Moscow, 2007. The talented young biologist Sonja Lukyanova is absolutely focused on science and rarely looks up from her work – certainly not at the mirror or in the window of a fashion store. Especially as her beloved father has recently died. A week after his surprising death, Sonja finds a briefcase he recently brought back from a trip to Germany. Her father had been behaving rather strangely in his last few weeks, often leaving the house and meeting someone in a restaurant only hours before he died. They had never kept secrets from one another before. And why had he told her he was flying to Hamburg to meet his assistant, when the assistant was actually in Moscow? Was her father murdered? But why?
In the briefcase Sonja finds an envelope of old photos, and in her father’s coat pocket is a card from a hotel on the German island of Sylt. The photos date back to 1939 and show a young girl with a great similarity to Sonja, and a young man in the uniform of an SS lieutenant, then the two of them with a baby. One very old photo is of an older gentleman standing outside a military hospital. What can it all mean? And then someone sends her black roses on her birthday.
It would be enough to drive her crazy if it weren’t for her old friend Nolik, who is hopelessly in love with her. He finds out that the old man in the photo is Professor Sveshnikov, an outstanding scholar who made a name for himself as a specialist in tissue regeneration in the early 20th century. Sonja has heard of him of course – he is almost a god for her, for she dreams of conquering cancer und Sveshnikov seemed to know more about it than most modern scientists. His name is swathed in legends, with rumours that he even carried out experiments to rejuvenate the human organism. However, both Sveshnikov and his notes disappeared after the revolution, and nobody even knows when he died.
Moscow, 1916/1917. Not the best time for scientific research: the Great War, a government in chaos, the tsar’s abdication, hunger and destruction. Professor Sveshnikov is rarely at home, his work as a military surgeon consuming all his energies, yet he still longs to solve the puzzle of the epiphysis – the tiny gland in the human brain that most scholars consider absolutely useless. The pineal gland is depicted on Egyptian papyrus scrolls, and Descartes regarded it as the seat of the immortal soul. In absolute secrecy, Sveshnikov makes an incredible discovery, promising if not immortality then at least long life. In the brains of rats, he discovers the eggs of a parasite that causes a rejuvenation of the entire organism. The rats had been caught in the basement of the neighbouring building. It is the home of an ethnologist who has undertaken extensive journeys to the voodoo steppes of Shambal in Kazakhstan, where he carried out excavations in the ruins of the temple to the ancient god Sonorch, the lord of time. According to myth, this god’s priests lived to an age of 200 to 300 years.
Sveshnikov takes in the orphan Ossya, a talented boy who dreams of becoming a great movie actor like Charlie Chaplin. Yet his eleven-year-old body is as aged as that of a 70-year-old man; he suffers from the rare condition of progeria or premature aging. As Ossya threatens to die before his very eyes, the professor decides to inject him with the barely tested formula. The boy’s amazing transformation does not go unnoticed by Sveshnikov’s assistant Fyodor Agapkin. He does all he can to find out the professor’s secret. The yellow press starts spreading rumours and the scientist is soon beleaguered by people begging for his help. The most insistent are the Bolsheviks, who have suddenly appeared on the historical stage, obsessed by the idea of immortality.
Sveshnikov has plenty of private worries too: his son has got involved with the freemasons and his daughter Tanja, who is also interested in medicine and helps him at the hospital, loves Colonel Danilov, who only pays short visits to Moscow when on leave from the front. He is fighting first the Germans, then the communists, and once the Bolsheviks are in power contact to him becomes increasingly dangerous. Tanja pretends not to notice that her father’s assistant Fyodor Agapkin has been in love with her for years. While outside shots are fired and the revolution rages, Tanja gives birth to a son. Fyodor stands by her at the birth and wishes Danilov would disappear without a trace, yet he has to help the professor to escape the country with Tanja and the child.
Moscow 2007. Sonja’s academic advisor Professor Melnikov is too late again: he has discovered the rejuvenating hormone melatonin – but the Americans got there first. Yet now the underpaid scientist is finally in luck: a man is willing to pay all his research costs – Peter Colt. Colt, a former Komsomol functionary and now head of a financial empire (banks, oil, a network of gas stations and vodka distilleries), is 59 and realises there is no negotiating with death – it cannot be bribed with either money or power. Everything else becomes meaningless, all that remains is the paralysis of fear. A professor at an exclusive Swiss clinic tells Colt the only person who ever made any progress in the battle against aging was Professor Sveshnikov. In search of traces of Sveshnikov, Colt comes across Melnikov’s name and through him meets Fyodor Agapkin – Sveshnikov’s former assistant, a former intelligence officer in the Soviet era. Agapin recently turned 116, which tells Colt he is now very close to his goal.
Sonja gets an unexpected offer of work in Germany, in a small branch of an institute of experimental bio-cybernetics on Sylt. And Sylt was where her father went shortly before he died… There, Sonja discovers the secret of the young man in the SS uniform: she meets her grandfather, the grandson of Professor Sveshnikov, who spied for the British during World War II. He has kept the professor’s notes and his miraculous formula. She finds out too that it was her mentor Melnikov who killed her father, and that she runs the same risk once she comes into possession of the notes and the formula…
Polina Dashkova’s “The Source of Happiness” is a page-turning crime novel, drawing a virtuoso arc from modern-day Moscow to the days of the Russian revolution. The subject of immortality is not mere coincidence – the Russians really were fascinated by the spiritual and scientific search for eternal life during this apocalyptic era. There are many indications that researchers actually made progress at the time – and today’s oligarchs have inherited the Bolsheviks’ obsession.