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.
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.
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.
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.