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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Body 'Art' Hits Home in Siberia

Prosecutors in Novosibirsk are investigating shipments of Russian corpses from the local medical academy to a German institute responsible for organizing a controversial exhibition of preserved human remains in Berlin.

NTV television reported that local prosecutors were looking into the export of 56 bodies and fragments of the brains of 400 people from the Novosibirsk Medical Academy to the Plastination Institute in Heidelberg, Germany.

The Berlin exhibition, called "Body Worlds," features 25 startling "full-body" displays made by replacing body fluids with plastic material — a process developed in 1978 by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, head of the Plastination Institute.

The NTV report showed patches of skin on one of the displays bearing tattoos described as a Russian Orthodox cross and the phrase "I won't forget you" in Russian — both popular among Soviet and Russian prisoners. Some Novosibirsk media have run indignant reports about the use of the bodies.

But in a recent interview with the German FAKT magazine, von Hagens denied that Russian bodies had been used in the current exhibition. He said the tattoos shown in the NTV report did not have Cyrillic letters and the body in question belonged to a German citizen "known to him personally."

Von Hagens confirmed receiving Russian corpses for his work, but said the first shipment came in October 2000, while his process for preserving anatomical "specimens" takes about a year.

Oleg Osintsev, first deputy head of Novosibirsk's customs service, told NTV that he would not give details on the investigation, which began last year. "I can only tell you that this is not a good situation," he said. Reached by telephone, customs officials declined to comment.

According to NTV, customs officials were concerned that the agreement between the Novosibirsk scientists and von Hagens' institute did not say the bodies would be returned to Russia and that the Siberian academy did not have statements from the deceased allowing their bodies to be used for scientific purposes.

However, Anatoly Yefremov, rector of the Novosibirsk Medical Academy, said in a telephone interview last week that the shipped corpses belonged to prisoners, homeless people and lonely pensioners and that none of the bodies had been claimed from the morgue within 30 days of death — which, under Russian law, allows them to be used in scientific research, as long as they are not part of a criminal investigation.

He said he had the documentation to confirm the bodies' origins and had provided customs officials with papers from the Health Ministry approving the project with von Hagens' institute, which involves the return of the exported bodies for use in teaching medical students.

Von Hagens' plastination process is supposed to produce odorless anatomical specimens that are safer to work with than those preserved using formalin, which emits toxic vapors.

Yefremov said the bodies must be transported back and forth several times so that different stages of the work could be done in different places. Von Hagens, whose spokesman said last week that he was abroad, told NTV that the Russian bodies had been sent to China for preliminary preservation work.

Yefremov said his academy was grateful to von Hagens for his assistance in creating a plastination center in Novosibirsk, which is now under way.

Russia is not the only former Soviet republic von Hagens has worked with.

Valery Gabitov, head of the surgery department at the Kyrgyz Medical Academy in Bishkek, said in a phone interview that his department has been working with von Hagens for six years, exchanging staff and materials.

Gabitov said the academy runs its own center with 1,000 plastinated specimens and that some of the bodies on display in Berlin came from there. He cited the same 30-day rule as Yefremov.

Von Hagens said in a statement e-mailed by his press service last week that all whole-body specimens in the exhibition came from donors who had given their consent to have their plastinated bodies exhibited.

The statement said the Plastination Institute does not pay for donated bodies, but does charge for preservation. But von Hagens' spokesman declined to comment on the financial relationship between the institute and the Russian and Kyrgyz academies.

Predictably, the "Body Worlds" exhibition has drawn a hail of criticism.

According to its web site at, a Jewish leader in Berlin questioned the public's taste in finding "dead bodies can be fun," while the Catholic church held a Mass for those whose remains are in the exhibition. Viktor Malukhin, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a phone interview the exhibition should be closed and the remains buried.

German media have branded von Hagens a modern Dr. Frankenstein and a body-stealer, and compared him to the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

However, von Hagens describes his exhibition as "the democratization of anatomy," saying it's a "place where the visitor has the opportunity, in respectful silence, to come to terms with real … human bodies."

The web site says more than 6.5 million people have visited the exhibition — which includes 25 full-body plastinates and about 200 displays on body functions — in Tokyo, the German cities of Oberhausen, Mannheim, Berlin and Cologne, Basel in Switzerland and Vienna, Austria.

Yevgenia Borisova contributed to this report. The Institute for Plastination. International Society for Plastination BBC Online report on the exhibit.