By Nikolai Krementsov, PhD, (University of Toronto)
Among the many old motion pictures shelved in the collection of the National Library of Medicine is a uniquely strange two-reel 16 millimeter film, with an ungainly title: Neural and Humoral Factors in the Regulation of Bodily Functions (Research on Conjoined Twins). It was produced by the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow in 1957, but the making of it stretched across two decades, from the time of Joseph Stalin’s “Great Terror” to Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, known as the “Thaw.” Its first frames were shot in 1937 with the birth of the conjoined twins Ira and Galia. Its last frames, shot in 1957, document the seventh birthday celebration of a second pair of twins, Masha and Dasha. The film now stands as the only substantial record of the research conducted on these two pairs—no significant scholarly publications ever appeared. It also stands as a precious record of a few select moments in the conjoined lives of Masha and Dasha (who will be discussed at the end of this article). And it offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of both Soviet physiology and Soviet “scientific cinema.”
The film is a bit of a mystery. Never intended to reach beyond a narrow specialist audience, to an attentive viewer it presents numerous puzzles, beginning with its very presence in the United States, in the collection of the National Library of Medicine (which has no records of the film’s provenance). But the puzzles get more complicated. The occurrence of conjoined twins with a common blood circulation, but separate nervous systems, presented researchers with unique opportunities for the study of a variety of interesting questions, not only in physiology, but also psychology, genetics, immunology, embryology, and child development. But Research on Conjoined Twinsfocuses exclusively on the relative role of “neural and humoral factors in the regulation of bodily functions.” Indeed, the entire movie is nothing more than an exposition of Ivan Pavlov’s views on the subject.
Pavlov (1849–1936), best known for his experiments on conditional reflexes in dogs, was Russia’s first Nobel Prize winner and the doyen of Soviet physiology. Following the long-standing Russian medical tradition of “nervism,” Pavlov emphasized the dominant role of the nervous system in the organism’s physiology and behavior, and largely ignored the role of humoral factors, such as blood chemistry and endocrine gland secretion (a blind spot which nearly cost him his Nobel Prize). Yet, while the film is thoroughly imbued with Pavlovian lingo and concepts, the man himself is inexplicably absent. In the 1950s, iconic portraits of Pavlov graced every Soviet physiology textbook, but his name and image never appear in Research on Conjoined Twins. This omission is all the more puzzling given that the film’s “research director” (as he is identified in the credits), Petr Anokhin (1898–1974), was Pavlov’s student and protégé from the early 1920s on. Anokhin actively helped to build the myth of Pavlov as a heroically “Soviet” scientist in numerous articles and wrote a 400-page-long biography of his teacher and patron. Why then did he pass up the opportunity to publicly emphasize (as he had so often in the past) his personal connections to the “founding father” of Soviet physiology? Another puzzle is the very brief appearance of Anokhin himself—only a cameo in the film’s last few frames. But that twenty-second-long stint provides a clue to the puzzles which lay hidden behind the film’s striking visuals, questions about the entwined histories of physiology, studies of conjoined twins, and “scientific cinema” in the Soviet Union.
Ivan Pavlov and Soviet Scientific Film
Research on Conjoined Twins is a fine exemplar of a cinematographic genre—“scientific film,” as it was then called—that had a long and distinguished history in the Soviet Union. Following the rebirth of the Russian movie industry after the end of the bloody civil war that erupted in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, this genre occupied a prominent place in Soviet film production and distribution efforts. Practically all movie studios, both state- and privately-owned, made scientific films, while industry distributors bought hundreds of foreign-made films for screening around the country. In just a few years, by the end of 1926, the total number of scientific films in circulation had reached 746 (though only 118 had been produced locally). Subjects ranged widely: from prevention of venereal diseases, to electrification of the country, to physical development of the human organism, to manufacturing of cloth from cotton. Some films were short, under five minutes. Others ran longer than two hours. Some were addressed to specialists, others to general audiences. Some were mere recordings of scientific experiments, medical procedures, and biological or technological processes. Others were elaborate productions based on carefully written scripts with professional actors and film directors. These films became part and parcel of the huge education and propaganda campaigns to popularize science and undermine religion, waged by the country’s new Bolshevik rulers. But cinematography also attracted the attention of scientists who began to employ it as a tool in research.
