One of the most fascinating talks I attended was a Book Festival event, Would you want to live forever?, in which the philosopher John Gray and the author Marcel Theroux discussed the strange and somewhat under-reported history of late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century attempts to undertake the ultimate engineering challenge: the conquest of death by scientific means, the quite literal design of immortality.
If, like me, you've an interest in death, I recommend it. The Immortalization Commission is morbid, completely enthralling stuff.
The book has two parts. The first explores the widespread practice of spiritualism throughout the Victorian and Edwardian upper classes and intelligentsia. As Gray makes clear, seances and other rituals designed to establish contact with the dead were not seen by participants as being the least bit mystical, but were regarded as sober, practical, scientific experiments. Scrupulous efforts were made to test the credibility of putative communications from the 'other side'. The words, spoken and written, channelled through mediums, were checked carefully against what was known about the earthly lives of the deceased. The spiritualists saw themselves as investigating hitherto uncharted fields of reality rather than trying to break through to an immaterial realm beyond the empirical world. Telephathy, for example, was regarded as a natural energy, somewhat like gravity.
Whereas this first half of the book explores belief in the capacity of science to uncover the existence of an eternal aspect to reality, the second looks at the serious attempts made during the first half of the 20th century to engineer immortality, specifically over the course of first few decades in the life of the Soviet Union.
Gray tells the story of how the Bolshevik revolution was inspired not just by the desire to re-engineer human society, but to 'perfect' humankind itself. For the Soviets, 1917, the year of the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, was the ultimate year zero: the starting point for a new society, a new economy, and a new undying humanity 2.0.
As I've written here before, the history of the Soviet Union is a seemingly inexhaustible well of the bizarre and the grotesque, a sprawling work of science fiction that actually took place in history, not that long ago, on a massive scale, involving the lives of hundreds of millions. The Immortalization Commission renders that history stranger still.
Their ostensible atheism notwithstanding many leading revolutionaries were influenced by the 'God-Builder' philosophy of the 19th century Russian Orthodox thinker Nikolai Federov. Federov held the Orthodox belief, rooted in the Gospels, that Christian resurrection was thoroughly material, the reconstitution of the physical body of the believer's life on Earth. But that being so, he went on to speculate, resurrection must be governed by natural laws in principle discoverable by science: technology would soon advance to the point where it could discover and implement the methods of revivification hitherto known only to God.
Another God-Builder, the writer Maxim Gorky, a sometime confidant of both Lenin and Stalin, urged the regime - in chilling and prophetic terms - to undertake systematic investigation into the physical mechanisms governing human mortality:
We need to experiment on humans themselves, we need to study the human organism, the processes of intercellular feeding, blood circulation, the chemistry of the nervous system and in general all processes of the human organism. Hundreds of human units will be required.
The rocket engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky argued that space exploration would open new vistas of knowledge allowing understanding of the causes of and infinite prolongation of life. He developed the 'Cosmist' philosophy that became one of the guiding principles of the Soviet space programme:
The conquest of the air will be followed by the conquest of ethereal space. Will not the creature of the air turn into the creature of the ether? These creatures will be born citizens of the ether, of pure sunshine and the boundless expanses of the cosmos… Thus, there is no end to life, to reason and perfection of mankind. Its progress is eternal. And if that is so, one cannot doubt the attainment of immortality.
Stalin himself was motivated by the ultimate possibility of human perfectability. Gray refers to the young Stalin's heavily annotated edition of Dostoevsky's anti-revolutionary novel 'The Devils', revealing the future dictator's belief in all that the author had tried to destroy:
The true aim of revolutionaries was not so much to alleviate human misery as to create a type of human being that could no longer suffer. Stalin recognised this vision, which for Dostoevsky was hateful, as his own.
On coming to power the Bolsheviks set about the pursuit of their apocalyptic dreams with utter ruthlessness. The country became a vast laboratory for the Soviet experiment, the present suffering of millions justified for the sake of future, deathless utopia. Gray notes:
Some months before he died Stalin authorised the publication in Russian of [HG] Well's 'The Island of Dr Moreau', and he viewed those whose lives he controlled as vivisectionists do the subjects of their experiments. He was not much interested in human beings, whom he saw only as resources to be used in building the future.
Gorky's wishes were fulfilled through the creation of an Institute of Experimental Medicine, which carried out systematic experimentation on thousands of political and military prisoners.
It is estimated that up to 60 million died in the attempt to force march Russia's overwhelmingly rural economy towards industrialisation and technological sophistication.
The space programme had some early successes, putting the first satellite and then astronaut into space, but it was soon superceded by the United States, and its expense was a significant contribution to the Soviet Union's ultimate bankruptcy.
Needless to say, though the experiment cost many millions of lives, no progress was made towards the discovery of the preservation of life.
The Lenin Mausoluem
But one highly visible testament to the Soviet cult of immortality remains: Lenin's tomb, in Red Square.
As with the philosophy of the God-Builders, the decision to embalm Lenin, after his early death in 1924, was inspired by Russian Orthodoxy. Lenin would lie incorrupt, like the bodies of the saints, and so channel the religious feelings of the Russian people for the benefit of the regime.
The Immortalization Commission (from which Gray's book takes its title) was established to organise Lenin's preservation, with the ultimate hope that one day, when the technological means for doing so emerged, the former leader would be resurrected.
The curious three-tiered cubic shape of Lenin's tomb was inspired by the Suprematist philosophy of the avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, which celebrated abstract geometrical form as symbolic of eternity. In another borrowing from Orthodox custom cubes representing the mausoleum were distributed to party members with instruction that they be displayed in the 'icon corners' of their homes.
Gray relates with black humour the story of the clumsy efforts made to keep Lenin refridgerated by means of primitive cryogenic techniques:
The doll-like facsimile that was pieced together from Lenin's earthly remains could never have been revivified. Instead of opening the way to deathless humanity science could only create a lifeless dummy.
It's not much, but it's all that remains of that revolutionary hope for man-made immortality.