Inside the weird world of cryonics
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If you travel to the 15th-century monastery town of Sergiyev Posad on the outskirts of Moscow, drive down a couple of dirt roads and take a sharp left after the pink house with a giant hammer-and-sickle flag out front, you’ll see an unassuming green gate with signs warning of a guard dog and 24-hour video surveillance.
Through that gate, you will enter a different world. Inside a large white hangar are two giant vats filled with the brains and bodies of three-dozen humans from nine different countries and a menagerie of pets (cats, dogs and birds). Watching over them is Danila Medvedev, a 35-year-old who believes Russia will soon outpace the US in the world of anti-ageing, biomedicine and the science of living for ever. He is one of the founders of KrioRus, Russia’s first cryonics organisation.
Pale with red hair and a matching ginger beard, Medvedev is the son of a Soviet scientist and grew up reading the science fiction of Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein. He has worked at an investment bank, hosted his own television show and helps run an anti-human-trafficking organisation but his day job is freezing people. Early on he became fascinated by the belief that humans — if cooled to -196C at the time of clinical death — could later be resuscitated at a time when science had advanced sufficiently to cure them of old age or illness. As a student, he began translating literature about cryonics from English into Russian and giving lectures. By 2005, he and eight others had formed KrioRus.
Over the past decade, KrioRus has morphed into one of the biggest cryonics companies in the world in terms of frozen patients, rivalling its American counterparts, such as Alcor in Arizona, but you wouldn’t know that from its headquarters. Located amid other Russian dachas (most of the neighbours don’t even know what lies beyond the green gate), the property consists of a modest two-storey house and the white hangar in the backyard — the place where the company keeps its 45 cryopreserved patients.
For most of the year the facilities are looked after by a man called Sergei, who was a forced labourer in Russia’s North Caucasus before he was freed by Medvedev’s anti-trafficking group. But every month or so, Medvedev goes to the facility to check on the two cylinders that are filled with liquid nitrogen and contain KrioRus’s wards. The company’s two-dozen full-body clients hang on individual pulleys by their ankles. (Their heads are closer to the bottom of the container, where it’s colder.) Meanwhile, the heads and brains of those who have elected to have a so-called neuropreservation are stored on the cylinders’ floor. In addition to the humans, KrioRus also stores more than a dozen pets in the same vats, though as Medvedev told me: “We try not to emphasise the fact that we’re storing people together with animals.”
The idea of cryonics first took off in the United States in the 1960s after the publication of a book called The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger, a Michigan college professor, which argued that a person frozen at the exact moment of death could later be brought back to life. Cryonics societies sprung up in California and Michigan. The first cryopatient, a University of California psychology professor, was cryopreserved in 1967 and, by 1972, half-a-dozen people had followed.
But the Cryonics Society of California soon ran into trouble. Led by a former TV repairman named Robert Nelson with no scientific background, the organisation didn’t have enough money to maintain the cryopreservation of its existing patients. It began stuffing multiple bodies into the same cryonic capsules and used the funds from new patients to maintain the struggling operation. Two capsules failed, causing the nine bodies inside to decompose. Nelson was sued by some family members and, in 1981, was ordered to pay them $800,000.
Since then, the reputation of cryonics in the US has fluctuated, securing a few famous acolytes along the way. The head of US baseball star Ted Williams is stored at -196C in a state-of-the-art steel thermos in Arizona. PayPal founder Peter Thiel and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil are booked in to be cryonically preserved; news anchor Larry King is said to be ready to sign the papers. In our health-obsessed age, the hunt for a long, possibly eternal, life has gone global. In Italy, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he plans to fund a research institute that will allow people to live until the age of 120, while Kazakhstan’s autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev has founded his own academy devoted to concocting the elixir of life.
But when it comes to cryonics, there is a new, and very cold war for patients and for scientific advances. Fittingly, the two geographical centres are the US and Russia. KrioRus is the third biggest cryonics company in the world and the only cryonics operation with frozen patients outside the US. The industry leader in the US is Alcor, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and has more than 140 frozen clients in its facility — a number that is increasing slowly.
Part of KrioRus’s competitive advantage lies in its pricing. Unlike Alcor, which stores its bodies in individual containers, KrioRus takes a socialist-inspired approach and stores them in giant communal vacuum flasks. As a result, at KrioRus, the cryopreservation procedure costs $36,000 for a full body or $12,000 for just a head. At Alcor it costs $200,000 for a full body and $80,000 for a head. (Alcor advocates that clients pay through life insurance.)
