The torture and sadness of Russia’s most famous conjoined twins

Juliet Butler on the suffering and resilience of Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, two mismatched souls bound up in the same body
Joanne Latimer
Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, 1989. (Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy)
Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, 1989. (Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy)
Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, 1989. (Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy)

Imagine the horror of being a conjoined twin in Soviet-era Russia, when scientists had no qualms about performing experiments on so-called “defectives”? Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova were born in Moscow in 1950 with two heads, two torsos, two arms and one leg each, and a third, vestigial limb at the back. The twins were immediately snatched from their mother’s care and spent the rest of their lives shut away in dehumanizing circumstances. In The Less You Know the Sounder You Sleep, British journalist Juliet Butler pens a moving, fictionalized account of their lives from the perspective of Masha, the more introspective of the two.

Butler, who speaks Russian, had a close personal relationship with Masha and Dasha over a 15-year period while living in Moscow with her Russian husband and their children. Working as a journalist and translator, Butler first saw the twins on television in 1988 when they made a (successful) plea to be moved to a different institution. The twins agreed to meet with Butler because she was a Westerner, and Butler eventually helped Masha write an autobiography, which was published in Germany, among other places, in 2000.

Unhappy with the heavy edits Masha made to the autobiography, Butler wrote this poetic novelization to better convey the twins’ emotional and physical world. It covers the years of torture endured by the twins at the hands of Russian scientists, and it details the constant battle between Masha and Dasha to assert their individuality. What emerges is a heart-breaking portrait of two mismatched souls trapped in a conjoined body. The twins died in 2003 at the age of 53.

In an interview with Maclean’s, Butler discussed the twins’ harrowing childhood, their opposite personalities and why this book will never be published in Russia. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did the twins end up in state care?

A: Their mother didn’t know she was giving birth to twins. Her labour went on for two days and two nights. She was told she gave birth to a mutant and that it was being taken away from her. But the night nurse brought the twins in to see her and she fell in love with them and refused to sign away her parental rights. So, the doctors told her the twins died of pneumonia and took the girls to the pediatric institute.

Q: What did the twins know about their mother?

A: Nothing! They were kept from their mother and lied to. The girls had two brothers they didn’t know existed.

Q: What made the twins so valuable to the scientists?

A: Masha and Dasha had the same blood system but separate nervous systems. The scientists wanted to establish the separate roles of the nervous system and the blood system. And they wanted to know more about the body’s ability to adjust to conditions like sleep deprivation, extreme hunger and extreme temperature change. They were seen as the perfect human guinea pigs. They were injected with various substances, including radioactive iodine, to see how quickly it affected the other sister. Then they measured with Geiger counters. One twin was packed in ice to see how the other sister regulated her own temperature. They were burned, electrocuted—terrible things. It went on for 12 years.

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Q: What put a stop to the experiments?

A: The experiments were performed under Stalin. Medical torture was fine under Stalin. Then Khrushchev came in and there was a different atmosphere. Also, they’d finished all the medical experiments they wanted to perform.

Q: How did you first come to know about the twins?

A: It was 1988. I’d been in Russia for six years and had our first child when I saw Masha and Dasha on a popular television show. I was working as a freelance journalist at the time and got in touch with the TV show. The twins weren’t meeting any other journalists, but they wanted to meet a Westerner.

Q: Why were they open to meeting a Western journalist?

A: First, you have to separate out Dasha’s and Masha’s motives. Dasha was inquisitive and intelligent, so she was interested in asking me questions about life in the West and how I found living in Russia. Masha just wanted to use me to buy Western goods from the special shops for foreigners.

Q: In what other ways were their personalities so different?

A: The first time I met them, Masha was the chatty one and charming and cracking jokes. Dasha was quieter. Then their true personalities emerged. Masha was self-centered and egotistical, bullying, greedy but also quite charming, as psychopaths can be. In some ways, she enjoyed the notoriety of being so special. But she was also tough and resilient and seen by Dasha as being the strong and supporting sister. Dasha was self-effacing, kind, gentle, generous and quiet. Masha was better able to cope with the disability because she was uncaring and incapable of love or empathy, so she didn’t care what people thought of her, whereas Dasha cared, terribly. She hated going outside. Masha would just shout at people who looked at them.

Q: Psychopath is a strong label…

A: I do believe, having researched psychopathy, all the traits were there in Masha. She had lack of empathy, callousness, manipulation, pathological, lying, arrogance, total control of the partner. Whereas Dasha became an empath. I believe they both suffered from childhood detachment disorder, having been taken from their parents and put in laboratory conditions and essentially medically tortured for many years.

Q: How did they feel about the way they’d been treated?

A: They had completely different responses, of course. Masha was very angry. She’d start screaming and shouting and saying the doctors were Nazis and fascists who should be lined up and shot. Dasha was very forgiving. She wasn’t bitter or angry.

