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On a cold Moscow day in 1950, a woman gives birth after a hard and painful labor. But nature has prepared a surprise for her: although she’s expecting one baby, there turns out to be two. And as soon as the twins are born, word goes to a renowned scientist who – rather ominously – has been waiting for just this moment.

Image: YouTube/Rosie Bartram

But while the babies each have their own heads and their own sets of lungs, something else soon becomes clear: the twins are joined together. And Maria and Daria Krivoshlyapova – also known as Masha and Dasha – will remain linked for the rest of their days. What’s more, even though it’s impossible to distinguish the identical girls at birth, the task will be a considerably easier one in the future.

Image: YouTube/Rosie Bartram

That’s because the two girls would grow to have very different personalities. Indeed, although identical twins share the same genetic material, that’s no guarantee that they will be practically the same person. And Masha and Dasha are going to prove that assertion true, with one becoming angry and aggressive while the other remains sweet and kindly.

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Being together but separate will cause the girls torment that they will cope with in different ways, in fact. But before the pair grow into adults, they will suffer at the hands of cruel scientists who see them as no more than the perfect experimental subjects. And, tragically, Masha and Dasha’s lives will begin with pain in the name of medical discovery.

Image: via Juliet Butler

When Yekaterina Krivoshlyapova became pregnant for the first time, she was naturally excited by the prospect. But after her waters broke in January 1950, she got more than she had bargained for. Forty-eight hours of torture in the form of a very difficult labor were finally ended by a Cesarean section. And, unexpectedly, the new mom found that she had been carrying twins.

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But these weren’t just any twins: the babies were conjoined. This rare happening – occurring at most once in every 50,000 births – means that two identical babies are physically linked. And while conjoined twins will share body parts, the ones that they have in common will depend on how exactly they are fused together.

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Someone told Yekaterina that the Krivoshlyapova twins – Masha and Dasha – were mutants, and she would not be allowed to keep them. After a kindly assistant gave the mom some time with her new arrivals, however, she wouldn’t agree to give them up. So, physicians lied to her by telling her that pneumonia had claimed the girls’ lives – following which they hustled the twins off.

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It appears that the deception went both ways, too, as the girls were told nothing about their family. As a result, they were left in ignorance about their siblings – two brothers – and weren’t allowed to spend time with their mom. And it wouldn’t be until the twins were in their 30s that they would track Yekaterina down and be able to share some of their lives with her.

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Masha and Dasha shared a lower body that had three legs – one not fully formed – although they had separate torsos and heads. They each had two arms as well. And even given the fact that the girls were joined at the hip, they would grow to develop very different personalities – despite being genetically identical.

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Masha and Dasha also each had separate hearts and pairs of lungs, but intriguingly they shared the same circulation – meaning the same blood coursed through their veins. This fact made them particularly interesting to scientists, who wanted to know which of the nervous and blood systems was more influential in dealing with extreme stresses.

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In fact, physiologist Tatiana Alexeyeva would later describe the girls as “objects of great scientific interest.” So, seeing Masha and Dasha as a glorious opportunity for research, Alexeyeva’s unscrupulous teammates hid them away at their institute, where they could work on the twins. And the medics had some disturbing experiments in store for them, too.

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The man leading the team of scientists who had taken the twins away from their mom was Pyotr Anokhin. A protégé of Pavlov, he specialized in looking at the links between mind and body. This in turn had led him to want to explore conjoined twins, and so he had arranged to be contacted whenever a set was born anywhere in the Soviet Union.

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However, soon after Anokhin had snared Masha and Dasha, his theories had run him into trouble. His ideas conflicted with communist doctrine, you see, and in that fight there could only be one winner. The physiologist was thus exiled from the capital to the Russian town of Ryazan, meaning he was no longer able to work at the pediatric institute that housed the twins. Yet Anokhin’s acolytes were keen to carry on with his plans.

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Seen purely as subjects in bizarre experiments, the twins lived in a glass cage adjacent to a lab. There, the scientists intended to check how their separate nervous systems and shared circulatory system could help them cope with circumstances such as huge changes in temperature, going without sleep and food deprivation. And given the sheer rarity of the girls’ condition, the experimenters did not want to waste time.