Physiology figured prominently among the subjects of Soviet scientific films, both in propaganda and research. Physiologists were among the first to exploit the new possibilities offered by cinematography to record their investigations and popularize their findings. One of the first Soviet-made full-length scientific films was produced by Leonid Voskresenskii, Pavlov’s former student, a professor of physiology at the Tver Pedagogical Institute. But this motion picture had nothing to do with Pavlovian physiology. Beginning in 1923, Voskresenskii was deeply involved with studies of “rejuvenation,” inspired by the extraordinarily popular work of Austrian physiologist Eugene Steinach and French surgeon (of Russian extraction) Serge Voronoff. Voskresenskii’s research aimed to replicate Steinach’s and Voronoff’s experiments with vasectomy and sex gland transplantation. Not to be outdone by Western colleagues who had already made movies about their research, Voskresenskii also documented on film his own experiments (conducted over three years) with “rejuvenating” animals and humans. His full-length silent motion picture (7 reels, 1885 meters), titled Who Needs to be Rejuvenated, opened in Moscow in the early fall of 1925. Accompanied by lectures on rejuvenation and press interviews by its producer, the film made a triumphant tour all over the country and remained in the repertoire of Soviet movie theaters for many years. A year later, Voskresenskii wrote a screenplay for a full-length film, The Issue of Nutrition (1927), that aimed to explain the basic facts of human digestion and nutrition. While he was deeply engaged in producing scientific films for non-scientific audiences, he also proselytized for the value of cinematography as a research tool among his fellow-physiologists.
Voskresenskii’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker was The Mechanics of the Brain (1926), the most famous Soviet scientific film of the 1920s. Intended for the general public, Mechanics attempted to explain the basic elements of Ivan Pavlov’s concept of conditional reflexes as the foundation of animal and human behavior. According to a prospectus issued by Amkino (the agency representing the Soviet movie industry in the United States), “within the limits of a six-reel motion picture,” the film covers “twenty-seven years of uninterrupted thinking concerning the nature of animal and human behavior, and is…an animated photographic record of the experiments and studies of a single individual, Professor Pavlov.” Pavlov himself, however, was not involved in the film’s production and, according to his biographer Daniel P. Todes, “did not—and in some cases would not—conduct” many of the experiments portrayed in the film, for instance, experiments with conditional reflexes in children.
According to the credits, the film was scripted and directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin, a rising star of Soviet cinematography, and produced by the Soviet-German joint-stock movie company “Mezhrabpom-Rus’.” It was Pudovkin’s first full-length motion picture, and he undoubtedly tried his best to direct and edit. But he lacked the expertise to write a script for such a sophisticated account of contemporary Soviet research on “higher nervous activity,” as Pavlov had defined the subject of his studies. The film’s credits, however, identify two “scientific consultants” who did have the requisite knowledge to do the job: Dmitrii Fursikov and Leonid Voskresenskii. Both were former students and collaborators of Pavlov, and were deeply involved in research on conditional reflexes and higher nervous activity. Indeed, at the time the film went into production, Fursikov was director and Voskresenskii deputy-director of a brand new Institute for the Studies of Higher Nervous Activity, recently established under the auspices of the Communist Academy—a Bolshevik counterpart to the “bourgeois” Russian Academy of Sciences. And both had conducted the kinds of experiments which Pavlov himself did not and would not do!
It seems likely that the very idea of producing the film emerged from within the walls of the Communist Academy. With the huge success of his film on rejuvenation under his belt, Voskresenskii likely originated the idea and then “sold” it to his long-time friend Fursikov. Who in turn might well have sold it to his patrons in the Presidium of the Communist Academy, which was composed of high-level Bolsheviks. Two members of the Presidium would likely have taken a special interest in the idea. The first was Nikolai Bukharin, the Bolshevik Party’s leading theoretician and member of its highest council, the Politburo, who had two years earlier had published a sixty-page essay praising Pavlov’s scientific work, but disparaging his “unscientific” attitude toward the Bolshevik Revolution. Bukharin remained keenly interested in Pavlov’s research. The second was Anatolii Lunacharskii, the Soviet “Commissar of Enlightenment,” whose movie-script Bear’s Wedding was at that very time in production at the Mezhrabpom-Rus’ studio. Either one (or both) of them could have suggested that the studio undertake the production of a film about Pavlov’s research. Whatever the case, the studio did take up the project. And although Pudovkin was undeniably responsible for the film’s cinematographic techniques and artistic qualities, its contents clearly show that it was Fursikov and Voskresenskii who defined and shaped the film’s scientific substance and ideological message.
