1993 Trip to Russia — a Cryonicist's View

by Ben Best

In the Summer of 1993 I traveled to Estonia and Russia. Tallinn, in Estonia, was the site of the 1993 International Society for Individual Liberty (ISIL) conference, which I attended.

The ISIL Tallinn conference was followed by a "roots" tour of St. Petersburg, Russia for those conference attendees who were interested. The purpose of this tour was in part to make a pilgrimage to Ayn Rand's birthplace (and the city which formed the backdrop for WE THE LIVING). The tour fit well into my travel plans for many reasons, so I went along.

The previous summer I had met briefly with William Milonoff of the Free Democratic Party of Russia, in St. Petersburg. I had given William's name and address to 1993 ISIL conference chairman Roger Wessman, who passed it on to Ken Schoolland. Ken went to St. Petersburg and spent a great deal of time with William exploring ways to promote libertarianism in Russia. Ken also met a fellow named Dmitrii Costygin and converted him to objectivist libertarianism by sheer force of argument. These people planned the "roots tour" to follow the Tallinn conference. In the Spring of 1993 William and Dmitrii toured the US (William even gave me a phone call from Washington, DC). In California, Dmitrii worked closely with Glenn Cripe on plans to produce Russian translations of Rand's novels WE THE LIVING, THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED. I was told that William and Dmitrii were telling American libertarians that Ben Best is responsible for the birth of libertarianism in Russia. If I deserve any credit for this, I think the largest share of the credit belongs to Ken Schoolland and Glenn Cripe.

My participation in the "roots tour" was marginal — and I specifically did not join the group who went to see the apartment where Ayn Rand was reputed to have lived (jokes were made about pilgrims crossing themselves with the sign of the dollar). While the libertarian groupies were trying to get into the Hermitage, I took the opportunity to visit the Zoological Museum for a look at the world's best-preserved mammoth.

According to radiocarbon analysis, the mammoth is 45,000 years old. It had fallen into a crevice and had been preserved in the permafrost in a "sitting position" until it was dug-out in 1902 and taxidermied in 1903. Except for the trunk — which had rotted-away — the exterior of the beast appeared remarkably well-preserved. I expect that the interior (the brain, in particular) did not preserve as well as the skin, but I only know what I saw.

I also visited Valentin Yemelin, whom I had visited the previous year (and given a gift subscription for CRYONICS magazine). Valentin is a former professional research chemist (PhD) who turned to entrepreneurial activity when funding for Russian scientists dried-up. Valentin seemed to be making a success of his activities and seemed more economically secure than he had been the previous year. Valentin is a New Age/Greenpeace sort of fellow, but with his technical background he still has some interest in cryonics. I asked him if he had ever heard of Nicolai Fedorov, and he had not (possibly noteworthy in light of the fact that he and his wife were involved in a broad-based study of religious solutions to the problem of human mortality). He seemed interested in nanotechnology, so I gave him a copy of ENGINES OF CREATION — for which he expressed appreciation.

Dmitrii Costygin impressed me very much. He is intelligent and resourceful. Besides his libertarian activities (eg, his efforts to publish Ayn Rand's novels in Russian and management of the St. Petersburg tour), he is a medical student. I wanted to give him a salespitch for cryonics, but finding an appropriate moment for doing this was not easy — because he was so busy with his touring responsibilities. Finally, toward the end, I settled for a not very appropriate moment. My initial question was my usual one — "How long would you live if you could live as long as you wanted?". I couldn't get Dmitrii to be interested in anything over 120 years, despite my promptings about elimination of aging, etc. When it became clear that the discussion could not continue because of his responsibilities for the tour, I simply gave him some cryonics literature and got him to agree to accept a gift subscription for CRYONICS magazine.

For $2 I got an overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where I had arranged to meet both my translator, Ivan, and Yuri Pichugin. Yuri is a cryobiologist at the University of Kharkov in Ukraine. He has considered himself an anti-mortalist for over 20 years (after seeing a Soviet news report of Robert Ettinger). Yuri made a special trip from Ukraine to Moscow to meet me.

Ralph Merkle had sent Yuri a basic library of cryonics literature, which Yuri had devoured. Although he can read English (at his own speed), Yuri's ability to make and understand English conversation is very poor — so Ivan's translation service was essential. Yuri presented me with a copy of PROBLEMS OF CRYOBIOLOGY, a Ukrainian cryobiological journal which featured an article in which he assessed and categorized cryoprotectants. He also gave me some of his essays on anti-mortalism. Finally, he gave me two books: PHILOSOPHY OF THE COMMON TASK by Nicolai Fedorov and RUSSIAN COSMOSISM (a newly-published collection of essays by Fedorov's followers). [I am transliterating Fedorov's name from Cyrillic, a phonetic rendering would be closer to "Fyedorov". Transliteration of the second book-title would result in RUSSIAN COSMISM, but I believe my translator rendered it as COSMOSISM, which sounds like a more sensible translation to me.] Yuri invited me to come the following day to the Fedorov Museum and Library in Moscow.

