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A Visit to Moscow's Brain Institute

The Brain Institute, which was founded by the Bolsheviks in 1928 as part of the effort to canonize Lenin, has a "Pantheon of Brains"—the brains of Sergei Eisenstein, Stalin, and Lenin himself are displayed in glass cases inside the Institute's pre...

On April 14, 1930, the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in his Moscow apartment. His closest friends, including the writer Yuri Olesha, rushed to the flat when they heard the terrible news.

As they sat in silence in the living room, a cracking sound suddenly emitted from the bedroom where Mayakovsky’s body lay.

“Only wood, it seemed, could be chopped like that,” Olesha later wrote. Someone was cutting through the wall with an axe. Moments later, a doctor in a white lab coat ran by carrying a washbasin.

Inside it was the poet’s brain.

The doctor told Mayakovsky’s friends that the brain was unusually large—more than 3.75 pounds—before loading it into a car and driving away.

Mayakovsky’s brain was taken to a brick building called the Brain Institute, which was founded by the Bolsheviks in 1928 as part of the effort to canonize Lenin. Lenin’s brain joined those of other proclaimed geniuses in a “Pantheon of Brains,” which displayed the Soviet Union’s finest minds in glass cases. The institute went on to dissect the brains of dozens of famous Soviets, including those of Sergei Eisenstein, Maxim Gorky, and Joseph Stalin. The brain-cataloging continued all the way until 1989, when the fall of the USSR put an end to this peculiar experiment.

Since then, the Institute remains open, but few reporters, Russian or foreign, have been allowed to visit. In recent years, the Institute has been trying to distance itself from the past and adopt a new reputation for modern neurological research—and catching a glimpse of Lenin’s brain in pieces might make its newfound credibility a hard sell. To my delight, however, as part of their effort to show the world how legitimate they’ve become, the Institute let me inside.

The Brain Institute is located in a pre-Revolutionary mansion on a leafy Moscow side street. On the gray morning I visited, two senior researchers were slicing brains using a microtome, a hulking, hand-cranked apparatus not unlike a deli meat slicer—the same equipment the Institute once used to cut Lenin’s brain into 30,000 pieces.  

A slice of brain fell onto a dish, as thin and pale as a flake of Parmesan. The researcher wound the crank, and the blade made another incision.

Woochik.”

The brain-slicing technique belongs to a branch of neuroscience called cytoarchitectonics. By cutting the brain into pieces and studying the arrangement of their cells under a microscope, researchers hope to learn important information about its structure.

Irina Bogolepova, head of the lab of anatomy and architectonics, walked over to the microtome, which occupied one wall of a narrow, peach-colored lab room, and picked up a freshly cut brain slice. The tissue-thin specimen fluttered perilously out of her fingers, but she intercepted it before it reached the ground.

“Oops,” she said briskly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the history of the Brain Institute is one of mistakes, occasional triumphs, and peculiarities.

Vladimir Bekhterev, a Russian neurologist and rival of Ivan Pavlov, first conceived of a so-called Pantheon of Brains in 1927. After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Father of the Revolution’s brain was dissected by the German neuroscientist Oskar Vogt, then the world’s leading expert in cytoarchitectonics. The brain dissection, along with the mummification of Lenin’s body, became part of the effort to uphold the leader’s remains as the infallible foundation of the Soviet state.

Bekhterev’s project began as essentially a Marxist version of the Paris Pantheon, the cathedral turned mausoleum that holds the remains of French thinkers including Voltaire and Rousseau. In Bekhterev’s vision, Lenin’s brain would join those of other Soviet luminaries in a scientific shrine to Bolshevik superiority. In his pitch to officials to open a Pantheon as soon as possible, Bekhterev stressed that the genius body count had been rising: “In this fiery period of building the USSR,” he said, “people burn out quickly.”