The Mechanics of the Brain opened in Moscow in November 1926. While not a commercial success—the studio did recover its costs of about 30,000 rubles—it served its propaganda function quite well. In subsequent years it was regularly shown in theaters throughout the country and was still in the repertoire as late as the mid-1930s. It was also shown abroad. In March 1928, it was screened at a special meeting of the New York Society of Clinical Psychiatry, held at the New York Academy of Medicine. That screening was accompanied by a lecture by Howard Scott Liddell, an assistant professor of Cornell University, who had visited Pavlov’s laboratory in Leningrad just two years prior. Two months later, the film was screened at the New York City Town Hall, this time with commentary provided by the “father” of behaviorism, John B. Watson. Over the next few months the film had regular showings in movie theaters across the city.
Although Pavlov did not take part in the production of the movie, he apparently was quite pleased with the results. In the summer of 1932, he brought The Mechanics of the Brain to the 14th International Congress of Physiological Sciences in Rome. During its screening there he reportedly supplied congress participants with a personal commentary, and then left his copy of the film for his host, Carlo Foà, chairman of the Department of Human Physiology at the University of Milan Medical School, who went on to use it in his courses in the subsequent years.
Despite the success of The Mechanics of the Brain, Pavlov himself never employed cinematography in his own research. But some of his former students did: Voskresenskii used it in studies of primate behavior undertaken under his supervision at the Sukhumi primate-breeding station during 1928–1930. Voskresenskii tried to interest Pavlov in studying higher nervous activity in primates, but Pavlov remained faithful to his favorite research subject—dogs. Other colleagues did take up cinematography. In the early 1930s, at Koltushi, a “science village” built for Pavlov’s studies on the outskirts of Leningrad, several of his collaborators recorded on film their experiments on the behavior of chimpanzees.
But then the use of scientific cinema as a tool for both propaganda and research got “institutionally” separated. In the late 1920s–early 1930s, the country was plunged into a new revolution—the “revolution from above.” Stalin began to consolidate his power over the Bolshevik party, and consolidate the power of the party apparatus over the nation, in order to implement his policies of crash industrialization, the forced collectivization of the peasantry, and extensive militarization. The “Great Break,” as Stalin named it, inaugurated drastic changes in all facets of life. Private initiative and the market were suppressed and a total state monopoly over resources, production, and distribution was established, which led to the emergence of a system of strict centralized controls, administrative fiat, and greatly diminished local and individual autonomy, enforced by the creation of gigantic bureaucratic and secret-police apparatuses.
Both science and the movie industry were profoundly affected. The abolition of private enterprise spelled the end of privately owned movie companies and theaters. The production and distribution of all films was concentrated in a few state studios, administered by Soiuzkino, a special agency created in 1930. The state expanded the manufacture of equipment and materials for the movie industry, but strictly controlled both the production of new films and the repertoire of movie theaters. The new institutional structures and ideological strictures further stimulated the production of scientific films for educational and propaganda purposes. And Pavlovian physiology provided perfect opportunities for both.
During the early 1930s, several educational films for use in high schools and universities depicted Pavlovian-style experiments with conditional and unconditional reflexes. But these educational films reached only limited audiences. In contrast, propaganda films reached nearly everyone. In the summer of 1935, at Pavlov’s invitation, the 15th International Congress of Physiological Sciences met in the Soviet Union. The congress became a vehicle to showcase “advances of Soviet science,” both domestically and internationally, in numerous news reels. Highlights included greetings by Soviet officials and the opening speech by Pavlov, the congress’s president, as well as a banquet at the Kremlin and excursions organized for foreign participants.
Pavlov died the next summer. His death occasioned the production of a special documentary, Academician Ivan Pavlov (1936), with footage of Pavlov at work in his lab, with students and family, with British author H.G. Wells, and, of course, delivering speeches at the congress. The film also extensively covered Pavlov’s state funeral, which was attended by the luminaries of the Soviet government and Soviet science.
The perceived importance of science and technology in Stalin’s “Great Break” led to the enlargement of government support for science, providing funding for a vast expansion of the network of scientific institutions and personnel, while simultaneously limiting the considerable autonomy enjoyed by the scientific community in the previous decade. The creation in 1932 of the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine (VIEM) effectively centralized all scientific activity in biomedical fields. VIEM quickly absorbed practically all biomedical research institutions, and established branches in cities throughout the country. As part of this gigantic enterprise (run by one of Pavlov’s collaborators), a special VIEM “department of scientific photo- and cinematography” was created. Similar departments were established within the rapidly growing USSR Academy of Sciences, and in Moscow and Leningrad universities.
