Anya Bernstein: “They all seem like punks to me”

In 2019, Princeton University Press published The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia, a book about contemporary Russian immortalism and its advocates. The book’s author Anya Bernstein hails from the Moscow punk underground (in the mid-1990s, she was the guitarist of the band Straw Raccoons), but now teaches anthropology at Harvard, specializing in religion, secularization, body politics, time, and art and censorship. In addition, Bernstein has made two films about Buryat Buddhism and shamanism—Join Me in Shambhala (2002) and In Pursuit of the Siberian Shaman (2006)—which are also the subjects of her book Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism (2013). For this issue of Sreda magazine, Eugene Kuchinov talked to Anya Bernstein about immortal bodies and the politics they generate, the language that Russian cryonics uses to describes itself, universal resurrection, the violence of museums, and permafrost as a non-human archive.

Translated by Thomas H. Campbell.

Anya, you write about a variety of topics: Buryat Buddhism, Russian immortalists, Pussy Riot's Punk Prayer and its bodily consequences, shamanic tourism, politics and temporality, the Far North and permafrost. That is an incredible range of subjects. Is there something that connects them? An underlying interest, a leitmotif?

Yes, I have pursued, or, on the contrary, I have been pursued all my life by several key subjects that are present in all my projects and works: the body, time, life, death, the human. In connection with the body, I write about body practices (for example, Buddhist rituals related to the body), and about body politics, and the body itself as the site where political and religious processes are not only reflected, but also shaped. For example, in the book Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism, the body figures as the site where different sovereignties compete, whether the bodies of adherents of the Buddhist spiritual practice of Chöd, in which visualization practices are used to dismember the individual body, gifting it to hungry spirits; the bodies of Buddhist monks as sites for debates around masculinity, celibacy, and nationalism; the “imperishable body” of Lama Itigelov,[1] into which Buryat Buddhism’s cultural sovereignty is inscribed; and the bodies of Catherine the Great and former President Dmitry Medvedev who, like the Russian empress in her day, was declared the incarnation of the Buddhist goddess White Tara. My Pussy Riot project also explores the links between the body, sacrifice and sovereignty, which penetrates directly into the bodies of prisoners. And in my new book The Future of Immortality, the body is the key subject of the debate around immortality. Can this body be sufficiently “secular”? Is it possible to separate the body from consciousness in order to digitize the latter? Is it possible to restore bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen? Is a post-human body necessary at all? How can we gain sovereignty over the body and time? And so on.

Time is the second such key concept for me, whether we are talking about the post-Soviet ruins of Buddhist temples in Buryatia, where different temporalities are superimposed, about rewriting and rethinking different events into a new chronology of history, about traveling through time and space via the institution of incarnate lamas, or in the case of transhumanism and the techno-scientific immortality project, about freeing ourselves from the tyranny of time and gaining power over it. Thus, the concepts of life and death, which are linked to ideas of the body and time (and especially to the biological time that flows within the body, defining its existence, growth, and finitude) are constantly redefined not only through religious practices, but also through biomedical and techno-scientific ones. Death has long been subject to postponement: time in the body can slow down when it cools, and the moment of death has again become a matter of controversy in the medical world. In the 1970s, a consensus was reached about brain death as a criterion for the medical and legal definitions of death, a convenient fiction like all social practices. The definition of life in the scientific community is also quite problematic: if “life” can be stopped and started again, then such signs of life as metabolism and growth can no longer be decisive, and so again there is talk of “life” as a special organization of matter. Life still does not have a definition that even all biologists, let alone scientists from other fields, would agree on. While scientists and non-scientists are arguing, this is an exciting field for anthropologists.

Let’s take your 2019 book as a concrete example. Why immortality? Why the future? Why contemporary Russia?

Immortality had already been a theme of my project on Buryat Buddhism, but more in a metaphorical way, in connection with the bodies of lamas who are “resurrected,” who are reborn and somehow overcome death (and time). It was when I was writing about Itigelov that I first learned about Nikolai Fedorov and Russian Cosmism. Local lamas would joke that Itigelov was “our Buryat Lenin.” He is, of course, much cooler, since Lenin was preserved by science, while Itigelov preserved himself through religious and bodily practices. I read about Lenin’s embalming and learned that there were many followers of Fedorov in his entourage, such as, possibly, Leonid Krasin, who at first suggested freezing Lenin, but subsequently it was decided to embalm him. Whether Krasin really was a direct follower of Fedorov or not is uncertain, but the idea that Lenin was preserved for later “resurrection” has been investigated in several historical works. I maintain an “agnostic” stance on the matter. Historians have yet to examine the relevant archives, but anthropologists are intrigued by the fact that the subject of Lenin’s resurrection is certainly present in public discourse.