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In fact, the scientists worked on Masha and Dasha non-stop for six years. The twins would be burned, frozen and forced to stay awake; they’d also be hooked up to electrodes and suffer shocks from currents designed to investigate their reflexes. And that was far from all. An experimenter would occasionally poke one twin with a sharp object just to see how the other one reacted. Sometimes, the girls would even go hungry in a twisted test of the effect that it may have on their bodies.

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Worse still, the girls suffered injections of different fluids. The scientists would jab one with radioactive material to see how rapidly the liquid would set Geiger counters attached to the other clicking. And in one particularly horrifying experiment, the professionals would surround one girl with ice so that they could measure any corresponding drop in the other’s temperature.

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Faced with these tortures, Masha and Dasha would block out the experiments mentally. But since the twins were just lab rats to the scientists and not children who needed toys, they had to invent their own amusements. Disturbingly, then, they’d roleplay their own experiments by pretending to give each other examinations or by pushing tubes into each other’s throats.

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Yet as terrible as the program was, it did seem to produce some intriguing results. Having different nervous systems seems to have afforded Masha and Dasha different susceptibilities to disease: sometimes one would get ill and the other wouldn’t. On a particular occasion, one of the girls contracted measles; her twin seemingly remained unaffected, however, even though she shared blood with her sister.

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And this state of affairs opens up an intriguing possibility. If bacteria and viruses are solely responsible for diseases, then twins who have the same blood should share the same illnesses. This is the basis of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, yet the twins seemed to serve as a counterexample. And, interestingly, Masha grew to be physically stronger than Dasha.

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Then, after suffering through six years of gruesome experiments, Masha and Dasha moved to a different institute – this time one that focused on research into orthopedics and traumatology. There, the girls learned to walk and began schooling. However, for the next eight years, they stayed secluded from people, living on a kids’ ward during that period until finally they started boarding at a southern Russian school.

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Furthermore, as the twins began to grow up, they started to display entirely contrasting personalities. And one of the doctors who had helped them through their early years certainly noted the difference in the two. He said, “It was as if one had been brought up by a family of peasants and the other by professors.” Yes, it ultimately became apparent that while Dasha was quiet and gentle, Masha was altogether more disturbed.

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And although Masha had plenty of charm and a wicked sense of humor, those qualities weren’t always on show. Stronger than Dasha, she would often hurt her twin; eventually, the girl even received a diagnosis of psychopathy. Dasha, on the other hand, seemed much kinder to outsiders.

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Nevertheless, although Masha focused very much on herself, Dasha found her a great support. And Masha’s strength was not just physical, either. She seemingly didn’t care what anyone thought and would hurl abuse at anyone who stared. Dasha cringed at such situations, though; she always wanted to hide away inside and never be seen by other people.

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Later, Dasha would explain that scientists had talked about “split brain theory” as a way to explain the twins’ dissimilarities. Specifically, each twin was thought to be more influenced by a different hemisphere of the organ. However, such a theory isn’t accepted these days, and the more usual explanation of environmental variety doesn’t apply in the twins’ case, either. So it remains a mystery why one sister became a wisecracking outlaw and the other turned out to be more placid.

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Whatever the reason for the twins’ differences, though, they had a painful cost for Dasha. Most notably, Masha got in the way of her sister realizing her dreams for her life. The stronger twin would spoil everything for Dasha, in fact, as she was apparently perfectly satisfied with things the way they were. And so while Dasha would work hard at an unskilled job, Masha preferred to laze around.

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Another thing that Dasha wanted from life was romance, but Masha would not permit that to happen. It seemed, moreover, that the twins’ conflict of personality extended into their sexuality. Journalist Juliet Butler would later suggest that Masha had been attracted to women, and certainly she insisted that they dress in men’s clothes and wear their hair short.

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By way of contrast, Dasha loved to appear feminine, and she wanted to have longer hair and wear makeup – even though Masha objected fiercely to the notion. Dasha was very much interested in men, too, and she consequently fell for Slava, a boy at their school. Ultimately, then, things would come to a head.