During this period, cinematography became a standard research tool in many fields of biomedical science. And so, in 1937 when the conjoined twins, Ira and Galia, were born, Petr Anokhin began his experiments before the motion-picture camera.
Petr Anokhin’s Conjoined Twins Research
Government propaganda and professional publications (by Anokhin, among many others) hailed Ivan Pavlov as a quintessentially “Soviet” scientist. That carefully constructed heroic narrative was fully fictitious, a myth. Pavlov came into the academic medical research long before the Revolution and worked on research subjects which fit broadly within the scope of the research that colleagues across Europe and all over the world were doing. He openly criticized the Bolshevik project and Soviet policies almost up to the end of his life. Anokhin was a more fitting claimant for the title of Soviet scientist. He belonged to the cohort who came of age during the first years of the Soviet regime and was profoundly shaped by it. Born in 1898 to the family of a railroad worker in Tsaritsyn (today’s Volgograd) in the south of the Russian Empire, young Anokhin began his education at a “real school” (an analogue of the German Realschulewhich mixed vocational with academic subjects). In 1915 he entered an agricultural college in Novocherkask, the capital of the Don Region. He probably planned to become an agronomist or a land prospector—the two specializations offered by the college—but the Bolshevik Revolution dramatically changed the life of his homeland and opened unexpected opportunities for the son of a worker.
The civil war that followed the Revolution raged with particular fury in the Don Region, a stronghold of the “White Guard” fighting against the Bolshevik “Red Army.” Anokhin joined the Bolsheviks and fought on the front lines. By 1920, at the end of the civil war, he had become a member of the Novocherkask City Soviet, the press and finance commissar of the Don Republic, and the editor-in-chief of its main newspaper, Red Don. In early 1921, Anatolii Lunacharskii, the Commissar of Enlightenment in Lenin’s government, visited Novocherkask and met the young Bolshevik. The chance encounter was fateful. Reportedly, Anokhin shared with Lunacharskii his dream of studying the human psyche. At Lunacharskii’s directive, Anokhin was sent to Petrograd (renamed Leningrad after Lenin’s death in 1924) to become a student at the State Institute of Medical Knowledge created and run by Vladimir Bekhterev, Russia’s foremost neurologist and psychiatrist, under the aegis of the Commissariat of Enlightenment.
Anokhin proved to be a quick study. The next year, while training at Bekhterev’s institute, he began research on the mechanisms of internal inhibition in Pavlov’s laboratory. By the time he graduated in 1926, Anokhin had published several articles on Pavlov’s work in popular science magazines and delivered a report on his own research to the Second All-Union Physiology Congress. The same year, on Pavlov’s recommendation, he was appointed lecturer in physiology at the Leningrad Zootechnical Institute. For the next few years, along with his teaching duties, he continued research in Pavlov’s laboratory on a variety of subjects, ranging from the particularities of blood circulation in the brain to the neural mechanisms of inhibition. He published his results in leading Russian and German physiology journals and reported on them at various conferences.
In 1930, again on Pavlov’s recommendation, Anokhin was appointed professor and chairman of the physiology department at a new medical school created in Nizhnii Novgorod, a large industrial center in the Volga Region. He proved to be not only a talented researcher, but also a capable administrator. In just a few years, Anokhin built from scratch one of the best physiology laboratories in the country. In 1933 he managed to make it a branch of the rapidly expanding VIEM, tapping into the huge flow of resources allocated to the flagship institution of Soviet biomedicine. In Nizhnii Novgorod, Anokhin began to develop his concept of “functional system” as the basic principle in the organization of brain activity. For the first time, he formulated the principle of a neural back-loop (“return afferentation,” he named it), which, he argued, played a key role in the formation of purposeful and adaptive behavior. In the summer of 1935, he presented the outlines of his argument to the 15th International Congress of Physiological Sciences. Shortly after the congress, Anokhin was transferred to Moscow and appointed head of a new “department of neurophysiology” created by VIEM expressly to support his research.
