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Science Behind the Fiction: Stranger Things hints at the Soviet Union's real and terrifying experiments

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Jul 10, 2019, 2:36 PM EDT (Updated)

Netflix is back with another season of Stranger Things and it's stranger and thingier than ever before. The Duffer Brothers' breakout hit series has always been just as much about '80s nostalgia as horror or adventure, and in the same way, Stranger Things isn't just about the pop culture of the era, but also the politics of the time. That's true of Season 3 in whole new ways.

**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.**

There are still references to popular culture, allusions to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter's The Thing are most readily apparent, but this time around, geopolitics also enters the frame when the threat of the Upside Down is complicated by the arrival of Russian operatives in Hawkins.

The implications here are layered, as both Body Snatchers and The Thing are considered by some to have been veiled commentaries on the ongoing Red Scare of the decade. Both stories deal with the question of whether or not your friends and neighbors can be trusted. Are they who they seem to be, or have they been co-opted by nefarious actors?

In Stranger Things Season 3, Hawkins has been invaded by a similar threat. The Russians have learned of the Upside Down and want to use it to their own ends. After discovering that the veil between worlds is particularly thin in Hawkins, owing to the events of the previous two seasons, the Russians have built a machine beneath the mall with the sole purpose of opening a doorway. And open it they do.

The Mind Flayer returns, all sorts of pissed off after being shut out by Eleven and ready to enact its revenge.

Stranger Things goes to some new places this season, and for the most part, it's successful. Part of the reason for that success is the rooting of the threat in reality. The supernatural elements you've come to expect are still present — there are superpowers and monsters from beyond the edge of the world — but the line between friend and foe, between human and monster, is blurred. And that makes it all the more terrifying.

Season 3 plays like an urban legend you might have heard growing up during the '80s. The notion of secret Soviet scientists unleashing a terrible threat was just the sort of thing that got passed around at the time, and for good reason. At the time, the USSR still represented a threat to the American way of life. There was, of course, the constant threat of nuclear war, but there was also the threat of quiet infiltration. And in the pre-internet age, rumors spread from person to person, twisting with every retelling, and entirely untraceable.

While the stories told in the third season of Stranger Things aren't rooted in reality, and there's no public evidence of actual Russian experiments being carried out in the United States at the time, like all good rumors, those legends had a nugget of truth.

Here are a few of the bizarre experiments carried out by Soviet scientists during the Cold War era.


Ilya Ivanov was a Russian born scientist practicing in the early 20th century. He made a name for himself as a pioneer in the field of artificial insemination, and his original focus was the perfection of domestic animals. In 1901, he founded the first center for artificially inseminating horses.

Ivanov understood, more than his contemporaries, the process by which impregnation occurred and he quickly became a well-known name in his field.

Unsatisfied with the success he'd achieved, though, he turned his attention away from revolutionizing the way familiar species were bred and toward the creation of hybrid species. Ivanov eventually produced, through artificial insemination, a zebra-donkey hybrid and a European bison-cow hybrid.

These successes cemented in his mind the possibility of crossing closely related species, which opened up the possibility of human hybrids.

In 1924, Ivanov proposed an experiment to create offspring of human and non-human ape decent. The reason for this attempt is still unknown, but it's entirely likely that Ivanov was simply enamored by the possibilities of his research and unencumbered by the limitations of modern scientific ethics. Still others speculate that he was motivated by the politics of the time, attempting to discredit religious ideologies by playing fast and loose with humanity.

Whatever the reason, Ivanov embarked on a journey to acquire apes with which to enact his experiments. Attempts were made to impregnate female apes with human sperm. Ivanov's experiments did not result in any viable fetuses and he was eventually exiled to Kazakhstan and died soon after, never having achieved his goal.


Vladimir Demikhov is yet another Soviet scientist who pioneered very real and valuable science but became infamous for his more fringe work. Born to Russian peasants, Demikhov went on to create the first artificial heart and implant it into a dog successfully. He was instrumental in the development of transplant technology.

Demikhov first developed an external cardiac assist device that could take over the function of the heart for approximately five hours. Later, he performed the first successful heart, lung, and heart-lung transplants in any mammal. In July of 1953, he performed the first coronary bypass surgery. There is no question that Demikhov was instrumental in the progress of transplant procedures, the effects of which are still felt today.

But he would go down in history as a mad scientist for experiments he carried out in 1954, transplanting the head of a dog onto the intact body of another, resulting in a two-headed animal.

Eventually, 20 such experiments were carried out, in which the upper body of a smaller dog was transplanted onto the intact body of a larger one. The most successful of these experiments survived for one month.


Sergei Brukhonenko was a graduate of Moscow University Medical School and set to the task of keeping individual organs alive outside of the body. Bukhonenko did eventually develop a method by which he could keep the lungs and the heart of animals functioning outside of the body.

The next step, of course, was to devise an apparatus with which he could connect a functioning heart and set of lungs to a head and deliver oxygenated blood.

In 1925, he announced to a congress of Russian pathologists that he succeeded in just that. The result was a Frankensteinian device of lungs, heart, head, and tubes animating a dog's head after death.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw, after hearing about the procedure, remarked, "I am greatly tempted to have my head cut off so that I may continue to dictate plays and books independently of any illness, without having to dress and undress or eat or do anything at all but to produce masterpieces of dramatic art and literature."

The totality of Soviet experimentation in biology amounted to drastic improvements in medical procedures that have positively impacted humanity throughout the past century but left a legacy of the Soviet mad scientist fueling speculation, fear, and urban legend.

These activities make for perfect narrative fuel and, though they often disregarded modern ethical concerns, we can't disregard the advances that came as a result of these bizarre experiments.

Perhaps it's time we reconsider the way we view those Soviet scientists and move them from the realm of villainy to something else.

Until then, there's always Stranger Things 3, on Netflix, now.