressed a desire to live forever, a result that looks to Medvedev like millions of potential customers.
Nonetheless, raising funds remains a challenge. Medvedev is confident that larger sums of capital will eventually arrive—investors are sniffing around, he says, in some cases because they’re aging and in search of a cure for the depressing inevitability of death. While he waits for money, which will give KrioRus the opportunity to do advanced low-temperature science research, he focuses on business development. The goal is to build a system within Russian society that legitimizes being frozen as a practice every bit as normal as burial or cremation. The head of the national funeral directors’ association is a close partner, and KrioRus has been a large and popular fixture at the group’s annual convention, Necropolis. In 2013 the company won the gold medal in the category of innovation.
Medvedev wants doctors to come on board, too, and he sees openings for that in contemporary medical research. Already, scientists working in the field of cryobiology—people who are openly skeptical of cryonics, to be clear—can freeze certain kinds of human tissue for storage and then thaw them in good working order—stem cells and embryos, for instance, as well as simple structures such as veins and valves. These scientists hope eventually to freeze and store more complex tissue. That could enable organ banking, which would be revolutionary for transplants, replacing long waits with organs on demand, especially in light of the rapidly advancing progress of lab-grown organs. Further down the road is the possibility of short-term clinical freezing, in which a patient is placed into a temporary cryonic state to keep him or her alive while recovering from traumatic injuries, say, or during space travel. The military is looking at the former; NASA has begun some very preliminary studies on the latter (it’s referred to as cryosleep) with the Atlanta-based aerospace engineering company SpaceWorks Enterprises. Projects like these could help cryonics come in out of the cold, and Medvedev wants KrioRus to help drive research in Russia.
Yet the ultimate goal remains immortality. Cryonics is the most obvious approach for Medvedev and Pride to work on as the leaders of the RTM, but they’re open to others. They don’t see themselves as competitors of Alcor or Cryonics Institute; rather, they hope to be collaborators. “We’ve been discussing with some American cryonics sponsors a way to basically pool all of the technology together in one place, so that they can try to do the best-case cryopreservation experiment,” Medvedev says.
That place, he hopes, will be Tver.
“Are you sleepy? How is the jet lag?”
We are on an early-morning, high-speed train to Tver to visit the future home of KrioRus, and Pride has just caught me yawning. She looks quite alert herself. She plunders her purse and finds a small strip of pills. She pops one out, breaks it in half, and hands it to me. It’s modafinil, a drug that promotes wakefulness and is a favorite smart drug among transhumanists. While they await everlasting life in the here and now, adherents aspire to use the best available practices of medicine and technology to improve their lives in any way. Brain function is seen as key, because a smarter, sharper brain can work harder and longer, which is critical considering that we’re all racing time.
Outside, Moscow’s endless, enormous tower blocks have given way to evergreen forest, then to small villages with rickety wooden dachas.
“I am living as a transhumanist as long as I remember,” Pride says. She comes from three generations of atheists. “Even at 15, I was writing philosophical texts about immortality.”
Pride’s given name is Valerija Udalova; she changed it to acknowledge her pride in man’s potential. She’s a physicist by trade—a thermodynamicist—but for more than a decade her focus has been cryonics and other transhumanist subjects that she frequently writes about in Russian science journals. (She also writes fantasy novels and plays in a rock band.) Her dog, Alice, was the first animal frozen by KrioRus, in 2008, and in September 2009 her mother’s brain was cryopreserved. Pride’s daughter, Daria Khaltourina, is one of the country’s leading public-health advocates, attached to the Ministry of Health. She was initially skeptical about cryonics but is now a KrioRus client herself.
Pride and Medvedev divide up KrioRus’s outreach efforts, and in the past year they’ve pursued discussions with groups in Switzerland and China about creating offshoots. China is similar to Russia in that it has a large base of scientists and a top-down bureaucracy that enables quick action, while Switzerland’s legalized euthanasia makes it the perfect environment for cryonics, because the ideal way to preserve a person would be to precisely control the final moments of life. Medvedev uses the term cryoeuthanasia; he’s working with Swiss lawyers to prepare for history’s first case, perhaps as soon as this year.
The base of operations, though, will be at the Tver State Agricultural Institute. On its spacious grounds, a group led by the Upper Volga Institute, a local university, plans to build an advanced cancer treatment center with Russia’s first proton-beam therapy installation, as well as a palliative care center for incurable cases that can offer cryonics as an additional final step once death can no longer be thwarted.
The KrioRus facility will begin modestly. Two student architects have come along with us to consider the space. But the first phase, to open later this year, will be simply an office with basic lab equipment that can also serve as a base for teaching cryonics practices to people from other countries. Relocating the existing KrioRus patients in their dewars isn’t seen as a priority, because they certainly don’t care and the company’s funds are better spent on other things.