Among the numerous subjects Anokhin had pursued over the years was the interaction of humoral and neural mechanisms in various physiological processes, particularly in sleep. So, when, in early 1937, he learned of the birth in one of Moscow’s hospitals of the conjoined twins Ira and Galia, he immediately realized that he was presented with a unique opportunity. Although Ira and Galia had two separate hearts (whose rhythms did not coincide), they shared a circulatory blood system. Their nervous systems were completely separate. Thus they could serve as a rare “natural tool” for studying the interplay between neural and humoral factors. Anokhin quickly organized a cross-institutional research group and put in charge Tatiana Alekseeva, one of his first graduate students in Nizhnii Novgorod and a long-time collaborator. He also arranged for a film crew from the VIEM department of scientific photo- and cinematography to record it (some of that footage was included in the 1957 film).
Alekseeva developed a broad research program aimed at investigating the role of neural and humoral factors in various physiological processes, including appetite, pain, temperature regulation, and sleep. Unfortunately, for reasons that remain unknown, the twins lived for only sixteen months and the program could not be completed. Given the unavailability of archival materials, we cannot say how much Anokhin personally contributed to this research. Nevertheless, in late 1938 he published in a popular-science magazine a long article on one facet of the program, the study of sleep.
Anokhin opened that article with an overview of the main competing theories of sleep, neural and humoral. The neural theory assigned the leading role in the development of sleep to the central nervous system, though its adherents disagreed on the exact localization of the “sleep centers.” Pavlov argued that the brain cortex was primarily responsible and that sleep was merely a particular manifestation of the basic neural process of inhibition (which he and his collaborators, including Anokhin, had investigated in various experiments). Other physiologists thought that the “sleep centers” were located in subcortical areas (thalamus and hypothalamus were prime suspects). In contrast, the humoral theory (developed in the 1910s by French physiologists Rene Legendre and Henri Pieron) assigned the leading role in the development of sleep to the accumulation in the blood of certain metabolic products, named “hypnotoxins.” In 1938 it had many supporters.
With a shared blood circulation, but completely separate nervous systems, Ira and Galia were an ideal research subject for a “natural” experiment that investigated the claims of the two competing theories. Numerous observations of the twins’ sleep patterns demonstrated that one could remain awake while the other was asleep. These observations seemed to undermine the hypnotoxin theory. And this is exactly how the 1957 film interpreted it: “The simultaneous existence of both states, sleep and wakefulness, … is direct proof of the crucial role of the nervous system in sleep occurrence, which speaks against the humoral theory of sleep.” Yet in contrast to the rigid, uncompromising formulation of these facts in the 1957 film, the 1938 article offered a much more nuanced, “dialectical” interpretation: “It would be wrong to think that our data obtained in research on conjoined twins, completely negates the influence of certain blood components on the entire process of sleep.” Referring to research by various foreign and Soviet investigators (including his own studies on the influence of potassium bromide on sleep), Anokhin stated that, “along with the nervous mechanisms, certain humoral factors do play a role in the development of sleep.”
The Pavlovian Sessions
Why then did Anokhin drop this “dialectical” approach to the interplay of nervous and humoral factors in the 1957 film?
The second pair of the conjoined twins, Masha and Dasha, were born in January 1950. The dozen years which had passed since the end of research on Ira and Galia were momentous, and full of trauma. It began in the midst of the Great Terror, went through the horrors of World War II and the famine-punctuated post-war years of rebuilding and reconstruction, and ended with full outbreak of Cold War between the former war-time Allies. Anokhin, lucky to have survived all that, quickly rose to the top of the Soviet scientific bureaucracy.
At the start of the war, Anokhin joined a Moscow hospital as a neurosurgeon. He specialized in trauma to the peripheral nerves and developed novel techniques for the transplantation and regeneration of damaged nerves. As Moscow came under threat, the personnel of the hospital were evacuated and he spent several years in the rear, in Siberia. At the end of the war he returned to Moscow to become head of a major division, and then director, of a large institute of physiology created under the auspices of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences (that had been established on the basis of VIEM in 1944). He became a member of the Academy and its governing body, the Presidium, and came to head the Academy’s Secretariat and Planning Commission, a position of much influence and responsibility, which he cleverly used to further enhance his standing within the community of Soviet physiologists.
After his death, Pavlov was enshrined as a “great Soviet scientist” and his doctrine of higher nervous activity canonized. Almost every Soviet physiologist claimed to be Pavlov’s pupil and a cultivator of “Pavlov’s legacy.” Various groups and individuals successfully used Pavlov’s name as a rhetorical umbrella to legitimate their own research not only in physiology, but also in psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and even hygiene. Anokhin was no exception. Between 1936 and1946, he published dozens of articles in various venues about “the great Soviet scientist and patriot” Pavlov, the “school” of Pavlov, and his own efforts to “develop further Pavlov’s legacy.” He tried to legitimize his own concept of functional system as a direct continuation of Pavlov’s ideas and to position himself as heir apparent to his teacher’s intellectual and institutional legacy. He succeeded in the first task, but not the second.