Fedorov and his “Common Cause”—bringing people together to resurrect all the dead, without waiting for the Christian Last Judgment (which, as he believed, could be avoided if you followed his cause)—and, nowadays, the pursuit of Fedorov’s project through science and technology, so impressed me that I wrote a long footnote in the introduction to Religious Bodies Politic and happily forgot about it for a couple of years.

In the meantime, I completed my PhD and got a job at the University of Michigan. I was asked to develop and teach a standard course on the anthropology of death, and I decided to include immortality in it. While collecting material for the course, I came across a curious article by an American researcher (a medical anthropologist) on cryonics in the US. Cryonics is the practice of freezing people in liquid nitrogen in the hope that science will find a way to restore them in the future. The author hypothesized that cryonics is a typically American practice, in which the main postulates of libertarian capitalism are crystallized—individualism and the desire for total sovereignty over time and the body. Cryonics, the article argued, speaks the capitalist language of investment and the insurance industry, i.e., self-investment and “life” insurance. The majority of people pursuing cryonics, the article noted, are white males in technical professions, political libertarians. The hypothesis seemed convincing to me.

At the same time, I learned that, aside from two American cryonics companies, there is only one other cryonics company in the world, and it is located in Moscow—KrioRus. I went to meet them in the summer of 2013, and one of the first things they advised me to do was to include the Fedorovians, Fedorov’s modern followers, in my research. I remembered Fedorov from my first book, but I did not know that he had living followers, nor did I expect that the cryonicists would send me to them. It turned out that Russia not only has the second most important transhumanist and immortalist scene, but it is also unique in terms of the Fedorovians: the figure of Fedorov make the study of immortality in Russia a unique topic that is not patterned by a mandatory libertarianism, by the language of investments and insurance. Instead, there is a language of kinship and care, since the first thing people do is freeze their relatives and even pets. Kinship, as we know, was one of the earliest topics studied by social anthropology when it emerged in the nineteenth century, and Fedorov’s theory of kinship enables it to unfold in a new way.

The Russian material on this topic also shows that the (mostly American) researchers who have dubbed transhumanism a new apocalyptic techno-religion and a secular eschatology are somewhat mistaken. In Russia, all these motives are also present—I am not trying to exoticize Russia and claim that Russia has its own radical alterity—but the situation is more interesting for researchers due to the many nuances that make it impossible to fit transhumanism and the Fedorovian movement into such preconceived notions, and also due to their unusual historical endurance and dominance. The eschatological theme itself in Russia is much better elaborated in religious and political philosophy, and popular culture than, for example, the notion of “beginnings” or “origins.” So in Russia, while there have been no stormy cultural wars between creationism and evolutionism, the idea of history’s “ends" and “goals” has been constantly at center stage, and transhumanism, I would argue, is its latest reflection.

That is, I had the idea to devise a theory based on the “east” or “second world,” just as anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff developed their “theory from the south”: by taking a country that seems to be peripheral to the emergence of new technologies, and see how global movements like transhumanism grow there and, perhaps, anticipate what happens in the rest of the world. In the process, it turned out that dialectical materialism, non- or post-Darwinian biology, and alternative theories of “progress” and “cooperation” in evolution, originating in different areas of Russian science and philosophy and setting the tone for both Cosmism and transhumanism, are now beginning to be rediscovered globally. If they are not yet mainstream, they have been turning from marginal topics into ones that arouse interest, at least.

So, after researching Russian cryonics, you discovered that the topic had a different axis, stemming from other cultural and historical conditions, and describable in a completely different language?

When I was studying cryonics in Russia, I initially started from the assumptions in the article I mentioned: it was the only thing that I had come across on cryonics at that time. However, when I got to Russia, I decided that its hypothesis was not entirely correct. Of course, there is something similar in Russian cryonics, but a different language emerges: Russian cryonics does not necessarily speak the language of insurance and investment. Russian cryonicists say that it would be a good thing if the preservation of bodies became a state program, like medical insurance, so that it would be available to everyone. However, the Russian cryonicists say that, due to less-than-ideal conditions, they are compelled to organize a commercial company, although perhaps ethically they should act otherwise. No one in America says that. I found it curious. Not all cryonics arises from notions of libertarianism and individualism. On the contrary, it is culturally conditioned in different ways everywhere. When cryonics emerges in Korea or Japan, it may be quite different.