At the moment, it’s all a little hard to picture. The Tver Agricultural Institute is a Soviet-era university, a collection of concrete block buildings in a spruce forest about 15 minutes from the city center. The school’s leader is Oleg Balayan, a handsome man with white hair and a fitted houndstooth jacket who ushers us into a conference room near his office. Directly behind him is a framed photo of a Russian MiG firing a missile, which seems like a weird thing to hang in the conference room of an ag school until he explains that he’s a lieutenant general in the air force. He left active duty in 2009 but is still a reserve pilot, as well as a member of the general staff of the Communist Party.
Aside from land, what the school can offer, Balayan says, is an eager student body, active laboratories, and even some expertise with freezing organic materials—such as a proprietary technique for the rapid freezing of meat and vegetables for storage and transport. There’s also a vet department, where one professor is using gene therapy to restore vision in blind dogs. What’s more, the nearby medical college is eager to partner, and the whole endeavor has the enthusiastic support of the local and state government.
“Many achievements in recent science are on the border of different sciences,” Balayan says.
“You know, convergence,” Pride adds. “I am the author with Danila of the first article about convergence in Russia. Here in this center we will see the convergence of biology and IT.” Down the road, she can imagine labs that work on genetic engineering, cloning, and organ printing.
What drew an air force general and prominent political figure who runs a major state-sponsored institute to transhumanism?
“I’m not 18,” Balayan says, smiling widely. “I would like to live eternally. And we can investigate this direction here.”
Is there state interest? He laughs. “Do you think I’m the only representative? This is an eternal idea for all the people.” And, he says, it’s an idea they’re already studying—with potatoes: “When we dig a potato out of the land, we think, How can we keep it alive longer?” And then there’s meat—the value in preserving its freshness and quality. “These are the first steps on one and the same question,” he says. “We stand in the very first stage of the investigation into immortality.”
Once a month on a Saturday night, the public is invited to KrioRus for a tea party, both to facilitate the exchange of transhumanist ideas and to provide a casual entry point for the curious. Those who can’t attend can watch via livestream.
Among the attendees one Saturday night are Igor Artyukov, a gerontologist and RTM founder who’s been a transhumanist since 1964, when he was 10; Igor Kirilyuk, a mathematician at the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences and also an RTM member; Alexey Samykin, a ponytailed gerontologist who’s another of the company’s cryonic surgeons; a millennial with a wild mane of red hair who dreams of a time when her “brain is always connected to the internet”; and Anna Arlanova, a beautiful actress who made a film about Russia’s second-ever cryopreservation and is now at work on a follow-up.
To my left, across a plate of biscuits, is Elena Milova, a psychologist and a co-founder of the International Longevity Alliance, which advocates for anti-aging research around the world. She joined the RTM five years ago after having an epiphany when Steve Jobs died. “People keep dying, even really bright people—and it’s a huge problem for society,” she tells me. Milova has a cryonics contract for herself, and last year, at Pride’s urging, she had KrioRus cryopreserve her cat, Laska.
Much of Milova’s work is focused on fundraising for gerontological sciences, including a recent crowdfunding campaign to study protective therapies that slow aging in mice. “It’s a way to force clinical trials on humans,” she says, adding that while progress is slower than she’d like, she’s confident that “artificial intelligence will help us solve the problems of anti-aging.”
Kvasnikov, my translator, makes a face. “It could either solve the problem of aging or kill us all,” he says.
“There’s some period of time between the two events,” Milova replies, and Artyukov chimes in to say that AI is already better than the world’s best oncologists. “Imagine an oncologist who read 1 million research papers and memorized every number,” Milova says, agreeing with him. “This is basically what IBM’s Watson is able to do.” The room erupts into an emotional discussion about how to shift the transhumanist movement from the fringe into the mainstream.
Eventually, Pride reins in the chatter and informs the crowd that the Tver facility is officially going forward, with Medvedev as director. Later this year, “there will be good opportunities to live and work there. There are few projects in Russia for people who really want to do something,” she says.
Almost everyone laughs when Medvedev declares, “Tver is a future center of Russia,” which I take to be the equivalent of someone announcing, “Toledo is the next Silicon Valley!”
And yet, who knows? The country’s largest highway, under construction between St. Petersburg and Moscow, will pass within a few hundred yards of Tver, and the high-speed train from Moscow takes less than two hours. The new cryonics facility, Medvedev boasts, will be twice the size of Alcor and the Cryonics Institute combined once it’s built out.
There is enough expertise in the room, Artyukov says, “to start a special class on cryonics at the university right away.”
Medvedev nods. That’s precisely what he wants to hear. “I want to start a ripple in the transhumanist community,” he says, “that you should get up and do something!” For years now, the RTM has been motivating people to work for little or no money, but that’s changing. “There are a lot of people out to invest,” he says. “The time for cryonics has come.”