It was Leon Orbeli, Pavlov’s oldest and most respected pupil, who became the official spokesman for physiology in the party-state apparatus and the official “guardian” of Pavlov’s legacy. He “inherited” Pavlov’s institutes in Koltushi and Leningrad, became member of the governing bodies of both the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and headed the Military Medical Academy, the country’s premier medical school. Other students of Pavlov attempted to challenge Orbeli’s position and initiated various intrigues to get a piece of Pavlov’s legacy for themselves, but their efforts proved futile. After the end of the war such attempts greatly intensified, especially within the Academy of Medical Sciences. Anokhin was one of their main architects and instigators.
In the fall of 1948, in the wake of Trofim Lysenko’s infamous campaign against genetics, Anokhin played a leading role in establishing “unbreakable links” between Lysenko’s “Michurinist biology” and Pavlovian physiology, and used the newly concocted image of “Pavlov the Michurinist” to undermine Orbeli’s position. This greatly damaged Orbeli’s standing with the party-state apparatus, but Anokhin’s efforts backfired. At a special “Pavlovian” session, convened jointly by the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences in the summer of 1950, Anokhin was condemned, alongside Orbeli, for “perverting Pavlov’s legacy” and discharged from all administrative positions. He was “exiled” to Riazan, a large city about one hundred miles southeast of Moscow (ironically, Riazan was Pavlov’s hometown), and appointed professor (later chairman) of physiology department at Riazan Medical School. It was exactly at this time that he commenced research on Masha and Dasha.
Once again, Tatiana Alekseeva assumed a leadership role and designed a program that in many ways recapped the research conducted on Ira and Galia. Masha and Dasha were placed in the Institute of Pediatrics of the Academy of Medical Sciences, where the experiments were to be conducted and filmed. In the aftermath of the “Pavlovian session,” an atmosphere of strict orthodoxy prevailed—stringently enforced by a special watchdog body, the “Scientific Council on the Issues of the Physiological Doctrine of Academician I. P. Pavlov” (created jointly by the two academies in order to oversee all physiological research in the country). Any deviation from narrowly Pavlovian interpretations of experimental data was obviously out of the question. That perhaps explains why, in the 1957 film, the interpretation of the twins’ sleep patterns was so much more rigid and strictly “Pavlovian” than in Anokhin’s 1938 article. It may also explain why Pavlov is never invoked in the film. For Anokhin, who had been repeatedly forced to publicly confess his “mistakes in the development of I. P. Pavlov’s teaching” and who had to promise to find “ways of correcting them,” the appearance in his own work of a portrait (or the exact words) of the “Great Teacher” could be construed as “sacrilege” and entail unpleasant repercussions. Anokhin clearly followed the Biblical dictum “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” and tried to avoid provoking “Pavlov’s watch-dogs.”
But it was not just Soviet physiology that was thoroughly “Pavlovized”: all related disciplines were subjected to the same process. Between 1950 and 1952, special “Pavlovian” sessions were held in psychiatry, pedagogy, neurology, and psychology. This perhaps explains why, despite the marked differences in the twins’ “higher nervous activity” (occasionally noted in the film’s running commentary), no research was directed at comparing their cognitive abilities, attention span, emotions, language acquisition, and many other psychological characteristics. Although the film ends with a mention of “the promising prospects in future studies for the assessment of neural and humoral factors in the mental life of the twins,” no further studies followed. On the basis of her experiments, Alekseeva published a few articles in specialized periodicals and prepared a dissertation for the degree of “Doctor of Medical Sciences.” But in 1959 she unexpectedly died. The materials she had collected over nearly twenty years of research remained unpublished. And so the 1957 film is the only available extensive record of her research.
Anokhin never again took part in studies of conjoined twins, even though in 1960 another pair was born in Moscow and studied extensively at the Institute of Pediatrics (reportedly also documented on film). Instead, he returned to research on functional systems. In the wake of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign that culminated in his famous “secret” speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956, the “Scientific Council on the Issues of the Physiological Doctrine of Academician I. P. Pavlov” was dismantled—just before the last frames of Research on Conjoined Twins were shot. The “deviationist” label, which had been affixed to Anokhin and his concept of functional system, was removed. And that perhaps explains why Anokhin appeared in the film’s last frames, shot in early 1957, but not in any of the previous shots.