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You see, the question of sex had entered the young lovers’ conversation, but Masha was horrified by the idea. Dasha and Slava therefore came up with the idea of getting drunk so that they could get intimate; they reasoned that Masha would fall under the influence too and so become unable to get violent. But what happened next remains a mystery.

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In fact, the twins had long known that if one of them was drunk, the other one would be as well, as the alcohol would run through their shared circulation. And Masha relied on that fact. Because booze made her want to vomit, she would make Dasha drink – even though her sister hated the taste. The pair ended up as alcoholics.

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Perhaps it was this sort of coercion that led Dasha to favor being separated. And in due course, the opportunity seemed to present itself to the pair. A surgeon from the U.K., Lewis Spitz, proposed to split them. He had expertise in conjoined twins, and he wanted them to go to London to undergo the procedure.

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Dasha filled with emotion at the thought. Finally, she would be able to live her own life. But she had reckoned without her darker twin. Although Masha knew what her sister wanted, she didn’t care. And she had a simple reply to the suggestion: no. The pair were destined to be joined for life, it seemed.

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Meanwhile, when Butler first encountered the twins, they hadn’t had a clue what they were. Their firm belief was that they had somehow grown together and had not been born that way. And they had suffered together too. As children, they had often faced bullying – doubly so for Dasha, who would also be harshly treated by her sister.

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And after having spoken at length to the girls, Butler imagined the attacks in a book that she wrote about them. She pictured them leaving their institute for the first time while crowds yelled “Monster.” The bullying sadly hadn’t ended in childhood, either. In 2000 a then middle-aged Dasha would tell a filmmaker, “People call us ‘two heads.’ You hear all sorts of rubbish, and it makes us cry.”

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But as the twins grew older, life did get better for them. They linked up with Yekaterina in 1985, for example. And although it wasn’t possible for the pair to live with their mom, Yekaterina nevertheless formed a relationship with the girls, cooking for the pair and bringing smokes for Masha. However, the rapprochement would end in tears four years later – thanks to the more unruly twin.

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In 1988 Masha and Dasha even appeared on Russian chat show Vzglyad, where they appealed to be let out of captivity. And, happily, their circumstances did indeed change. Given a measure of freedom and living in a retirement home, they could now enjoy their own television and computer among other electronics – all supplied by charity.

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And as time went on, the twins discovered a deeper love for each other. Dasha began to find more inner strength, while her sister stopped hitting her. The two thus had a measure of peace, and although they never quite found happiness, they had at least a feeling of contentment. The twins could even enjoy each other’s company and have fun.

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But the good times had a darker underside. The drinking that Masha had forced Dasha to do had left the pair with a damaged liver. Smoking had hurt Masha’s lungs, too. And although the girls had lived a lot longer than most conjoined twins – who rarely survive much past birth – time was running out for them.

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Finally, in 2003 Masha’s heart gave way. She couldn’t get anyone to assist her, either, and no one got her an ambulance. Even when she had passed away, people weren’t honest about that with Dasha; instead, they told her that her sister was just sleeping. Then, slowly, poisons from Masha’s body invaded Dasha’s system. And the shared blood that had intrigued Alokhin’s cruel scientists ultimately proved deadly to Dasha, too.

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Although Dasha finally went into hospital a full 17 hours after Masha had died, she sadly succumbed as well; both twins had been 53 years old at the time of their passing. In fact, there were no older conjoined twins alive at the time, although Italians Giacomo and Giovanni Tocci had reportedly lived to a greater age a century earlier. Today, though, American brothers Ronnie and Donnie Galyon are the world’s oldest conjoined twins; they are 67 as of July 2019.

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And when Butler wrote her account of the twins’ lives, she remembered an aspiration of Dasha’s that also serves as a poignant epitaph for the girls. The journalist said, “Dasha always dreamt of living in a world in which people with visible disabilities went as unnoticed as those without. I hope that in telling her story I can bring that tolerant society a little closer to reality.”

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