Russia also has the advantage of a clean slate, unlike the US with its history of scandals. Medvedev says: “We didn’t have the crisis that they had in the 1970s. People in Russia have no negative impression of cryonics.” In the US, meanwhile, members of the leading cryonics companies remain sceptical that the Russians will ever beat the quality and level of their service. When I told the head of one company how Russia was trying to set up a hospice-centre-cum-freezing-lab — the first instance where patients will die and be frozen in the same facility — he brushed off the prospect, noting that Alcor has a contract with a local hospice group.
In both countries, the cryopreservation process is largely the same. Once a patient is pronounced legally dead, the body must be cooled within the next few hours to start bringing down the body temperature. Most cryonics companies work with standby services whose main purpose is to get the body out of the hospital or morgue as soon as possible to begin the process. Over several hours, the patient’s blood is replaced with a cryoprotectant, essentially a chemical anti-freeze that shields tissue from freezing damage. Then the patient is cooled to -196C over the course of several days using nitrogen gas.
Many patients elect to freeze just their heads rather than their whole bodies. Some do so for financial reasons, others believe that all human identity and memory is stored in the brain and that a traditional body is not necessary for the revival process.
Alcor’s board says the company has come close to perfecting the cryopreservation procedure and can now freeze humans’ brains and bodies with little damage to the cell structure due to the formation of ice crystals. Yet there is little scientific proof that supports the theory of reanimation. Most mainstream scientists and doctors express great scepticism about the field. Michio Kaku, an American futurist and theoretical physicist, has been a vocal critic, while in an article in MIT Technology Review this year, McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks wrote that any suggestion that cryonics could bring a person back to life was “simply snake oil”. “Reanimation or simulation is an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible with the frozen, dead tissue offered by the ‘cryonics’ industry,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, clients keep trickling in. In Russia, KrioRus falls outside both the medical industry and the funeral services industry and has few of the regulatory difficulties faced by a US company in terms of getting hospitals and morgues to release clients. When KrioRus got its first client in 2005 — Lidia Fedorenko, an elderly St Petersburg mathematician whose grandson wanted to see her cryopreserved — KrioRus had no facility. Fedorenko’s head was simply stored in dry ice in her bedroom for the first few months. (Her family kept the windows open.)
It was a similarly haphazard experience when the company got its first request to freeze a full-body patient, Medvedev recalled. “We said, ‘We don’t do it.’ They said, ‘But we want it.’ So we said, ‘OK.’” While KrioRus has a membership scheme, it is not strict about last-minute converts.
Due to its relatively cheap pricing, KrioRus has attracted a diverse group of cryopatients hailing from countries including the US, the Netherlands, Italy and Japan. Valeria Udalova, one of its co-founders, has her mother’s head frozen inside the facility; the brain of Medvedev’s grandmother is stored there as well.
“I wouldn’t put an exact percentage on the probability of [cryonics working]. But the main thing is it’s better than zero,” Alexei Samykin, a Moscow teacher, told me. Enamoured with the idea of cryonics after he saw Medvedev speak about it on TV, he signed himself up and then his mother a few months later after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (His mother was too sick to sign the papers herself but Samykin insists she gave her oral consent.)
KrioRus is in the process of moving to a new 3,300 square metre facility in the city of Tver that will also double as an oncology and hospice centre — the first time in history that a cryonics facility has been allowed to share a site with a working medical centre. Internationally, it has signed multiple memorandums with Chinese groups, paving the way for a joint venture in China. Plans are also under way to build a future outpost in Switzerland, a destination the founders like because of its neutrality — which they see as perfect for the potentially unstable world KrioRus’s patients would be revived in — and its light-touch regulation, including a new law permitting euthanasia.
That Russia has become home to one of the world’s largest cryonics companies is strange for several reasons, most notably Russians’ general attitude towards the future, which tends to be pessimistic. Yet, as Medvedev notes, the pace of change in the country also lends itself to people’s suspension of disbelief that humans could one day be revived or live for ever. “I’m somebody who lived 10 years in the Soviet Union, 10 years in the 1990s and 10 years in modern Russia,” he said. “Even if I wasn’t a futurist, it would still be easy for me to see how things change quickly.”
