THE BIRTH OF A NEW HUMAN BEING: The Utopian Project of the Late Soviet Waterbirth Movement and Its Inheritors
Introduction: Igor Charkovsky and the Aquaculture Project
In the spring of 2018, people on the beach of the popular Egyptian resort Dahab accidentally witnessed an amazing event—the birth of a child into the Red Sea— which became famous thanks to the photos published in Cosmopolitan magazine (2018). A pregnant woman entered the sea, and soon her husband and an elderly man carried ashore a newborn and a placenta with an attached umbilical cord. The elderly man was later recognized as Igor Charkovsky, the creator of the Russian waterbirth method called “Aquaculture.” In recent years, he has been living permanently in Israel and from time to time has come to Egypt at the request of his followers to attend births and train babies to swim.
Igor Charkovsky and His ".Aquaculture" Project: A Brief History
In order to understand what happened in 2018 on that Egyptian beach, we need to return to Moscow in the early 1960s. In 1962-1964, Charkovsky, then a student at the Institute of Physical Culture and Sports, started swimming with his daughter, who was born premature. He trained his daughter to swim at home in an ordinary bathtub from the first days of her life, and when she reached 7 months of age, in the Moskva Pool (Moscow Pool) (for a time the world’s largest open air swimming pool), where he worked as a lifeguard. The little girl spent many hours in water, where she ate, slept, dove for toys, and watched filmstrips projected onto the pool wall. Ten years later, in 1974, an article called “Amphibian Girl” dedicated to these workouts, which demonstrated the success of aquatic rehabilitation of premature babies, was published in the newspaper Soviet Sport, in the section “Swimming before Walking.” Charkovsky’s words about water birth were also quoted there:
Birth on the land is unfavorable for newborns because they are immediately exposed to the powerful effects of gravity. You can get rid of this enemy only in two environments—in space and in water. There’s no need to talk about space yet, but water is nearby. (Quoted in Schenkman 1974:36)
In subsequent years, several more articles about the ideas and experiments of Igor Charkovsky, who had already become a research fellow in the laboratory of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Physical Culture and Sports (VNIIFK), were published in various Russian popular magazines. The then- Director ofVNIIIFK, Professor I. Ratov, supported these studies of“the perspectives to influence human evolution” (Korop 1972a:47). Charkovsky conducted experiments with land insects and animals—flies, cockroaches, hens, mice, and cats—and found that the fear of water could be overcome through training, which was especially effective for animal newborns. He also discovered that if the newborns were transferred to aquatic mothers (for example, chickens to ducks, kittens to nutria), they began to lead an aquatic lifestyle and acquired various advantages: large size, great strength and endurance, and high life expectancy (Korop 1972a:44). Then he claimed that a fetus was an aquatic animal because it was swimming in the amniotic fluid, and proposed to conduct an experiment with a childbirth into the sea near a flock of dolphins:
Maybe dolphin milk, which is especially high in fat and designed for an aquatic lifestyle, is suitable for a baby. The instinct will make our newborn hold on tightly to the dolphin, and the oncoming water-air flow will turn on thousands of “micro reflectors” on the baby’s sensitive body, so the baby will automatically take the most optimal pose with the lowest possible resistance to the aquatic environment. (Quoted in Korop 1972b:47)
Many Soviet people were inspired by these ideas, despite the fact that they sounded like science Fiction, and no babies were actually breastfed by dolphins. Tatyana Sargunas recalls how she heard Charkovsky speak for the first time in 1982, saying “Today, psychics from Australia called me and said that the dolphins gave their permission for ocean childbirth” (Interview 1). Tatyana and her husband Alexei Sargunas became active followers of Charkovsky: they gave birth to 3 children at home in water, founded a childbirth preparation center, and helped many couples with their home births.
A professional midwife, Irina Martynova, met Charkovsky in 1978 and immediately started preparing the experiment about which he had long dreamed—a water birth. They organized a home mini-maternity hospital where two aquariums were installed: the large one was supposed to serve for labor and the smaller one for birth. The main idea was that a baby should be born into the water and remain underwater while the umbilical cord was still pulsating, providing the newborn with oxygen-rich blood. In the fall of 1979, a group of Five pregnant women-volunteers was formed, and the First delivery into the water happened
FIGURE 12.1 The birth of Eya Bagriansky. Black Sea, Crimea, Sudak, Alchak mountain, July 22,1986. ©Vladimir Bagriansky. Used with permission.
in the spring of 1980 under the supervision of Charkovskv and Martynova. Although water birth remained a very rare event for the next several years, Martynova (2017) claimed that there, “the secret revolution in obstetrics began.” In 1986, the first ocean birth took place in Crimea: a girl, named Eya, was born to the Bagryansky family (see Figure 12.1). This event happened without Charkovsky’s participation; Tatyana Sargunas helped the mother in childbirth, and Alexey Sargunas shot this event with an amateur movie camera. These shots were subsequently included in the film “Igor Charkovsky—An Impossible Dream” (1989). Vladimir Bagryansky (2011) described the sea birth of his daughter as “the spiritual revival of nature and transition from the old to the new life.” In 1988, Charkovsky’s follower Marina Dadasheva assisted in a water birth in a maternity hospital in the Siberian city of Tomsk (Interview 2). Although official permission was obtained for this demonstration and the delivery was successful, this event did not affect obstetric practice. Water birth appeared in the practice of maternity hospitals only in the second half of the 1990s as a new “Western” trend.