These People Believe Death Is Only Temporary

Transhumanists believe in a future of human immortality. A community in Russia is working to make it happen.

Transhumanist and neurobiologist Olga Levitskaya is photographed following an event at the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow to raise funds for the CyberSuit. Levitskaya is wearing a protoype of the suit which is purported to rehabilitate patients after injuries. It is intended to be available to a wider audience in 2020, once it enters the market. It currently costs around 35,000 USD.

In a small, white warehouse two hours north of Moscow are 56 dead people who hope to live again. Their bodies are upside down, their blood fully drained from their arteries, as they wait, immersed in negative 196-degree Celsius liquid nitrogen for the next 100 years.

What they’re waiting for is a new life, or a continuation of the one they already lived. Many of the bodies belong to people who reached the end of their life naturally, usually at an advanced age. They made the decision to be cryopreserved before they died, or in some cases, their family signed the paperwork post-mortem and paid the $36,000 to freeze their loved one’s body (or $18,000 for just their head) for the standard term of a century—which can perhaps be extended, to be determined, based on where science leaves us in the 22nd century.

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The Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow is an iconic symbol for the Russian cosmist movement, whose followers believe that immortality can be achieved through technology. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a rocket scientist considered to be a founding father of the Russian space program, was a cosmist.

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At the Russian National Library, Olga Salomino prepares documents belonging to Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov while standing beneath his portrait. Fedorov founded cosmism in the 19th century.

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A hanger owned by the cryopreservation company KrioRus contains three cryonic tanks. KrioRus has cryopreserved over 56 patients in addition to organs, animals, and DNA samples.

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Valery Boris, a former art professor and active member of the Russian cosmist movement, practices a sermon about Federov in his garden, which he calls "Resurrection Paradise."

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Ivan Stepin, KrioRus deputy director and member of the transhumanist movement, oversees the filling of a cryonic tank during a regular maintenance session.

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Transhumanists Alexey Samykin and Igor Trapeznikov conduct a cyropreservation demonstration on a mannquin while being filmed for a German documentary inside the KrioRus headquarters. It can take from four to eight hours to replace a patient's blood with the cryonic liquid. The procedure is carried out by a specialized medical team.

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A tool used to detect levels of cryonic lquid in bodies undergoing cryopreservation sits on a table inside the KrioRus headquarters.

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The body of a KrioRus patient lies inside the hangar site after having arrived from Italy. Cryopreservation of whole bodies costs about 35,000 USD while a brain alone costs about half that.

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Transhumanist Alexey Turchin is photographed in his apartment. Turchin is the founder of Digital Immortality Now, a company engaged in the development of AI software able to replicate human personality. Turchin cryopreserved his mother’s brain at KrioRus and signed a similar agreement regarding his own cryopreservation.

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A technician at KrioRus dons a gas mask before climbing to a cooling chamber to prepare a body for eventual immersion in liquid nitrogen. Bodies are first covered with dry ice in order to uniformly lower the body temperature to -78°C. The use of the mask is mandatory since the carbon dioxide vapors from the dry ice can cause asphyxia.

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Danila Medvedev, member of the board of directors of the Russian Transhumanist movement and cofounder of KrioRus, works on the Nanolab project— aimed at producing a software system that will allow for direct manipulation of atoms in a virtual environment.

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The team at Polistena Human Criopreservation in Italy prepares a body to be sent to Russia. KrioRus is partnering with companies outside of Russia to promote cryopreservation and provide training.

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Cosmists gathered at the Federov museum and library say an opening prayer on the third anniversary of Svetlana Semenova’s death. Semenova founded the museum and had been an important figure in the group.

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A photograph of Svetlana Semenova lies on her gravesite on the third anniversary of her death. Semenova's DNA is cryopreserved at the KrioRus facility.

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Waiting on research advances is the rationale behind cryopreservation, and more broadly, a worldview known as transhumanism. A person killed by cancer or heart disease could reasonably be revived in a future when such ailments no longer exist. “They believe in the advance of technology,” says Giuseppe Nucci, an Italian photographer who visited with transhumanists and toured the facilities of Russia-based cryonics company KrioRus. “They hope that someone will wake them up.”

This hope, that the future will vanquish the ills of the present, is as old as the first civilizations that realized that with each passing year life got a little better. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov helped create an early 20th-century movement known as cosmism that was rooted in the idea that, given enough time, humans could defeat evil and death. If the human life span was too short, then the simple solution was to extend it, even after death, and suspend its decomposition until the world caught up.

Employees of a liquid nitrogen and dry ice factory on the outskirts of Moscow are shrouded in fog while refilling their liquid nitrogen tanks. Founded by former KrioRus employees, the company now supplies them.

More than a century later, Fedorov’s cosmism has transformed into transhumanism, the notion that technological advancements can overcome the limitations of modern humans. Twenty-first-century transhumanism tends to be rooted in Russia, but it has tentacles all over the world. Of KrioRus’ 56 frozen bodies, almost a quarter are foreigners, including a handful of Italians and Ukrainians, an American, and an Israeli. There are also 22 pets, including dogs, cats, and at least one chinchilla.

“Not everyone who’s a transhumanist wants to be cryopreserved, most of them are just interested in the technology,” says Nucci. Cryonics, also, is not the sole tool of transhumanism, although it does stand out as the most reliable technology to stop a body from decomposing. James Bedford, the first person to be cryopreserved, succumbed to kidney cancer in 1967. His body remains frozen in an Arizona facility, reportedly unchanged, 51 years later.

Outside the movies, however, there has yet to be a person successfully cryogenically revived, which likely means that the illustrious disease-free utopian future of immortality has yet to arrive, if it does at all. But among the sky-high expectations and hopes that define the movement, Nucci observed that one quality in relatively short supply is impatience. The 56 inverted bodies a KrioRus’ frozen purgatory didn’t seem to be in any rush.

You can see more of Giuseppe Nucci's work on his website. You can also follow him on Instagram. 

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