Russia was officially an atheist country for decades during communism and after the USSR’s fall many people scrambled for new beliefs. Some returned to their traditional religions but others searched for new spiritual avenues, with a rise in popularity of psychics and mysticism.
Medvedev predicts that the first head transplant will be performed in the near future, resulting in a rich person’s head being transplanted on to a poor person’s body. “They can have a nice life with lots of money, sex, drugs and gambling in Monte Carlo,” he said of the resulting two-person hybrid that would emerge. “They would discuss it with psychologists, lawyers.”
He has already come up with a plan that will best ensure his own chances for revival (storing half his brain in Russia and half elsewhere to hedge against a natural disaster) and is plotting how to recruit more potential patients from countries as far away as Ecuador, bringing the bodies back in the cargo of commercial airliners. “If we have enough time to prepare, we could possibly do [the preservation] anywhere. We could do it in Antarctica,” Medvedev told me. KrioRus’s dream, he added, was to bring the Scott expedition explorers — frozen there in 1912 — back to their laboratory. “There is still time to get there. Most likely the temperature was low enough that we could preserve the brains and revive them in the future. It’s still on our to-do list.”
If KrioRus is the Lada of the cryonics world, Arizona’s Alcor is the Mercedes-Benz. The world’s largest cryonics company, Alcor conducts tours of its site twice a week, showing off its operating room, where vitrification and freezing take place, and the so-called long-term patient care bay. Here frozen clients are kept in sleek, Alcor-branded steel capsules that look a bit like giant Thermos flasks. The room’s viewing window is said to be made of bulletproof glass.
Alcor’s hallmark conference this year took place in October at a four-star Arizona resort where the couple of hundred cryonicists in attendance mingled alongside golfers and pool-goers. It was a predominately white, male and largely older crowd — an age demographic that wasn’t accidental, Max More, Alcor’s chief executive, told me. It’s called cryocrastination, he said. “The younger you are, the less likely you are to need [cryonics].”
More, a muscular Briton from Bristol who sports a wardrobe of matching black T-shirts and blazers, joined Alcor as a member at the age of 22. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics in 1987, he came to the US in 1988 and went on to become Alcor’s chief executive at the end of 2010 following a series of scandals at the company. These included claims of embezzlement by one employee as well as a book that claimed Alcor had mistreated the frozen head of baseball star Ted Williams. (Alcor denies the allegations.)
Like Medvedev, More is less of a scientist than a salesman for the future. “I feel like it’s pretty controversial to say this but things get better over time,” he said when I asked why he would want to come back in the future. “I feel like we have this myth of the Garden of Eden and the past as paradise. But it wasn’t. It was a horrible place. Would you like to go back to a century or so before you were able to vote and you were essentially your husband’s property? Would you like to go back to a time when we had slaves?”
Alcor patients, he added, would come back to a world that was just as good if not better than the one they had left. “If we’ve completely destroyed our environment and have a massive economic decline, we won’t be able to afford to bring people back. The very fact that [we] have been revived means that things are pretty good.”
The language at Alcor is unfailingly cheerful across the board. The clients are not called corpses, they are patients. They don’t get frozen, they’re suspended. The frozen state is known as stasis, and the revival process is referred to as reanimation. The company brochures feature a smiling, happy couple on the cover (Alcor’s chief financial officer and her partner). Then there’s the gallows humour. “Please if you have to die, die of cancer. We like cancer! It’s more predictable,” More tells the conference at one point. “Try not to pass away on a weekend,” Steve Graber, another staff member, jokes.
Alcor currently has 1,053 live members who plan to freeze themselves and are counting on the company to reach their dead body within 24 hours and perform the cryopreservation. About three-quarters of those members are men. At the moment, Alcor has 141 people cryopreserved inside its facility. The company also has a separate programme for young cryonicists with 115 members between the ages of 13 and 29. One family has signed up their five daughters.
David Wallace Croft, a computer programmer from Dallas, Texas, said two of his six children — aged 15 and 18 — had signed up for Alcor, although it had created some familial tensions. “My wife isn’t on board at all. She finds the whole thing silly and embarrassing,” he said. Raised in the Southern Baptist Church, Croft, 47, says he decided to leave after reading 1984 in high school. He and another Alcor member, Tripper McCarthy, belong to the Society for Universal Immortalism, a religious group that tries to incorporate church rituals into atheism and transhumanism.