The Soviet Pantheon was briefly realized—though, against Bekhterev’s wishes, at Vogt’s Moscow lab, rather than at his own institute in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). Glass cases displayed the brains of several outstanding Soviets, including Marxist theorist Gregory Plekhanov, along with a cast of each owner’s face and a short biography. The display brains were mere copies; the originals remained in behind-the-scenes laboratories, the subject of intensive research.

Bekhterev’s association with the lab proved short-lived. In 1927, he was summoned to the Kremlin to perform a medical exam on Stalin and unwisely diagnosed him as paranoid. Two days later, Bekhterev died, supposedly of food poisoning. In the final insult, the scientist’s brain was dissected in Moscow.

In 1928, the Moscow lab turned into the Brain Institute. It was charged with collecting new genius specimens, as well as “average” brains for comparison. Shortly after the Institute opened, People’s Commissar of Public Health Nikolai Semashko wrote that the latter collection already contained “six Russian brains, two Tatar, Chuvash, Armenian, Georgian, Jewish and Turkish.”

There are anatomical brain collections in major cities around the world, including Paris, Stockholm, Philadelphia, and Tokyo. At its peak, Cornell University’s Wilder Brain Collection contained anywhere from 600 to a staggering 1,200 brains. But the number of renowned figures in Moscow is unparalleled.

Although the Institute has never released a complete list of its collection, around 30 names can be gleaned from contemporary newspapers and other sources. They include Bekhterev’s nemesis Pavlov; theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky; People’s Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky; rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, a founder of the secret police; and top Party officials including Mikhail Kalinin and Sergei Kirov, the man whose 1934 murder provided the pretext for Stalin’s purges.

Yet even in a society premised on women’s liberation, the Pantheon remained almost entirely male. Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaya and German Communist (and International Women’s Day founder) Clara Zetkin are the only female brains known to be stored in the collection.

When a Soviet celebrity died, the brain-collection process worked in one of two ways. Sometimes, the family or the deceased had already agreed to give their brains to the Institute. Or—as in the case of Mayakovsky—they came without asking.

Today, the Institute’s official name is the Brain Research Department of the Research Center of Neurology. My visit began with a debriefing courtesy of its current director, Sergei Illariushkin. A tall man with thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he sat at the head of a conference table in his newly renovated office. He spoke at an impossibly fast clip, words firing like excited synapses.

He quickly acknowledged that his predecessors’ work appears to have had little scientific merit. “Now we understand that genius is much more complicated than that,” he said, with a brisk laugh.

Illariushkin is a proponent of modern clinical research. His CV contains no references to Marxism-Leninism, much less to telepathy; he wrote his dissertation on “inherited monogenetic disorders of the nervous system.”

In the mid 2000s, he said, the presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences formed a special commission to decide what to do with the impoverished Brain Institute. The situation was dire. “There was no hot water,” he explained, “no heating.”

The Academy of Sciences decided to connect the Institute to a successful institution that was closest in profile: the Research Center for Neurology, which studies cerebrovascular disorders. For the first time, the Institute gained a functioning clinic. With the help of better funding and modern equipment, it released its own atlas mapping the structures of the brain.

However, the Institute is still desperately in need of financial donors, Illariushkin said—a project no oligarch has yet come forward to endorse.

After our interview, I was led upstairs to the Museum of the Evolution of the Brain. Just a floor above the director’s office, the building looked much as it did in the Soviet era, complete with peeling numbers and sickly green paint.

Irina Bogolepova, the stern woman assigned to be my guide, has worked at the Brain Institute since 1962, the year Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. She heads the laboratory of anatomy and architectonics, the modern successor to the Institute’s genius studies. Since 1978, she has also been the director of its in-house museum.

Opened in the early 30s, the museum has been closed to the public for years. Illariushkin had told me that it will be renovated in 2014, complete with computer navigation screens. He had proclaimed the importance of sharing its contents with the world. Yet in light of the Institute’s obsession with secrecy, his words sounded somewhat hollow.

