Politics 7 May 2020

Rosneft and Putin’s daughter lead search for ‘Russian gene’

Putin announced a $1.7 billion genetic programme in 2018, comparing (Rus) the potential of genetic engineering to a new “nuclear bomb”. The following year, the president’s eldest daughter, Maria Vorontsova, joined the programme’s advisory council and, this week, state-owned oil giant Rosneft got involved (Rus). The Bell looked at the big players behind this new drive to study genetic technologies, and why now (the article in Russian is here).

  • Vorontsova is widely believed to be Putin’s daughter although the relationship has never been officially confirmed. An endocrinologist by training, Vorontsova was appointed (Rus) by Putin himself to the genetic programme’s council in April 2019. 

Maria Vorontsova

  • The Kurchatov Institute in Moscow is leading the program. A very secretive organization, traditionally focused on nuclear technology, the institute reports directly to the government. It built the first atomic reactor in Europe and the world’s first thermonuclear bomb but, over the last 15 years, it has merged with several other major research institutes, including ones studying genetics (Rus). 
  • The institute is led by Mikhail Kovalchuk, an influential proponent of genetics in service of the state and the brother of billionaire Yuri Kovalchuk, one of Putin’s close friends. In 2015, Kovalchuk said (Rus) in a speech that foreign forces were trying to interfere “in the evolutionary process” to create “a servant person”, an entirely new type of human. Kovalchuk clearly had the U.S. in mind, and his speech caused quite a stir. A source in the genetic technologies sector told The Bell that the idea for Russia to prioritize genetics comes from Kovalchuk.

Mikhail Kovalchuk

  • One of the program’s primary goals is genetic engineering and the legislative changes required for this to go ahead. Vorontsova participated in a meeting with academics on this topic last year when her involvement became public. Another goal is to build genetic research centers, and Rosneft will provide the funds for the first of these — up to $1 billion, according (Rus) to the BBC. The advisory council, of which Vorontsova is a member, will manage the partnership with Rosneft. 
  • The main aim is a genetic analysis of the Russian people, the BBC reported. The program plans to collect genetic material from 100,000s of Russians to find out if they can identify any characteristic genes, and whether they can be engineered. 

Why the world should care 

New genetic technologies could lead to a medical revolution, and there is no doubt Russia really is lagging behind in this cutting edge research. But the leaders of Russia’s program do not inspire confidence: Putin’s daughter would never have been involved without her father’s influence and Kovalchuk sees genetics as a “matter of national security” and believes (Rus) that gay people and families without children are “perceptions in the mind that go against nature”. It seems unlikely any breakthroughs will be used for the benefit of all Russians.

Anastasia Stognei