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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Book review: The Immortalization Commission

The desire for immortality is as old as humanity itself. Gray’s book explores two attempts to escape the finiteness of our life on earth.

The immortalisation commission was established after Lenin’s death, to preserve his body. The Bolsheviks had faith that one day science would be able to restore life to sufficiently well-preserved corpses so all that was required for Lenin’s immortality was that his corpse be preserved until that day. In the meantime, the comrade’s mausoleum is open to curious Moscow tourists.

A central concept of Bolshevik socialism is that society progresses over long periods of time in a way that transcends the life of any individual. Mortality affects us individually, while the society we build is immortal. This provides context for Stalin’s terrors, in which the acceleration of society’s progress entailed a corresponding acceleration of mortality for individuals who stood in the way.

In contrast to large-scale Soviet rejection of religion, the book portrays Bolshevism as religion by another name. Gray digresses from his main theme to provide a graphic and detailed account of these terrors. I read the book on a long train journey from Lviv to Mukachevo in Ukraine, so I found his account of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and subsequent Ukrainian famine particularly poignant.

The other half of Gray’s book documents efforts to contact the dead within the spiritualism movement. Nowadays, we might be inclined to dismiss the spiritualist church as a fringe religion, undeserving of serious scientific attention. The reverse, however, was the case in late nineteenth century England. So-called ‘automatic writing’, received during spiritualist séances, was interpreted as messages from beyond the grave. Leading scientists and writers of the day devised elaborate experiments involving sealed documents left by the dying, and statistical analysis applied to volumes recorded automatic writing.

A small cadre of intellectuals, influential in both London and Moscow, form an intricate chain that joins the two halves of the book. Gray gives a particularly entertaining account of the pivotal Russian siren and KGB agent Moura Budberg, half-sister to Nick Clegg’s great-grandmother, twice married and also enjoying affairs with Bruce Lockhart, HG Wells and Maxim Gorky.

Stylistically, the book is tedious. A long string of anecdotes are individually entertaining but mostly peripheral to the main thrust of the book. An account of failed movements is not to be expected to end in a triumphant finale, but this book disappointingly fizzles out leaving many loose ends. It is a book easy to put down and took real effort of the will to get through to the end in order to write this review. Read the book because it will improve you, not for the enjoyment.

Has Gray’s writing any actuarial relevance? Life insurers are unlikely to avoid claims on the basis that the policyholder still lives beyond the grave. Instead, it provides an insight of how odd scientific endeavour can look with the passage of time, when the motivations have changed.

The late nineteenth century saw a philosophical crisis. The concepts of self-interest and ethical behaviour towards others were seen as reconcilable only by a belief in an afterlife involving retribution for unethical behaviour. Darwinism appeared to imply that humans shared the same ephemeral nature as other animals.

The philosophical edifice could stand only if, contrary to Darwinism, some proof of life after death could be found. Science’s entanglement with spiritualism was the result of this quest. While that particular quest was in vain, the temptation to write the conclusions and then back-fill the research remains with us. Much of what we now consider as actuarial science may look as odd to our successors as automatic writing does to us.

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Andrew Smith is head of capital markets at Deloitte, London