In a snowy village of run-down cottages outside Moscow, a pair of vacuum-sealed fibre-glass and resin tanks in a shed are taking 30 human bodies and 25 heads and brains on a journey into an eternal future.
It was two degrees below freezing on a recent afternoon on the outskirts of the ancient city of Sergiev Posad, but inside the two “cryostats” of liquid nitrogen it was much colder, -196C to be exact.
There a crew of intrepid “cryopatients,” who before their deaths were citizens of Russia, the United States, Japan, Australia, and several European countries, will be kept frozen until humanity figures out how they can be “revived and satisfactorily cured”. That’s according to KrioRus, the only company outside the United States engaged in cryonics, the low-temperature preservation of humans and animals for future resurrection.
The ultimate goal is eternal life.
“From the biophysical point of view, time has stopped for them,” said Igor Artyukhov, KrioRus’s chief scientist, as he patted one of the tanks. “No chemical processes are going on. They could last for 2,000 years.”
Like most cryonicists, Mr Artyukhov, a retired medical data engineer, doesn’t think it will take that long for science to beat aging and illness, maybe only a few decades.
For those who die too soon, there’s vitrification: Cryonicists receive a cadaver on ice, cut open the arteries and replace the blood with a cryoprotector solution, which doesn’t form ice crystals as the body is cooled and hung by its feet in the cryostat.
Seventeen cats and dogs, three birds and a chinchilla are frozen in a separate location.
“Cryonics is a plan B for those who want to live forever and reach times when we can do whatever we want with ourselves,” Mr Artyukhov said.
On Thursday, KrioRus launched a cryptocurrency offering to raise money for a new cryonics centre. The company wants to open it in a former military bunker in a cave in Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal, meaning it could potentially avoid the last-minute rush to put a body on ice and transport it to wherever vitrification will be done.
Two British men and one woman are among the 200-plus people who have signed contracts to be preserved by KrioRus upon their death.
Few share these clients’ optimism, though. Most doctors and scientists are skeptical that frozen bodies can be revived, and cryonics is illegal in British Columbia and de facto banned France. Otherwise it exists in a legal grey zone.
A 1979 incident in Chatsworth, California, when a cryonicist ran out of money for liquid nitrogen and nine bodies decomposed, tainted the practice in the eyes of many.
Although tens of millions of people die every year, fewer than 400 have been cryonically preserved since 1964, when The Prospect of Immortality, a book by American physics teacher Robert Ettinger, started the movement.
The wife of one KrioRus client even thwarted his preservation by taking his body from the morgue before the cryonicists arrived.
Yevgeny Alexandrov, head of a Russian Academy of Sciences commission against pseudoscience, accused cryonicists of “unfounded speculation on the hope of resurrecting people”.
“There’s no scientific basis for this, so it’s purely a commercial business,” he said.
But KrioRus head Valeriya Udalova said profits are reinvested into the company—prices are lower than in the United States, only $36,000 for a body and $12,000 for a head—and cites technological advancements as cause for hope.
Notably, University of Minnesota researchers in March said silica-coated iron nanoparticles had allowed them to thaw frozen pig heart valveswithout damage. Freezing and thawing entire human organs, however, which could hugely expand the availability of transplants, is still a long way off.
A fan of science fiction books and the cartoon Futurama, Mr Yevfratov became “fixated” on the idea of immortality as a child. But he only found out about KrioRus when, as a university student, he went to discussions of transhumanism, which seeks to expand human abilities through science.
“Better to be pretty, strong, smart and healthy than ugly, sick, stupid and dead,” is how he described the philosophy.
The movement has grown popular enough that last year Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church warned of the threat of “dehumanisation” from such ideas.
Mr Yevfratov argued that we should be able to live as long as we want and said his “cryo-contract” is merely “insurance” against dying before eternal life is achieved.
“If technologically things go slowly, and I’m getting older, I might have to sit a while in the freezer,” he explained. “I don’t intend to die forever.”
Although people like him remain a tiny minority, Ms Udalova argued that cryonics “will be a big business in the near future”.
Attitudes may indeed be slowly shifting. One of Mr Alexandrov’s younger colleagues on the commission against pseudoscience, Alexander Panchin, doesn’t believe people frozen with current methods can be revived.
But he’s not against cryonic preservation as long as clients are informed of the risks and don’t divert funds from medical treatment.
If money wasn’t a concern, he might even try it himself, he said. “Despite all my skepticism,” he said, “it’s clear that this form of burial is no worse than any others.”