The most interesting question related to immortality seems to me to be the question of the differences within immortalism. Is there a single immortalism? After all, it seems that it must inevitably split into incompatible theories, practices, and ideologies of conservation and change.

I cannot speak of a single immortalism, since we know little about different varieties of immortalism outside of the United States, Europe, and Russia. We don’t know what is happening in Japan, Korea, India, or Brazil, whether there is an immortalism in Afrofuturism and what it is like. I don't think immortalists consider conservation something of lasting importance. It is rather a temporary option: preserving the body “for a while” until a solution is found. The immortalists themselves often want changes that are both biologically and politically radical. In this respect, of course, there can be no unity even within a single country’s scene.

When I spoke of conservation, I was not referring to the conservation of the body alone, but rather to the broader context of preserving the existing (and perhaps fundamentally unjust) state of affairs. We constantly see this theme in science fiction, in cyberpunk, for example. People whose bodies were frozen are brought back to life in the distant future, finding themselves in a world of runaway capitalism in which biotechnology only exacerbates inequality. This point is quite often criticized by accelerationists: the imagination of science fiction writers seems to be frozen itself, since in most cases they imagine a future running on the same old capitalist operating system, however technologically advanced it might be otherwise.

On the other hand, I recall the Russian Anarcho-Biocosmists of the early twentieth century, for whom anarchy and immortality were synonymous, since in both cases it was a matter of waging war on a fundamental evil— on inequality and death. I would like to ask whether you have ever met politically engaged immortalists—biocosmists or, vice versa, evil cryocapitalists?

In fact, I have met almost none. I am often asked this question, and I have posed it to myself and to transhumanists. Here, of course, we have to separate the transhumanists from the Fedorovians. The Fedorovians have a clearer idea of what they want, that is, what kind of social structure they imagine. They want something resembling socialism, but with a religious teleology—Anastasia Gacheva, for example, talks about something resembling Christian socialism.[2]

On the other hand, during my year and a half of doing fieldwork with transhumanists, I did not hear anything concrete about their vision of the future political system. Although it seems to me that they are also in the process of developing their ideas. Yes, they want to freeze themselves, they want to survive, and they want radical bodily transformations—some want, for example, to be rays of light and travel through the universe. They are quite depoliticized, but this is typical of thirtysomethings and fortysomethings in Russia: they are not actively involved in political movements because they think they are superfluous. Transhumanists are similar in this way, but that does not mean they will never think about it. Everything comes from specific individuals. But of course they don’t have a united front, especially a particular political program, as the Biocosmists had.

Perhaps their weakest point is their image of the future. It is not that they cannot imagine, as you say, something radically different. They don’t especially think about the future since they are focused now on other things that they consider more urgent: promoting the idea of extending life, establishing a movement, doing research. They say that if they do not do these things, the probability that we will all die within the next hundred years is exactly one hundred percent. So first they want to avoid dying, and then think about the future. There is some logic in that, but it is also partly politically naïve. Their milieu is dominated by the idea of stability, by the certainty that there will be electricity, that there will be servers storing their digitized minds, that someone will be there to pour liquid nitrogen into their cryogenic tanks, etc. They have no critical conception of the idea of stability.

In this regard, it seems to me that transhumanism is more or less the same all over the world simply due to the fact that its default setting is the status quo. What is unique about Russian immortalism?

I would argue that transhumanists are nevertheless politically diverse. First, many transhumanists in America present themselves as libertarians. Four years ago, a candidate from the Transhumanist Party ran for president: he had always been a libertarian. Libertarianism is unusual for Russian transhumanists, although there are a variety people in the movement. Key figures like Mikhail Batin and Alexey Turchin (especially Turchin) often argue that immortality cannot be attained under capitalism.[3] But, again, these discussions were not happening earlier. However, in 2017, when I was finishing the book, transhumanists suddenly began saying such things, and quite loudly. (I was already back in the States and following their debates on Facebook). Turchin often writes that immortality cannot be achieved as a commercial enterprise. They constantly say that competition between pharmaceutical companies over immortality treatments would be completely pointless, a failure, because it would boil down to getting grants and laundering money. This is one aspect: critiquing capitalism because it does not facilitate immortality. They don’t talk so much about what will happen later, whether there will be inequality and injustice. They talk more about the current mission as they are in the process of pursuing it.