Bogolepova opened the door to the museum. It was mostly dark, with the displays’ flickering lights turned on one at a time. Black-and-white portraits of the Institute’s past scientists stared down from the walls. Since the space is usually empty, it doubles as a lecture hall, and creaky auditorium chairs and a podium occupied the center of the room.

An Engels quotation loomed over a set of wooden display cases: “First labor, and then speech—these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which, for all its similarity, is far larger and more perfect.”

The mid 1920s to early 1930s was a heady time for Soviet science. Leon Trotsky was the first who spoke of the need to create the “communist man,” a “super-human” who would represent the highest stage of human evolution. The average Soviet citizen, Trotsky declared, was to rise to the level of “Aristotle, Goethe, and Marx.”

The museum has been kept as it was in those days as “a sign of respect to our teachers,” Bogolepova said. “You go to the Louvre, the Uffizi, there might be some new canvases, but you don’t throw out Raphael. You don’t throw out Rembrandt.”

As she spoke, a one-eyed monkey head stared at us from a jar of formaldehyde. The collection contains the brains of lizards, bears, swans, whales, dolphins, and elephants, among many others. The whale brains are by far the biggest, weighing as much as 15 pounds. In a neighboring display, a fluffy orange cat seemed unaware that an inch or two above its eyes, its brain was entirely exposed.

Animals occupied a special role in early Soviet brain science. In an experiment widely reported in the Soviet press, a dog’s head was kept alive for several minutes after it was severed from its body. This story helped inspire Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 satirical novel Heart of a Dog, in which the pituitary gland of a human criminal is transplanted into the brain of a stray dog.

In the museum’s human section, dozens of brains were presented in various cross-sections. One display showed human fetuses at different stages of development, reminiscent of Peter the Great’s Kunstkammer, the St. Petersburg anatomy collection famous for its infants in jars.

At the end of the museum tour, my hope of seeing Lenin’s brain was dashed. “The brains of the gifted are located in a different building,” Bogolepova said curtly, “and we don’t show them to the public.”  

The Institute’s relationship to its famous brains is complicated, and often contradictory. “These people have relatives,” she replied when I asked why they are hidden from view, “and it seems wrong to show the public their brains.” But several yards away, a glass case proudly displayed several dozen human brains. The feelings of their owners’ relatives, it seemed, had not been taken into account.

Lenin’s brain has always been a source of controversy. In the late 1920s, after several years of study, Vogt, the scientist, announced that Lenin’s pyramidal cells in the third layer of the central cortex appeared to be unusually well developed, leading to quicker decisionmaking. But while researchers had long hypothesized that intelligence was associated with brain size, the great leader’s brain weighed in at just under three pounds, or slightly below average. An explanation quickly emerged: Lenin’s brain had shrunk in size due to illness and overwork. Meanwhile, in scientific literature, the official norm mysteriously shrank from approximately 3.1 pounds to 2.85 pounds

Today, this story still persists. “We can say with relative certainty that genius correlates to the size of the brain,” Bogolepova said. “Mayakovsky’s brain was enormous.” Then why did Lenin’s brain weigh below average? “One must take into account that he had suffered multiple strokes,” she retorted.

At one point, Bogolepova said the Institute was still studying the famous brains; minutes later, she said they were receiving no attention at all. According to Soviet-era accounts, a single brain, sliced by the microtome, takes one researcher a year to study. With only 100 employees in the department, there are more pressing tasks at hand.

We then went to the nearby laboratory of anatomy and architectonics, where several men and women in lab coats were working in what looked at first like a kitchen. Several pots—the kind that every babushka uses to make borscht—stood on a countertop under white cabinets. An attendant lifted the lid of a yellow pot inscribed with red flowers.

Inside was a human brain, marinating in formaldehyde.

Despite huge technological advances in neuroscience, cytoarchitectonics is still considered a useful method for studying the brain, particularly now that computers are able to store and process the immense amount of data.