Anokhin’s career took off again. But the debacle of the Pavlovian session had taught him a lesson: he avoided administrative intrigues and focused his formidable energies on research and teaching. By the time the film was finished, he had become professor and chairman of the physiology department at the First Moscow Medical Institute, the country’s oldest and most prestigious medical school. He had also headed two large physiological laboratories at two separate institutes of the Academy of Medical Sciences (the Institute of Normal and Pathological Physiology and the Institute of Surgery). In 1961 he was awarded the highest civilian decoration, the “Order of the Labor Red Banner”; a few years later he was elected to the USSR Academy of Sciences. Anokhin expanded his research on what was now called neuro-cybernetics, and got involved in the physiology of space flight. In 1968 the Academy of Sciences bestowed on him its highest honor in the field of physiology, a Pavlov Gold Medal, thus officially recognizing him as “Pavlov’s heir.” In 1972, for his monumental work Biology and Neurophysiology of the Conditional Reflex, he was awarded the highest Soviet scientific honor, a Lenin Prize. Anokhin died two years later, just a few months before a translation of his life work on functional systems would be issued in English.
Research on Conjoined Twins Comes to America
So how then did Research on Conjoined Twins end up at the National Library of Medicine? For the Soviet scientific community, one of the major results of Khrushchev’s “Thaw” was a partial restoration of international contacts, which had been completely severed after 1948. In 1958 Anokhin helped bring to Moscow a conference of the International Federation of Electroencephalography (IFEEG), attended by scientists from all over the world, including Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Japan, India, and the United States. During the conference, a group of Western and Soviet scientists, with Anokhin’s active involvement, discussed the idea of creating an International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). Two years later, IBRO was formally instituted and Anokhin became a member of its governing council.
Perhaps it was during the 1958 conference, or subsequent IBRO meetings, that Anokhin gave a copy of the film to one of his American colleagues, who turned it over to the NLM. Or maybe, in the early 1960s, when Anokhin’s research attracted the close attention of a number of eminent Western scientists, including Mary A.B. Brazier, Horace W. Magoun, Giuseppe Moruzzi, Wilder Penfield, and Norbert Wiener (all of whom visited Anokhin’s Moscow laboratories), he gave one of them a copy. Most likely, Anokhin himself brought the film to the United States. In 1968, the 25th International Congress of Physiological Sciences was held in Washington, DC. Anokhin was a member of the official Soviet delegation. Although his report to the congress had nothing to do with conjoined twins, perhaps, imitating his mentor Pavlov, Anokhin brought with him the cinematographic record of his research, and gave it to one of the congress organizers.
Whatever the case, thanks to the efforts of the NLM staff, the film is now available to anyone interested in the histories of Soviet physiology, conjoined twins, and scientific films, as well as the man who brought it all together, Petr Anokhin.
The Sisters Krivoshliapov
This article has focused on Anokhin and his film, but the two figures who got the most screen time—Masha and Dasha—have their own story, and it is not pretty. After the film was finished, Soviet scientists seem to have lost any interest in the sisters. Without access to archival materials, it is impossible to figure out why. Perhaps the death of Tatiana Alekseeva in 1959 played a role. Or maybe some administrative body, such as the Presidium of the Academy of Medical Sciences, decided to terminate the research. Whatever the case, I could find no trace of any further studies involving the twins.
Although the 1957 film was probably accessible to interested biomedical specialists, and maybe medical students, its viewers knew next to nothing about the “research subjects” it portrayed. The twins’ last name was not mentioned in the film or in any of the scientific publications reporting the research. The Soviet public was kept completely unaware of Masha and Dasha’s existence. Beyond the footage of Research on Conjoined Twins, little is known about the pair. The only source of information on the twins’ actual life are journalistic reports, based on Masha’s and Dasha’s recollections recorded in the late 1980s and 1990s. These reports are contradictory and clearly include plenty of journalistic invention. Their reliability is highly questionable, especially regarding the twins’ early years.