But I have seen a clear transformation over these four years. For example, Batin, who suddenly began speaking a Fedorovian language, now insists that transhumanism is the quest for forms of cooperation. This is a completely new definition. Four years ago, however, he and I were arguing about why we need the social sciences and humanities. Back then, Batin said that they were superfluous. We needed biology and nothing else, he said: he was a maximalist. But I don’t see any of the things I have just mentioned in American transhumanism.

However, there are different kinds of American transhumanism as well. Although most American transhumanists are libertarians, there is an alternative movement that does not even want to call itself transhumanist. They call themselves technoprogressives, precisely because they are democratic or left-wing transhumanists. In America, however, the word “transhumanism” has fused so solidly with libertarianism that the technoprogressives say they will simply split off and call themselves something else to highlight their differences. In France, for example, the transhumanist association is called Technoprog, meaning that the same words are used. But I am looking at a broader concept, immortalism, to include the Fedorovians, who are not transhumanists. By the way, the Fedorovians and transhumanists are in constant communication, arguing, quarrelling, and periodically denouncing each other. I would argue, however, that they are quite dependent on each other, because they have no one else to talk to.

I recall Fredric Jameson’s idea of the utopian terror of obliteration: following Adorno, Jameson identifies what is probably utopia’s principal feature—the gradual decline of our powerful desire for self-preservation. In this regard, don’t you think that immortalism can be “debunked” as one of the most sophisticated forms of dystopia, in which self-preservation is simply raised to an absolute in a manner indistinguishable from utopia?

That’s an interesting thought. The anthropological approach to immortalism reveals that even within a single country there is no single type of immortalism and that we must speak of immortalisms in the plural. In Fedorov’s version of immortalism, the preservation and restoration of ancestors does come first—namely, the restoration of kinship, which is torn apart by mortality. But the idea that I sometimes hear even from fellow anthropologists—that immortalism at first glance is essentially a conservative ideology aimed at preserving the existing order “forever”—is not supported by my research of these movements. Among transhumanists and Fedorovians, self-preservation is inextricably linked to radical transformation, which encompasses everything from the Christian concept of transfiguration during resurrection to the transhumanist notion of the Singularity, and dreams of remaking the entire “mortal” order of existence (something that unites Fedorovians and transhumanists), including changing the laws of time and space and gaining control over them. Some people do want only to preserve themselves, while others want to transition from a protein-based existence to an immaterial “radiant” state. Utopia/anti-utopia (and the differences between them and dystopia) are external categories of cultural and literary analysis. If we use the categories of my respondents themselves (emic categories, as anthropologists call them), the Fedorovians, for example, strongly object to the term “utopia” as applied to them. “This is not a utopia—this is a project," says Gacheva when speaking about the Common Cause.

Finally, it seems to me that the main characteristics of utopia according to Jameson—anonymization and depersonalization—are, in the case of Russian immortalism, not its “hidden” characteristics, which can only be revealed by an astute researcher engaged in meta-analysis. On the contrary, they are on the surface. They are both central and controversial, and that is why they are vigorously discussed by people involved in the movement.

While reading The Future of Immortality, I got the impression that it is a rather “Christian” book. The common denominator of all the immortalisms you examine is Christianity (and atheism, as its secular twin brother). You do briefly discuss the New Age Buddhism of Dmitry Itskov,[4] but Buddhism is seemingly outside the scope of your interest in Russian immortalism. Why? In one rather marginal collection of papers that were presented in the mid-1990s at a Cosmist conference in Izhevsk, for example, I happened to read about Udmurt shamanic immortalism. In your book, however, there is seemingly no place for such “grassroots” animistic immortalism.

Christianity is present there because of Fedorov and because Russian techno-scientific immortalism mostly sprang from modernized Christianity. (And because I wanted to limit my research to techno-scientific immortalism, so shamanic immortalism would have been left out in any case.) On the other hand, at least a few characters in the book, not only Itskov, but also, for example, Pavel Luksha and Timur Shchukin[5] (who initially worked with Itskov) have been inspired by eastern traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism) and various synthetic doctrines like Gurdjieff’s. While Itskov is rather an exception to the rule, Luksha and Shchukin are not formally immortalists. However, I have included them in the book because, perhaps, they are not immortalists: they do not voice this purely Christian personalism—immortality as the eternal existence of a unique person. Rather, they are concerned with the survival of humanity as a whole. Hence the rejection by transhumanists of their idea of the NeuroNet as a collective consciousness, a kind of hive where minds can merge. This rejection seems very Christian to me, although it comes from atheists. To speak of other religious influences among historical figures, Tsiolkovsky, for example, was strongly influenced by theosophy, not Christianity.

