Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge describes his visit to the Institute of Brain, a facility in Moscow where the former Soviet Union preserved the brain tissue of its most notable citizens — and where he held the remnants of Josef Stalin’s brain.
This week on Worldfocus we had two interesting stories from Russia by Martin Himel. One was about the revival of Stalinism, basically looking at how the former Soviet dictator of the 30s and 40s — responsible for killing millions — is receiving renewed respect from Russians. Shocking, but true.
Personally, I never met the man, but I have held his brain.
Not long after the collapse of communism, I was in the old Soviet Union doing a number of reports on how life was changing. During part of the journey, I traveled with a well-known American brain surgeon by the name of Dr. Robert White. He was the one who told me about the Institute of Brain in Moscow.
He told me that when a great Soviet died, whether a Russian leader or performer in the arts, it was a secret that they were buried without their brain. Instead, it was preserved for study at the Institute of Brain — the thinking being that if you studied the brain long enough, you would eventually discover what made that person great. Dumbstruck, I immediately knew we had to get in to do a story on this ultimate “think tank.”
“But you don’t just show up on the doorstep of the Institute of Brain and announce yourself,” I said.
“That,” said Dr. White, “is exactly what we WILL do.” So there we were on a quiet tree-lined Moscow street, standing on the steps of a red brick building with a brass plaque, ringing the doorbell.
Getting in with a television camera required a lot of creative talking and drinking a lot of tea. Let’s just say I was introduced as “Dr. Savidge” and there was something about a medical documentary (Oh, the minor deceits we must make for journalism!) .
Soon, we were walking the halls of one of the most bizarre and fascinating institutions I have ever seen. Brains were everywhere! Some sat pickling in giant glass jars on desktops. Most were sealed in large blocks of paraffin wax. Open a cupboard, and you’d find brains stacked so precariously that they threatened to…brain you.
We were given a demonstration of how the studying was done. A brain sealed in wax was lifted from the shelf and placed in what looked like a turn-of-the-century deli slicer. A few squeaky cranks of a handle, and a tissue paper slice of grey fluttered into a scientist’s waiting hand. It was then placed between sheets of glass, stained with purple dye and put beneath a microscope.
As our tour continued, the guide told us with a smile that all of the brains had been weighed and measured. Turns out the smallest one in the entire collection belonged to Vladimir Lenin, the man who started Russia on the road to communism. I didn’t know whether to laugh or just say “I told you so” — instead I simply stroked my chin and said “Hmmm.”
It was then that the tour stopped in front of a very heavy door with the number 19 on it. “This is vault 19,” proclaimed our guide. “It holds the brains of our great political leaders.” Dr. White had spoken of this place but thought it was so sensitive that we would never be allowed to see it.
The door was pulled open and we were ushered in.
The room measured about ten by ten, and the walls were lined with wooden drawers. The host walked over to one and carefully pulled it open. “This,” he announced, “is Stalin’s.”
The dictator’s brain was not what it had been. It had long ago passed through the cerebral vego-matic and was now reduced to hundreds of glass plates.
“Would you like to hold it?” the guide asked. For some odd reason, I said yes. And so it came to be that I held Stalin’s brain, thanks to the fact that in the old Soviet Union they had preserved the brains of their leaders, truly believing the mind is a terrible thing to waste.
– Martin Savidge