What we know with more or less certainty is this. Masha and Dasha were born by caesarean section on January 4, 1950, in a Moscow hospital, to Ekaterina and Mikhail Krivoshliapovs. The parents were told that the twins died at birth. The next seven years of their life in the Institute of Pediatrics are documented in the 1957 film. On camera, they seem happy and thriving, enjoying the attention they were getting from the scientists, nurses, teachers, and filmmakers. Yet every simple thing (such as sitting or standing) was a struggle. Doctors from the Central Institute of Orthopedics designed a special program of training and exercise to help the sisters develop necessary motor skills. It took Masha and Dasha almost two years, but, as shown in the film, by the age of seven they had learned how to walk using crutches and even to ride a tricycle—no mean feat given that each twin had a complete control of one leg, but no control of the other. Sometime in the early 1960s, the twins’ third vestigial leg (clearly visible in the film) was amputated. Along with the development of necessary motor skills, the sisters were schooled in all the subjects of a Soviet primary school curriculum (reading, writing, math, etc.).
Then, suddenly, their life at the Institute of Pediatrics came to an end. In 1964 Masha and Dasha were sent to a special boarding school for disabled children in Novocherkask (the very city where Anokhin had begun his career as a Bolshevik). According to the twins’ recollections, recorded some thirty years later, the school turned out to be a living hell. Their classmates shunned and bullied them. Masha and Dasha took up drinking and smoking (Masha preferred the latter, Dasha the former). With the help of Nadezhda Gorokhova, a physical therapy nurse who had cared for them at the Institute of Orthopedics, they “ran away” from the school and came to Moscow in 1970. For a year they stayed with the nurse. Finally, after overcoming numerous bureaucratic hurdles (one of which was getting two separate passports), the sisters were given a very small disability pension (sixty rubles a month for both of them) and placed in a “retirement home” on the outskirts of Moscow. Even though some individuals, including Anokhin, tried to help Masha and Dasha adjust to their “independent” life, the sisters largely kept to themselves to avoid the morbid curiosity and sordid proposals of nosy strangers. Alcohol became their constant companion, a not very fulfilling escape from the poverty, loneliness, emptiness, and sadness of life.
In the late 1980s, in the heyday of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost’, the Soviet public finally learned about the twins’ existence. A group of journalists, including Irina Krasnopol’skaia, a science correspondent of the popular daily Moscow Truth, Vladislav Listyev, the producer and anchor of the most popular “perestroika” TV program “Glance” (Vzgliad), and Valerii Golubtsov, a correspondent of the Soviet News Agency (APN), reported on Masha and Dasha’s dismal existence and appealed to the public for help. The appeal bore some fruit, helped the twins obtain better housing and financial assistance. A special bank account was set up for cash donations. Several individuals provided household items and clothing. A certain “Mr. Maier” brought the sisters a specially designed wheelchair.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rapidly “yellowing” Russian press made Masha and Dasha notorious. Tabloids had a field day with the stories of the twins’ alcoholism and sex life and alleged that their father had worked as a personal driver of Lavrentii Beria, Stalin’s most infamous executioner, implying that the sisters’ birth had been “proper punishment” for Beria’s associate. The highlight of their life in the early 1990s was a short visit to Germany. The sisters were deeply impressed: they stayed in an ordinary hotel, ate at ordinary restaurants, went everywhere they wanted. Nobody stared at them! They were treated as “ordinary persons.” Back in Russia, Dasha fell into deep depression, which she fought with the familiar medicine—alcohol. Journalists kept pestering the twins with requests for interviews, but for the most part the sisters refused. They made an exception to Juliet Butler, a British journalist stationed in Moscow, who recorded Masha’s and Dasha’s recollections of their life. These recordings provided the foundation for the sisters’ “autobiography” written by Butler and published in early 2000 in German and Japanese. Butler arranged for the sisters to get a portion of the royalties from the sale of the book. In October 2000, she was instrumental in getting Masha and Dasha featured in a special episode devoted to conjoined twins on the BBC2 documentary series Horizon. Their financial situation improved, but it did little to break the vicious circle of loneliness, isolation, and heavy drinking. The sisters’ health began to deteriorate. In April 2003, Masha died of a cardiac infarction. Seventeen hours later, Dasha followed. At the time of their death, Masha and Dasha were said to be the oldest living conjoined twins in the world.
Acknowledgments. I am profoundly grateful to Michael Sappol for inviting me to write this commentary on Research on Conjoined Twins and for providing numerous suggestions and edits, which improved tremendously the quality of the final text.
|Nikolai Krementsov is Professor at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology of the University of Toronto. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on the history of biomedical sciences in Russia and the Soviet Union.|