At the very beginning of The Future of Immortality, you describe a demonstration in Moscow in the autumn of 2012 at which people of different views were united by their support of immortalism. There is something surprising and inexplicable about this because the differences between the people at the demonstration were so great. Around the same time, in 2013, you published a wonderful article about Pussy Riot, featuring a detailed analysis of the situation that had taken shape literally around the bodies of the members of Pussy Riot, and the “affective counter-modernism” manifested in this situation. There you wrote about the “unexpectedly unanimous negative reaction,” which, again, united people of quite different political views, people who had rather different attitudes toward the Russian Orthodox Church, and so on. I was surprised by the coincidence: when the immortalist demonstration took place in Moscow in the autumn of 2012, the members of Pussy Riot had recently been sentenced to two years in prison—that is, these two “unities” unfolded seemingly in the same plane. Don’t you think that these two “unities”—the unity of the immortalists and the unity of the negative reaction toward Pussy Riot—intersect in some mysterious place in the so-called Russian soul? By the way, a condemnation of Pussy Riot, similar to the one you describe, is clearly present among the Fedorovians, as if Pussy Riot would have to be last in line for resurrection for what they did.

I hope I understood the question correctly. Gacheva told me that a wedge was being driven between science and religion in Russia, and the story of Pussy Riot is in the same vein. If we say that Pussy Riot would be last in line for immortality, this is a peculiar interpretation of Fedorov, because everyone would get immortality simultaneously, as he argued. On the contrary, Fedorovians are asked all the time about whether Hitler would be granted immortality. Gacheva told me that this question was constantly posed to Svetlana Semenova.[6] And she had a clear answer: it would be a transfiguration—their idea of Christian transfiguration is central. Half in jest, half in earnest, they say that Hitler would repent, meaning that he would be a completely different person. They consistently insist that everyone should be resurrected, and at the same time. That was why Semenova refused to be cryonized because she didn’t want to be resurrected with a handful of chosen ones.

Another central theme for them is apocatastasis.[7] While not a heresy, it is not an accepted ecclesiastical doctrine. It is a kind of “not-quite-heresy.” There were attempts at the early ecumenical councils to make it legitimate, but because of its radicalism it did not jibe with doctrine, of course. The Fedorovians adhere to the idea of apocatastasis. By the way, the Fedorovians once hilariously tried to teach the transhumanists, including Danila Medvedev, an absolute atheist, to pronounce this word.[8] We rehearsed in chorus, because it was exceedingly difficult to pronounce. Ultimately, after about fifteen minutes, we could all say the entire word without stumbling.

My point is that they are quite keen to defend this idea.

Returning to the question, I was struck in the case of Pussy Riot by this unity on the part of absolutely everyone, both on the right and the left, even people like Marat Guelman, who said that of course no one should be punished and imprisoned, but basically what they did in the cathedral was wrong. If it had been a museum, well, that would have been fine. That was what the most progressive people said. But I would argue that it is difficult to compare this unity and the unity of immortalism. Immortalism is a more existential notion. In the book, I try to elaborate on the topic of biosociality. Coined by the anthropologist Paul Rabinow, biosociality is a phenomenon that unites people in a certain community, usually patients suffering from a disease, which is often genetic, but not necessarily. It is a community of people who have something in common biologically. Transhumanists are an example of biosociality: they are trying to create a community of mortals, that is, of everyone. We are all terminally ill from aging, they say. Aware of patients organizations who defend their rights not only to get certain drugs, but also to create new drugs to treat their diseases, transhumanists want to organize something similar. The same was said by the early Fedorovians, such as Gorsky and Setnitsky: “Mortals of all countries, unite!”[9] From this viewpoint, they are politicized: this is their utopian political aspect. So, a favorite example specifically cited by transhumanists is the activism of AIDS patients in the 1980s: they came together, lobbied governments and pharmaceutical companies, staged huge demonstrations, and forced the development of many new drugs. Transhumanists believe that they should do something similar. They complain about not being able to get thousands of people in the streets, as those activists did back in the 1980s.

All right, let’s have a last word on the politics of immortalism. Recently, on your Facebook page, you posted the image of a table in which different philosophers were ranked “by their punk credentials”—from “basically a cop,” at the bottom (where Heidegger was placed) to the highest point—“They’re not punk, punk is them”—which was occupied by Diogenes. You wrote, “Need a chart like this for anthropology.” Where would you rank Russian immortalists?