The Fedorov Museum and Library is actually just a large room — a very "library-looking" room with books filling the bookcases along the walls and large wooden tables in the center. The Museum portion includes a word and picture essay of Fedorov's life and thought, which is mounted on large posters in one corner. The librarian is an attractive and enthusiastic woman named Anastasia Gatcheva.

Anastasia toured me through the Museum and Library, including a brief summary of Fedorov's life and thought. Fedorov was a deeply religious and a deeply scientific philosopher. The religion he espoused had an affinity for science unlike anything I have ever encountered from religion before (including Scientology). The God of most Judeo-Christian sects seems to grant the greatest grace to the most groveling subservience — to those who excel in subjugating reason to faith. The God of Fedorov, however, is quite different. Fedorov's God values humans in proportion to the fulfillment of their highest potentialities, including their highest intellectual and scientific abilities. This is not a God who casts scorn upon the Promethean hubris of humankind, but a God who beckons and urges humankind to its highest achievements. This is not a religion that would be a perpetual ball-and-chain upon every scientific advance (Copernican astronomy, biological evolution, birth control, cloning, cryonics, etc.), but a religion that joins with science in a "common task" for human achievement. Moreover, the God of Fedorov expects humankind to accomplish resurrection of the dead and ascendency into heaven (space) by scientific means.

I saw photos of the previous Fedorov conference in Moscow, which had been attended by about 100 people — and was told that the next such conference is scheduled for the Autumn of 1994. The number of Fedorov disciples in the former Soviet Union is estimated to be at least 2,000. About 12 such people gathered in the Fedorov Library that Friday afternoon to hear Yuri and me tell them about cryonics.

They were eager for me to explain (through my translator) the scientific aspects of cryonics and I began with a description of current suspension procedures. Questions and interruptions took me into many tangential topics. One such question was, "Where does the soul go when a person is frozen". I evaded the issue somewhat by saying that I am a scientific person and cannot answer such questions — adding that it is still unresolved in my mind at what stage personal identity begins (insofar as I have no memories before the age of 3 years). The question of neuropreservation also excited a great deal of interest. I admit to some amusement at the shocked expression of one rather matronly-looking woman upon first being presented with the idea. One fellow adamantly insisted that preserving the genitals is more important than preserving the brain. Others felt that the whole body should be preserved. I stated that even in the cryonics organizations there are differences of opinion on this subject, with some people favoring whole-body preservation and others favoring preservation of just the head. Someone also asked about embalming, to which I answered that embalmers are mostly interested in cosmetic effects, and that the best hope for chemical preservation comes from the work of neurohistologists.

They seemed keenly interested in seeing ENGINES OF CREATION translated into Russian, and PHILOSOPHY OF THE COMMON TASK translated into English. I told them that Venturism is the closest Western equivalent of Russian Cosmosism, and donated a copy of a Venturist pamphlet (showing a picture of a ladder to the stars) to their library. There is now a strong drive on the part of some of these people — and on the part of Mike Perry (of the Venturists) and myself — to bridge the barriers of language and distance separating the Russian Cosmosists from the (English-language) cryonicists. Nonetheless, I must acknowledge that the extent to which the Fedorovians are "religious", to that extent they are also infected with a religious indifference to death. Even if practicing cryonics is seen to be a way of carrying-on "God's work", the belief that science will eventually be able to resurrect every person who ever died undermines the urgency of the cryonics enterprise.

Before I left, Yuri and I had a final "private" chat. Unlike many of the Russian Cosmosists, Yuri is a pure materialist who does not believe in a spiritual "soul", although he does entertain the idea of a "quantum-mechanical field" basis of identity. I gave him US$40 for a subscription to PROBLEMS OF CRYOBIOLOGY (an American Cryobiologist I knew had tried to subscribe, but no safe means had been found of transferring American dollars to Ukraine — including letter-enclosures.) Yuri expressed concern that the cost of cryonics is vastly beyond the means of most Russians and Ukrainians. He said that Lenin and Stalin's remains had been preserved by scientists at the University of Kharkov. He was very interested in my ideas about combining chemical preservation with permafrost burial — and I told him I would send him my writings on the subject. As a parting thought he told me that he hoped and expected that Russian anti-mortalists would make a significant contribution to the efforts of Western cryonicists. I told him that this is my expectation also.