Like Croft, McCarthy is also a computer programmer and a libertarian. His cat Pip is already suspended at Alcor. “My wife called me at work and said, ‘Pip is dead! Pip is dead!’ And I said, Grab the ice!’” He rushed home from work and drove the 380 miles from Los Angeles to Scottsdale overnight with a friend. The cost for Pip’s cryonic preservation? $4,500.
At the conference, there are a handful of twentysomethings, including a few software engineers and programmers from the Bay Area. But even More admits that Alcor has struggled to attract new members. Linda Chamberlain, a cryonics pioneer and Alcor co-founder together with her late husband Fred, says there are sometimes problems keeping older members excited about cryonics once they start enduring the physical and psychological tolls of old age. “When you’re young, there is this biological urge for survival. It’s strongest when you’re young. There are so many people I’ve seen who were fire-breathing cryonicists when they were young and then lost the desire.”
Over the course of the weekend, I meet David Pizer, an Arizona resort operator who is running as the first openly pro-cryonics candidate for the US Senate; a man who hopes cryopreservation will allow him to come back and live out his long-held dream of becoming an astronaut; and Jordan Sparks, the founder of a cryonics start-up in Salem, Oregon, who hopes to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act and create a euthanasia room inside his clinic.
Those who elect to sign up seem to fall into two categories. The first consists of people who consider themselves pioneers and would be quite content to come back in the future, knowing no one and nothing of the current culture. The second is of people scared both by the prospect of death and by the finality that comes with saying goodbye to a loved one for ever, a feeling most sceptics would find hard not to empathise with.
Of those two categories, Gary Abramson and Maria Entraigues-Abramson probably fall into the former. A photogenic couple who live in Los Angeles, the two met at a conference devoted to life extension and married not long after. “I had this curiosity since I was a little girl about ageing. I always felt it was something that was not right,” Entraigues-Abramson told me. “If you’re frozen, you’re locked in time,” Abramson chimed in. “If you wait 100 years or 1,000 years or however much time it takes for the technology to develop, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure it’s a split second for your experience. It may be a one in one thousand chance. But the alternative is a 100 per cent guarantee annihilation of your existence.”
“And if you don’t like it in the future, you can always die again if you want to,” Entraigues-Abramson said. “You can take a peek and say, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t. I’d rather be dead.’” She added: “People think cryonics is freaky but lying in the ground and decomposing isn’t? What’s the difference?”
Back in Moscow from Arizona, I take one last trip to KrioRus. Medvedev and Udalova are just back from Necropolis — the Russian funeral directors’ association annual conference — and both seemed ecstatic. “Today at Necropolis was fantastic!” Medvedev emailed me. “I didn’t expect it to go that well!!!” Representatives from all of Russia’s funeral homes had been there, including the industry leader, a Novosibirsk institution so big that it houses its own museum of death and hosts an annual rock concert, Udalova told me. Among those advertising their services had been cremators that can turn a deceased loved one’s ashes into a pencil or an artificial diamond, and a company that will scatter ashes in space. “They had a nice big stand right at the entrance but nobody was looking at it,” Medvedev said of the space burial group. “The whole time everyone was trying to talk to us.” He added: “People in the funeral industry are very forward-looking in Russia and looking to change something.”
Meanwhile, Udalova, his co-founder, has made inroads with embalmers who would be able to help with the aesthetic part of the freezing (“Right now all the focus is on the brain, which means we don’t pay any attention to the face or the visual presentation,” Medvedev said.) He added that KrioRus was trying to persuade the Moscow city government that the 8,000 homeless bodies left unclaimed in morgues each year should be cryogenically frozen in the new Tver facilities — a cheaper way to store the bodies, according to the company. “If we have 8,000 people being cryopreserved, it will be a big step,” he said. “People are dying all the time and something needs to be done with the bodies. For us it’s a way to educate people.”
What about the time frame for bringing them back? Medvedev forecasts that scientists will be able to revive the brain in the next 40 years. “It’s not possible to revive the brain today but we know we can revive parts of it. Artificial organs, stem cells, artificial intelligence — all these technologies can be used to revive a person. It just depends on the regulatory and social climate,” he said. “It’s very likely we will have the technology to reanimate a human brain by 2050 and if not, sometime in the 21st century almost certainly — if we don’t destroy ourselves,” he added quickly.
Courtney Weaver is an FT US political correspondent and former Moscow correspondent
Photographs: Petr Antonov; Michael Lundgren; Spencer Lowell
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