Given the inherent radicalism of immortalism, they all seem like punks to me, even Fedorov, who promoted a paradoxical mix of ultra-reactionary and ultra-progressive ideas. Fedorovians and transhumanists minimize this reactionary component, along with the left-wing artists who are interested in Fedorov. It is usually hushed up, but it is there—even I, in fact, minimize it. Fedorov came up with things no one had come up with, like resurrecting all the dead here and now. This disrespect for biological laws seems to me the height of punk, as does the idea of challenging the status of these “laws.”

You are now literally caught up in a whirlwind of presentations and public discussions of The Future of Immortality, most of which have been taking place in the US. Tell us how Americans have reacted to your book.

With great interest, although the topic is in its own niche. Sometimes, however, they pass off their own opinions as my arguments. For example, two completely different reviews suggested that the interest in immortality in Russia was a consequence of falling birth rates and high mortality. Another reviewer claimed that the craving for immortality was a reaction to the “hard” life in Russia. Yet other reviewers linked immortalism with totalitarianism or the environmental crisis. One reviewer wrote that immortalism in Russia was more “spiritual” and “collectivist” than, for example, in Silicon Valley. (I did in fact discuss this in the book, though without resorting to such labels). On the BBC, a critic of transhumanism said after an interview with me, “When you put it that way, transhumanism turns out to be quite benign and even… noble.”

Speaking of collectivism, Bogdanov with his “physiological collectivism” is sometimes identified in the reviews as a precursor to parabiosis—blood transfusions from the young to the old for the purpose of rejuvenation, which are now being done for a lot of money. For the most part, however, Americans and others outside of Russia have had no problem understanding the key arguments.

In 2019, Yekaterinburg hosted the 5th Ural Industrial Biennale, which was entirely devoted to the theme of immortality. The Center for Experimental Museology has been vigorously engaged with the problem of immortality. For artists such as Arseny Zhilyaev, immortality is essentially the focus of their art making and theorizing. How would you assess the fascination with immortality in contemporary Russian art?

On the one hand, it all comes from Fedorov, who linked the themes of museums and immortality. (As you know, Fedorov was himself a librarian.) This was present in the early avant-garde and continues today. I have a separate article about Fedorov’s theory of museums and archiving, and his essay on museology is the best I have read on the subject. Zhilyaev consulted with Gacheva, who runs the Fedorov Museum-Library, and took part in various round tables there. In many ways, they deserve the credit for popularizing Fedorov’s legacy.

Don’t you think that contemporary art is one of the important contexts in which immortalism has been nurtured, and Cosmism popularized? One of the triggers was the anthology Russian Cosmism, edited and with a preface by Boris Groys.

Yes, it’s true. But Groys has been writing about Cosmism for a long time. He published texts about it ten or fifteen years ago: he has long been interested in this topic, and he started this trend. But I have been observing the evolution of those who have picked up the trend—for example, Anton Vidokle, who has produced a trilogy of films about Cosmism. He initially learned about it from Groys, but then he read and researched the topic quite deeply.

Please tell us more about your research on Fedorov’s ideas about museums and archiving. This is completely new material.

Fedorov has an essay on the museum as an institution, but in the book I was unable to touch on his theory of the museum: although it stands a bit on its own, it is connected with his vision of immortalism. The museum is a utopian community of people in which everyone is an archivist of their own life and the lives of their ancestors. I have linked this museum theory to two contemporary cases: one is self-archiving, which has been a common practice among transhumanists and even among their predecessors. I think it used to be called lifelogging—when a person assembles a complete archive about themselves. Modern transhumanists do something similar—for example, they constantly record themselves and go around with body cameras. This is one example. The second example is the speculative possibility of making an archive of genomic data and using it to restore all the dead to life. I combine both examples with Fedorov’s theory of museums.

My article begins by describing an occasion in which Gacheva took part. We are talking about hoarding, the obsessive compulsion to collect and amass things. It is a quite common phenomenon in America, where there is even a reality show about people who cannot throw anything away—their houses and apartments are filled with useless junk. Where is the line between hoarding and the collecting done by museums? How can we implement the kind of collecting—without discrimination, without violence—that Fedorov proposes? I play a little with Derrida’s Mal d’Archive: Une Impression Freudienne, translated into English as Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Mal can also be translated to suggest the “evil” or violence of the archive. I link this up with Fedorov, who writes about the violence that is perpetrated in the very notion of the museum and the idea of selection, and about the possibility of creating a museum in which there is no selection. But this is the historical part of my article.

