Posted on Aug 29, 2006, 12 p.m.
By Bill Freeman
Lidia Fedorenko loved life. There were her friends, family and, of course, all the former math students she had taught over the decades. So when the 79-year-old St. Petersburg native suffered a stroke in September, dying a week later, her grandson, Daniil Fedorenko, knew what to do: freeze her brain.
Lidia Fedorenko loved life. There were her friends, family and, of course, all the former math students she had taught over the decades.
So when the 79-year-old St. Petersburg native suffered a stroke in September, dying a week later, her grandson, Daniil Fedorenko, knew what to do: freeze her brain.
“She wanted to extend her life by another 200 to 300 years,” Fedorenko said.
Today, Lidia Ivanovna’s brain sits in a metal container in a former schoolhouse in the village of Alabushevo. Her last wish was resurrection. Kriorus, a recently founded cryonics outfit, guards over her cerebral matter and that of a wealthy Moscow businessman’s 60-year-old father, who died of throat cancer in 2002. Kriorus declined to name the deceased man.
“We founded the company because human life is the most important thing there is,” Kriorus’ managing director, Alexei Potapov, explained. “To lose a life without putting up a fight is a crime.”
Potapov and his co-founders say they are Transhumanists, who believe technology can be used to transform human life and postpone death indefinitely. They founded Kriorus, the world’s first cryonics company outside the United States, in 2005 so that they and their family members would have a place to stay until medicine found a way to bring them back to life.
Now, for $9,000, anyone can spend eternity, or some portion of it, in cryonic stasis.
Cryonics has been hotly debated since the 1964 publication of American physicist Robert Ettinger’s book “The Prospect of Immortality.” But as far as Potapov and others at Kriorus are concerned, the debate is over: By mid-century, they predict, the technology should exist to give dead people a second life.
“In America, dogs have been frozen for eight hours and revived,” said Potapov, 29, a former computer programmer. “By exploiting nanotechnology, we’ll be able to manipulate cells and revive them.”
In the United States, 150 bodies are frozen in cryonic slumber, 74 of them at the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan, which Ettinger founded in 1976 and still runs.
When some of the bodies were frozen 30 years ago, there was speculation that they would be revived at about this time. But there is no sign that anyone is going to be resurrected anytime soon.
Ettinger, now 88, noted there had been recent advances in freezing techniques and other cryonics-related areas but said he did not foresee great medical advances on the horizon. He conceded that Americans — and, presumably, Russians — are skeptical. “There will be a major shift in public sentiment at some point, but I’ve given up on predicting when that will happen,” he said.
Among cryonics’ foes are professional scientists.
“It’s complete nonsense,” said Adelia Koltsova of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Higher Nerve Activity and Neurology. “There are methods of treating organs by freezing them, but this is totally different. We have no idea what will happen in 100 years.”
The science of cryobiology — the study of what happens to cells when subjected to extremely low temperatures — had a long and proud history in the Soviet Union, which after its fall bequeathed the country’s premier research facility, Kharkov’s Institute for Problems of Cryobiology and Cryomedicine, to Ukraine.
Yury Pichugin, the chief research scientist at Ettinger’s Cryonics Institute, worked at the Kharkov institute for 20 years before moving to the United States in 1999. He said he first became interested in cryonics in 1975 when, as a student in Tomsk, his professors showed him a film on cryonics.
“They showed everything negatively: ‘These American fools are trying to freeze people, which is impossible,’ but I didn’t think it was impossible,” Pichugin recounted.
Pichugin was criticized when he shared his cryonics ideas with his Komsomol peers. He voiced surprise that the communists, who professed love for the people, didn’t want them to live forever. The party — responsible for the gulag, collectivization and the Ukrainian famine — apparently preferred to use people as postmortem political symbols: hard-working proletarians, cosmonauts or collective-farm managers.
Not defeated, Pichugin began work in 1978 at the Kharkov institute, where he researched cryoprotectors, chemicals that help freeze tissue with minimal cell damage.
While he was unable to delve deeply into cryonics at the institute, Pichugin said cryobiology, with its advanced freezing techniques, contributed significantly to cryonics.
Still, Grigory Babiychuk, the institute’s current deputy director, called the ties between cryobiology and cryonics strained. “Between us, there’s a lot of money to be made in cryonics,” he said.
Ettinger attributed lingering doubts about cryonics to “cultural inertia.” Humankind, he said, has accepted the inevitability of death, with the major monotheistic religions pinning their hopes for everlasting life on the soul, not the body.