The laboratory is now focused on differences between men's and women's brains, which Illariushkin said are like “different planets”—a controversial subject, especially in light of the field’s historical emphasis on the male brain’s superiority. However, despite a panic-inducing booklet Bogolepova gave me that made note of women’s “emotionality” and men’s knack for math and science, the lab's research is not primarily concerned with explaining male or female behavior, but on possible gender differences in how the brain ages and experiences Alzheimer’s or recovers from a stroke.

The lab has about 500 brains. In keeping with Vogt’s method, each brain is cut into four or five chunks, which are encased in paraffin wax. Then, they are taken into an adjoining room to be cut on one of the two microtomes.

“We cut the average brain into only 2,000 or 3,000 slices,” Bogolepova said, over the stapler-like sound of the microtomes. “Only Lenin got 30,000.”

The slices are then glued onto glass slides and stained with red dye. Down the hall, researchers examine them under a microscope.

The idea of studying personality types by looking at the brain was mostly abandoned after World War II—due in part to the murderous actualization of eugenic ideas by the Third Reich, but also to a new focus on cybernetics. American scientists pioneered what Michael Hagner, chair of science studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, calls “the techno approach.”

“To understand the brain as a problem-solving machine, as a computer, was simply a new paradigm in the history of brain research,” he said.

Perhaps the modern successor to early studies of genius and the brain is the field of neuroimaging, which uses computed tomography to examine brain activity during the performance of a task—a gifted cellist playing music, for example. Popular fascination with older methods persists, however: Every few years, Albert Einstein's preserved brain is the subject of a new study claiming to have found neurological evidence of his genius.

In its search for genius, the Moscow Brain Institute did not focus only on the brain. It also analyzed individuals’ personalities, creating a detailed questionnaire about their personal history, appearance, and habits. Detailed interviews with those close to the deceased provided the necessary data.

The responses given by Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, were heavily redacted; nothing could be said, or even implied, that might compromise the leader’s greatness. Cultural historian Monika Spivak uncovered both the original and redacted answers thanks to the relative of a scientist who conducted many of the interviews.

Krupskaya’s statement that Lenin was a tenor was crossed out and replaced with “baritone”; a line about his shaky vision in one eye was removed entirely. Even Krupskaya’s statement that he did not suffer from seasickness disappeared. Apparently, the mere possibility that Lenin could feel ill on the water was too compromising.

Spivak works at the Andrei Bely Museum. When she called the Brain Institute several years ago in hopes of collaborating on a book, she was quickly rebuffed. “They were polite, but they treated me like an enemy,” she said, sipping coffee near the Bely Museum on Moscow's Arbat. The then-director claimed such personality studies had never happened, and said his predecessors had left no trace of their research.

The Institute had a brief period of transparency in the early 1990s, when scientific institutions were left destitute in the wake of the Soviet collapse. In 1991, a film crew was even allowed to make a documentary inside. (Even then, they were shown casts of the brains, rather than the originals). But ever since, its famous specimens have been on lockdown.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, an extensive public research program addressed the history of Germany’s scientific institutes in the Nazi period, including Vogt’s (now the Max Planck Institute and the Oskar and Cecile Vogt Institute). In the meantime, Moscow’s Brain Institute keeps its secrets to itself.

After Spivak published her book in 2009, she was summoned back for another meeting. “They were interested in one thing,” she said: “Where I got my information.”

In her book, Send the Brain to Address…, Spivak proposes that most of the brains were never studied, or even sliced by the microtome. Instead, they remain in chunks of paraffin, “like dark bricks, similar in shape and color to bars of rough Soviet soap.”

Near the Brain Institute’s creaking elevator, which led back down to the director’s office and the cloudy morning outside, heavy padlocks guarded a set of tall black cabinets with peeling paint. Inside, Bogolepova told me, there were thousands of slices awaiting the microscope. “Could there be any geniuses among them?” I asked.

She shook her head.