A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute, Where Stalin’s Brain Is Kept in a Jar
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.
Kyrgyz Your Enthusiasm – Fresh Off the Boat: Moscow, Part 2
In Fresh Off the Boat - Moscow part two, Eddie further immerses himself in Russian culture. He learns what it was like to live under Soviet rule, shares tea with Kurdish immigrants, and begins to understand the issues that connect people, regardless of the invisible lines which separate them.
In part one of Fresh Off the Boat - Moscow, Eddie takes his first shot of Russian vodka, chows down on some “communist dogs” with one of the few black Muscovites, and discusses the country’s diverse generation of millennials and their evolving ideologies.
Watch Fresh Off the Boat – Moscow, Part 1
We Interviewed the Russian Activist Who Nailed His Balls to Moscow’s Red Square
Every year, Russia honours its police force with a day-long commemoration called Police Day. This year, celebrations for the imaginatively named event fell on Sunday, November 10, and the public paid tribute to law enforcement by watching Vladimir Putin cry in public and Petr Pavlenskynail his testicles to the ground in Red Square.
Petr is a political artist who’s known for painful performance art—previously, he wrapped himself in barbed wire to protest his country’s “repressive legal system” and sewed his mouth shut as a show of support for Pussy Riot. This time, his self-mutilation was in service of decrying “Russia’s descent into a police state.” I called him up to chat about that.
VICE: You nailed your balls to the ground in Red Square the other day. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Petr Pavlensky: It’s not the power that keeps people by the balls, it’s the people who keep themselves restricted. Pretty soon everyone’s going to be in jail, but it won’t matter to anybody anymore because by then, the country will have transformed into a state prison regime.
You’re an artist, right? How much does that cross over into your activism?
I am an artist who does political art. Activism is important to me as a life principle—it’s the effect of primary and secondary reasoning and theorizing; no argument is without action. However, political art and activism are not the same thing. Activism is the struggle and shakeup of society; political art is aimed at the destruction and exposure of the apparatus of power. Under certain circumstances, it is a catalyst to the political process.
Which of those do you focus on?
I’m focused on political art.
Moscow Is a Paradise
Sasha Mademuaselle's favorite city is Moscow, which isn't all that surprising given it's where she was born and raised. Sasha says that what she particularly loves about her hometown is “the freedom the youth have,” which—considering the recent news aboutPutin viciously restricting freedoms for young people—was kind of surprising.
Still, her photos are great, so we’ll just excuse that last part as narrative license and enjoy all the naked people, dinosaurs, and creepy tattoos instead.
Moscow’s Real-Life Fight Club Looks Insane
It will surprise approximately zero people that Russia took the film Fight Club really fucking seriously. It is a place that has depressing violence hardwired into its DNA, whether that manifests itself in outbreaks of homophobic abuse, army hazings that lead to young men being castrated, or its president attempting to win hearts by striding around topless in the countryside killing things with a rifle.
In 2008, two former members of an underground bare-knuckle club in Moscow came up with the idea of starting their own IRL fight club. They called it the Ronin Family, and for just $900 any high-powered businessmen can enjoy a week of getting beaten up and humilitated in front of total strangers. According to its founders, the Ronin Family’s goal is to turn educated urbanites into real men by physically and psychologically torturing them.
Maria Turchenkova, a young Russian freelance photographer, spent a week documenting this bizarre boot camp. I spoke to her about what she saw.
VICE: Hi, Maria. First of all, how did you first hear about the Ronin Family?
Maria Turchenkova: I stumbled upon an ad for it on the internet. It read: “You are not what you have—your job, your car, or your bank account. If you want to change your life, find the warrior inside you and fight your inner enemy—come and join the next course!”
So I called the organizers and asked to do a story on them.
Easy breezy. And people have to pay to get access to the club?
Yes, all participants have to pay something like $900 for a week-long course. The trainers, however, were members of a real fight club, which I guess was the main attraction for the less battle-hardened. Any wannabe fighter would then have to present the club with a health certificate and go through an interview to be admitted.
Continue + more pictures
Moscow Is a Paradise
It’s easy to think of Moscow as a city of mausoleums, giant Lenin statues, and propaganda art museums, but photographer Igor Baranchuk insists his hometown is about so much more than post-communist sadness. To prove it, he sent us this set of pictures of people passing out, making out, and partying in the pit at the city’s nightclubs.
You should visit.
MEET KSENIA SOBCHAK: THE JANE FONDA OF RUSSIA’S DISSIDENT MOVEMENT
It was December 24 and 23 degrees in central Moscow—well below freezing—but the people on Sakharov Prospect barely registered the cold. Around 60,000 had clogged the broad boulevard. Earlier that month Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, had stolen the parliamentary elections with such brazenness that now, for the first time in ten years, Muscovites, roused from a decade of political apathy, had taken to the streets in protest. They chanted Freedom! They chanted Rights! They chanted Fair elections! For hours they chanted Russia without Putin! as if anything were possible.
Their march had ended here, on Sakharov Prospect, where organizers had set up a sound system and a stage. As clouds rolled across Moscow’s low skyline, a blond in a puffy white jacket and jeans approached the microphone. Her face, among the most famous in Russia, flashed onto the giant screen behind her. “My name is Ksenia Sobchak,” she said. “And I have a lot to lose.”
It must have started with oneboo. Then one turned to two, to three, and immediately it felt like the whole crowd was heckling her: “Fuck you!” “Get off the stage!” “Leave!” “Go fuck yourself!” “Whore!” People gave her the finger. Others rolled their eyes. She plowed on, telling the audience they needed to take their country back, to form a political party everyone could get behind, but it was almost impossible to make out what she was saying over the riot of jeers.
The American press calls her Russia’s Paris Hilton, but Sobchak is a far more prominent figure in Russia than Hilton ever was in America. She herself points out, 97 percent of Russians know who she is, even if most of them don’t like her. Only two living Russians enjoy better name recognition: Three-term president Vladimir Putin and one-term president Dmitri Medvedev.
Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, an early champion of democracy and capitalism, was the first elected mayor of St. Petersburg. He singlehandedly launched Putin’s political career, and Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. In 1996, her father spiraled spectacularly to disgrace. He faced imprisonment on corruption charges, which he evaded with Putin’s help, by going into exile. When Boris Yeltsin turned Russia over to Putin, the charges disappeared and Anatoly Sobchak returned to Russia. He died in 2000 on the campaign trail for Putin. Ksenia, meanwhile, made a name for herself hosting a reality show called Dom-2 about a group of young people tasked with building a house on the outskirts of Moscow. The content combined the worst of Jersey Shore, The Real OC, and Tila Tequila. It was scandalous, deliciously addictive, and intellectually bankrupt programming. She posed for Russian Playboy, Maxim, and FHM; co-wrotePhilosophy in the Boudoir and How to Marry a Millionaire. She hosted decadent parties, dated oligarchs, and wrote a column for Russian GQ. In short, she came to embody Russia’s new heady, careless, apolitical glamour.
Then, last year, she underwent a mystifying transformation. She traded her reality show for a political talk show. She broke up with her boyfriend, a government official, and started dating an opposition leader. She climbed on stages and addressed massive street rallies. Russia’s Paris Hilton had turned into a Russian Jane Fonda, or so it seemed.
No one knows quite what to make of the change. Sobchak could be anything, the Russian blogosphere speculated: A Trojan horse sent by the Kremlin, a spy, a turncoat, a neophyte politician striving to be on the right side of history, a confused and bored celebrity trying to finally grow up, or a lustful 30-year-old with stunted psychological development caught up in the most exciting moment of her adult life.