Robert Kastenbaum, an Arizona State University psychologist, said that surveys conducted in the United States revealed that many associate cryonics with live burial or being in a coma.
Back in the schoolhouse, Vladimir Alexeyevich, Kriorus’ elderly security guard, unlocked a rusted gate to reveal a yard littered with old bicycles and children’s toys. A German shepherd at his side was barking.
The brains reside inside the schoolhouse, at the end of a cramped corridor. There are no signs indicating where the brains are kept; across the entrance from the room containing the 1-meter-tall vat where the cerebral matter is stored is an unhinged door with faded letters reading Accounting Office.
Vladimir Alexeyevich, who lives with his family in a series of rooms adjacent to where the brains are, checks in on them at weekends and other odd hours to make sure everything is okay. The security guard declined to give his last name.
In the event of an electricity outage — a serious concern since last May’s brownout, in which thousands of tons of sausage in Moscow-area meat processing plants spoiled — Kriorus is ready: The brains require three to four liters of liquid nitrogen daily, Potapov said. Given its storage capacity, Kriorus could go for 10 days without a problem. After that, the brains could be moved to dry ice, which doesn’t need electricity.
Before his grandmother’s death, Daniil Fedorenko had spoken to Lidia Ivanovna about her possible resurrection. After her grandson told her about the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, she willed her brain to him.
At the time of her death, Kriorus was still a dream.
Given the unexpectedness of her death, Lidia Ivanovna’s body could not be sent to the lab in the United States. Instead, it dispatched its representative in Russia, future Kriorus founder Danila Medvedev, then 25, to help Fedorenko.
Lidia Ivanovna died on a Friday evening. The next day, Fedorenko and Medvedev found the capital’s shops closed and were unable to buy the chemicals to carry out a perfusion, or oxygenation of the blood, which precedes a full-body freeze.
His grandmother’s remains in the morgue, Fedorenko, with Medvedev, asked an employee to remove her brain and put it in a container of dry ice as a stop-gap measure. For seven months, Lidia Ivanovna’s brain lay in her grandson’s apartment. Daniil Fedorenko cared for his grandmother’s brain, which was kept in her former bedroom, packing it in dry ice every four to five days.
Kriorus’ other brain was also frozen and as a last resort kept on dry ice in a private apartment for three years before the Alabushevo schoolhouse facility opened.
“Of course, these situations are not optimal,” Medvedev admitted. “The chances of resurrecting these patients is much lower.” In Fedorenko’s case, the formation of ice crystals set in when her brain was put on dry ice.
Daniil Fedorenko is hopeful. “When she is resurrected, she’ll be able to choose her own new body,” he said, adding that he hoped microscopic robots would have been invented by then to transmit detailed information from her neurons to a computer. It is hoped that eventually that information would lay the groundwork for a new brain, body — and life.
“We can put our brains in better, stronger bodies,” Potapov said. These new bodies could feature harvested organs and robotic body parts. “Transhumanism tells us it’s probable human beings will be smarter in the future. I want to be able to access that.”
Both Potapov and Daniil Fedorenko stressed that an individual’s soul would remain intact because their memories and thoughts would be preserved.
But the equation of memory with the soul, or “essence,” raises sundry questions — especially in Russia, where spirituality and the soul have for hundreds of years been given special status.
The Russian sense of soul has been largely shaped by the Russian Orthodox Church, said Yury Afanasyev, a historian and rector of the Russian State Humanities University.
After Tsar Alexander I’s troops beat Napoleon back to Paris, giving Russians a first glimpse of the West, many in Russia began to conceive of the country as spiritually superior to mercantilistic, Catholic France, Afanasyev said. Russians’ tendency to think of themselves as highly spiritual persists to this day, he said.
Given the Church’s growing prominence, its hostility to cryonics could have a debilitating impact on public perceptions. Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, explained the “technological resurrection of man ... contradicts God’s word about man.”
Pichugin, of the Cryonics Institute, rejected the Church’s exegesis. Just as Christianity offers human beings everlasting life, so, too, does cryonics, he said. “I don’t know if the soul is preserved when a person is frozen, but there’s a point where the difference between the physical and the spiritual is unclear,” he said.
Pichugin added that cryonics’ future is in Russia. “From Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, writers and philosophers have argued that it is Russia’s place to save mankind,” he said. Then, somewhat enigmatically, he added: “Russians have a more communal mindset than Americans and understand the idea of community better. Their mentality is more inclined to cryonics.”