It all begins, however, with the celebration of Fedorov’s birthday, a holiday that the Fedorovians instituted some time ago. A man who was quite enthusiastic about Fedorov’s ideas came to this year’s celebrations, but he had certain mental “idiosyncrasies” and was dressed incomprehensibly: he wore a decent, but very rumpled suit, meaning that it was unclear whether he was homeless or not. He told us about an illegal realtor who had swindled him out of his apartment, and Anastasia, who is quite compassionate, immediately began looking for an apartment for him. But that was not what he wanted from us. He had a garage that was going to be demolished, and there was an archive in the garage, he said. If the archive were not saved now, the man’s life would be over. He persuaded us to go with him, and Anastasia and Anya Gorskaya, her assistant at the Fedorov Library-Museum, agreed to do something with the man’s archive.

So we went we there. It was getting dark, and we walked through empty lots in which stray dogs were barking. When we reached the garage, it was after dark. The man opened the garage, and, of course, there was no car in it: it was completely filled with papers. The man kept saying that you could talk about Fedorov’s ideas as much as you liked, but you had to do something. “I’m doing this,” he said, “I’m collecting an archive. The archive is the real embodiment of the Common Cause.” We looked at his archives: big paper bags full of papers, stacked from floor to ceiling. He told us that he slept on top of the bags.

It became clear, however, that all those papers were not personal items or things that could be housed at the Fedorov Library-Museum, which is small and has no room anyway. Obsessed with Fedorov’s ideas, the man had for a long time gone to exhibitions—you know, like the exhibitions of technological innovations at VDNKh, in Soviet times—and collected the catalogs to these shows. But they were quite old, and all this stuff was on the internet—it was clear that there was no use for any of it. Anastasia thus faced the same dilemma of archival violence. What should she do with all that stuff? She could not take it back to the library, but she could not turn him down: even if he didn’t end up committing suicide, rejection could deal a fatal blow to him. We closed the garage, and Anastasia and Anya said that while they could not take anything with them right away, they would think of something.

I use this story ethnographically to get at the notion of archiving and the violence associated with selection, on the one hand, and, on the other, the idea of redefining the human self as an archive, that a person is a kind of archive—a genomic archive, an archive of memories and records, an archive of electrical impulses and the subconscious.

Please tell us about your new project, Pleistocene Park: Extinction and Eternity in the Russian Arctic. It seems that here the theme of death and immortality (eternity) takes a completely “speculative” ecological turn. Or is it a completely different story?

Like the previous project, this project grew out of an exceptionally long footnote, more than half a page long, that also had dismayed the copy editors of The Future of Immortality. It is in the book’s conclusion, entitled “Time. Space. Life.” I discussed the research in suspended animation by Porfiry Bakhmetyev, a Russian-Bulgarian scientist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I mentioned his articles in popular magazines, where he wrote about the potential practical significance of suspended animation—for example, the possibility of restoring extinct animals and plants. Specifically, he mentioned mammoths found in the permafrost. To connect Bakhmetyev’s almost prophetic speculations with the present day, I referenced the new American de-extinction movement (the movement to restore extinct species), organized by the legendary Silicon Valley guru Stewart Brand, a key figure and link between California counterculture and California cyberculture (between the hippies and the hackers, roughly speaking), and the famous Harvard geneticist George Church, who decided to tackle Brand’s desire to restore the mammoth through gene editing.

At about the same time, I learned about Pleistocene Park, which is under creation by the Russian scientist Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita. They are trying to restore the so-called mammoth steppe ecosystem of the Pleistocene period and populate the tundra with large herbivores. (Bison, musk oxen, yaks, Yakutian horses, and other animals have already been introduced.) According to Zimov’s theory, the steppe can save the melting permafrost by imposing additional “insulation” in the form of grasses, something the wet tundra cannot provide. At some point, Brand and Church discovered Pleistocene Park and decided to settle their speculative mammoths there. Heavily criticized by traditional ecologists and bioethicists, the project of restoring extinct species has gradually turned from something frivolous to something soteriological: the mammoths will, allegedly, save the world from global warming, and not just serve as amusements for future tourists.

In the spring of 2018, I went to California to give lectures, both at Berkeley and a techno-futurist commune in San Francisco, where I learned that Brand and Church were going to Pleistocene Park that summer. I immediately contacted them, and in August we all went there together, along with the futurist Kevin Kelly, a founding editor of Wired. Despite the park’s not particularly presentable appearance—we were freezing in temperatures near zero and stuck in the mud, which had not yet turned into steppe, since the density of animals in the park is still low, and the keystone species, the mammoth, is missing—they were nevertheless satisfied with it. (Kelly said that the park was at the same stage the Wright Brothers were shortly before they launched their first plane.)