Q: The twins had a different outlook on gender and romance, too, didn’t they?  

A: Dasha was very feminine, romantic and a sexual person. She fell in love with Slava, one of the boys who also lived at the School for Invalids. Masha was, I believe, a covert lesbian. I think Masha half fell in love with Lucia, a girl who lived at their second home. Masha had them dress like men. Their hair was always cut short, which Dasha hated. Masha wouldn’t let them wear any makeup. Masha loved beautiful women and she was very affectionate with me, always covering me with kisses and nibbling my ear until it was quite awkward.

Q: Did sex factor into their lives?

Dasha very much wanted to have sex with Slava, but Masha wouldn’t allow it. One night, Slava and Dasha got drunk on purpose so that Masha would also get drunk and couldn’t punch Slava in the face. Dasha and Slava said they made love, but I don’t know if it was actually consummated. Dasha told me the twins had two vaginas. I used to give them baths at my house and one time, Dasha asked me to have a look “down there” because she wanted to know about having an orgasm. It all looked a bit complicated down there, not like anything normal. By that time, the balance in the relationship had shifted, and Masha knew it was important for Dasha to experience an orgasm. But as far as I know, she never did.

Q: How did their relationship shift over the 15 years?

A: It changed dramatically in the last five years. Dasha gradually asserted herself. Masha stopped beating her sister. They were much more at peace with themselves. They started having fun together. There was more of a general sense of well-being, but not happiness, not quite. They’d come to love each other on a deeper level.

Q: What were their living conditions like?

A: They lived in five state-run institutions. When I went to meet them, they’d just “escaped”—or been moved—from a Home for Veterans of War and Labour. I went to see it and that place was horrible and dark, behind a high wall with barbed wire and guarded gates. Their room was a tiny, narrow broom closet with just a single bed for the two of them. They’d lie at each end of the bed with their feet hanging over the edge. There was a small toilet and a sink stuck on the wall. To think they spent 20 years there is mind-boggling.

Q: Despite everything, they had a will to live.

A: Oh yes! The big message of the book is how they overcame all their hardships and adversities. Masha always found a way to enjoy life, despite their rather dire circumstances.

READ MORE: ‘God made it so they would never have to be alone’

Q: What happened with their autobiography?

A: Well, it wasn’t published in Russia. Dasha didn’t think that Russians would be capable of understanding how they felt. And Masha was resentful, by that time, of the Russian public sensationalizing them. Neither of them wanted to lay themselves bare to people who were so blindly judgmental about the disabled. Masha thought she’d be giving the Russian press grist for the mill.

The book was published in Germany, Austria and Japan, various countries. I wrote it in English and it was translated. It came out in 2000, but it was heavily edited by Masha. They made quite a lot of money, £10,000, but it didn’t change their lives particularly. They bought things—foreign food, treats, a computer, cigarettes. They kept the cash in a safe in their last state home. The cash went missing when they died.

Q: Why write a fictionalized account of their lives?

I really wanted to explore the psychology of the girls more with my new book, not just provide a factual account by a journalist. The whole tragedy of their story is that they were kept in ignorance of their situation—who their parents were, the physiology of being conjoined. If I’d written it as a journalist with hindsight, I would’ve lost that sense of innocence. I wanted the reader to get into Dasha’s head and understand what it’s like to be considered disabled when you actually aren’t. They looked different, but they were pretty able-bodied. I wanted readers to realize a Russian conjoined twin was just an ordinary little girl with the same longing for a mommy, the same crushes, the same fear of bullying, the same heartaches.

Q: Will it be published in Russia?

A: No, they wouldn’t have wanted that. I want to be loyal and respect their wishes.

Q: Why wouldn’t they have wanted it published in Russia?

A: People think of them as being tragic because of how they were portrayed in the press.

Q: Can you say more about how were they portrayed in the media?

A: With Glasnost, the coverage was initially sympathetic. Then it rushed downhill into terrible tabloid journalism. That’s when the coverage became really nasty. One journalist pretended to be a narcologist [a Russian specialist in substance abuse], trying to help them stop drinking. She wrote a disgusting article. She got them drunk and Masha told all these lies. That’s what people remembered—those poor twins, they’re so ugly and drunk and degraded and having sex all the time. It simply wasn’t true.

Q: Tell me about the end of their lives.

A: Masha had a heart attack at 53 and it took 17 hours for her to die. She didn’t get medical help. Nobody would call an ambulance. The cadaver’s toxins started decomposing Masha’s body right away, and that passed into Dasha. It took another 17 hours for Dasha to die. Everyone lied to Dasha, saying that Masha was just asleep. Their lives were filled with so many lies.

The director of their last home left her position soon after the twins died. She’s now working for Putin as one of his people in the Duma. Nobody knows what happened to the twins’ money. That’s Russia for you.