So I decided to do my third large-scale anthropological study, on three research sites—Pleistocene Park, Church’s genetics lab, and the California de-extinction scene around Brand. Returning to the first question about leitmotifs, they are the same—time, life, and death. There are also questions of hybridity, since it is not a purely genetic mammoth that is being restored, but its “ecological proxy,” an elephant/mammoth, or a mammophant. What does it mean to have genes from different eras in a single organism? What does it imply for the concept of life, for biological time? It is interesting to see how Zimov’s salvationism and apocalypticism (for him, the park is a project to enable the survival of humanity, while the animals are more a means than an end) will jibe with the techno-optimism of Brand and Church, who regard the restoration of species as an inevitable step on the road of progress, and have nothing the least bit eschatological about them. How will these things be combined in a single project?

Some regard it as a redemption of environmental “sins.” For an anthropologist, however, it is yet another exciting field. There are the concepts of nature, of the manmade and natural, and multi-species ethnography, and bioengineering and geoengineering, and concepts of time, and secular eschatology—basically all the things I love. Ultimately, for a person who came out of the Moscow counterculture, the opportunity to work with Brand meant that the project was made specifically for me. As one of my fellow anthropologists said, jokingly, “Did they confer and decide that Anya Bernstein needed to write a new book urgently, so, like, let’s do this project?”

[1] The Khambo Lama Itigelov (1852–1927) was a Buryat religious figure, the head of the Buddhists of Eastern Siberia in 1911–1917, whose body was twice exhumed by his followers after his death. In 2002, it was exhumed a third time, perfectly preserved, and moved to the Ivolginsky Datsan. Lama Itigelov is the focus of Bernstein’s book Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism (2013), as well as a number of articles by her.

[2] Anastasia Gacheva is a senior researcher at the Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Fedorov Museum-Library. Organizer of the Fyodorov Readings, and publisher and commentator of Fedorov’s works, Gacheva is one of the characters in The Future of Immortality.

[3] Mikhail Batin is a businessman, founder of the Science for Life Extension Research Support Foundation, director of the MIPT Center for Innovative Technologies, member of the board of the Gerontological Society of the Russian Academy of Sciences, author of the popular blog Humanity+ and co-author of the book Futurology: 21st Century: Immortality or Global Catastrophe? Alexey Turchin is a transhumanist, futurologist, vice-president of the Science for Life Extension Foundation, founder of the Digital Immortality Now project, and co-author of the book Futurology: 21st Century: Immortality or Global Catastrophe?

[4] A Russian media mogul and founder of the 2045 Initiative, Dmitry Itskov calls himself a “modest producer of immortality.” The international Avatar Project, headed by Itskov, aims to design cyber-immortality technologies that would digitize the human mind and transfer it to potentially eternal physical media.

[5] Pavel Luksha is Professor of Practice at the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and an expert at the Skolkovo Education Development Center. Timur Shchukin is an entrepreneur and head of the KnowFlow Project. Luksha and Shchukin are the founders of the Russian NeuroNet group.

[6] The mother of Anastasia Gacheva, Svetlana Semenova (1941–2014) was a historian of Russian philosophy, literary critic, and chief researcher at the Institute of World Literature. She edited the first scholarly collections of works by Fedorov and other Russian cosmists.

[7] Apocatastasis is a Christian doctrine of universal salvation that rejects the irreversible condemnation of sin and the eternity of hell. It was elaborated in detail by the Alexandrian theologian Origen in the third century. According to the doctrine, even the Devil must be saved.

[8] Danila Medvedev is a founder of the Russian Transhumanist Movement, member of its coordinating council, chair of the board of the Russian cryonics company KrioRus, and founder and head of the Systemic Scheme of Human Aging Project.

[9] Alexander Gorsky (1886–1943) was a philosopher, poet, and Russian cosmist. Influenced by Vladimir Solovyov and his metaphysics of “pan-unity,” Gorsky elaborated the concepts of Christian evolutionism, God-manhood, the redemption of history, and the conversion of dogma into commandment. Nikolai Setnitsky (1888–1937) was a philosopher, economist, and Russian cosmist. He reprinted the first volume of Fedorov's Philosophy of the Common Cause, as well as the works of Alexander Gorsky, at his own expense.

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