“On a bleak island in the Aral Sea, one hundred monkeys are tethered to posts set in parallel rows stretching out toward the horizon. A muffled thud breaks the stillness. Far in the distance, a small metal sphere lifts into the sky then hurtles downward, rotating, until it shatters in a second explosion.
Some seventy-five feet above the ground, a cloud the color of dark mustard begins to unfurl, gently dissolving as it glides down toward the monkeys. They pull at their chains and begin to cry. Some bury their heads between their legs. A few cover their mouths or noses, but it is too late: they have already begun to die.
At the other end of the island, a handful of men in biological protective suits observe the scene through binoculars, taking notes. In a few hours, they will retrieve the still-breathing monkeys and return them to cages where the animals will be under continuous examination for the next several days until, one by one, they die of anthrax or tularemia, Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, or plague.
These monkey had been ordered from Africa and immunized for these tests on Rebirth Island to search for new deadly resistant bacteria and viruses. Nearly all of them died.”
These are the opening words of Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapon Program in the World Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It, a candid, harrowing autobiography of a Kazakh physician who helped create and direct the largest and most advanced biological warfare program in the world, in the clandestine factories dotted around the Soviet Union for 70 years.
Vozrozhdeniya Island, a top-secret testing ground for deadly Soviet super-pathogens
Between 1988 and 1992 the author, Ken Alibek, was first deputy chief of Biopreparat, the Soviet state pharmaceutical agency whose primary function was to develop and produce weapons made from the most dangerous viruses, toxins, and bacteria known to man.
It was a gigantic effort that consumed billions of dollars and employed tens of thousands of people working in utmost secrecy to find ways of inflicting the most excruciating diseases and deaths on millions of people in the capitalist world. Biopreparat was a network of research, testing, and manufacturing facilities, spread out over 40 sites in Russia and Kazakhstan.
The Soviet biological warfare program began in the 1920s. The casualties caused by a brutal epidemic of typhus from 1918 to 1921 made a deep impression on the commanders of the Red Army. They recognized that disease had served as a more potent weapon than bullets or artillery shells.
After the end of the Second World War, captured Japanese documents were sent to Moscow with blueprints for advanced biological warfare assembly plants.
Stalin took inspiration from these documents and ordered the KGB chief to surpass what the Japanese had accomplished. In 1946 a new army biological research complex was established, following the Japanese blueprint.
This program was transformed into a strategic arm of the military and developed so quickly that, merely ten years later, Moscow would be capable of deploying biological and chemical weapons in the next war. The Soviet government decided that the best agents were those for which there was no known cure.
In the name of scientific research, Soviet agents purchased strains from university research laboratories and biotech firms around the world with no difficulty and—most reliably—from the KGB.
Ironically, after the Soviet Union signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, they developed the largest and most advanced biological warfare establishment in the world. They stockpiled hundreds of tons of anthrax and dozens of tons of plague and smallpox for use against the United States and its allies.
They even considered using the giant SS-18 missiles—which could carry ten five-hundred-kiloton warheads apiece over a range of six thousand miles—to deliver a biological attack. Some of the agents developed could be prepared to fill hundreds of warheads simultaneously. A single SS-18 could have wiped out a city as large as New York.
In addition to animal experiments, scientists tested deadly viruses on the Gulag prisoners, and painful death was a near certainty. The work also took a huge toll on the researchers themselves. Several of them died as a result of exposure during their experiments.
Many of the facilities were installed in the centers of towns and cities to keep their military connection secret. In one incident, a blocked filter led to the spread of anthrax dust all over one town. The authorities lied about the mysterious deaths and turned what began as a medical emergency into a small epidemic with over 100 people dead.
In 1980, the WHO announced that smallpox had been eradicated from the planet. Soon after the WHO announcement, smallpox was included in a list of viral and bacterial weapons targeted for improvement in the USSR’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan (1981-85).
Every new medical victory presented a military opportunity to Moscow. A world no longer protected from smallpox was a world newly vulnerable to the disease. Soviet researchers began to develop a better version of their smallpox weapon, as they had an annual stockpile of twenty tons of the pathogen.
When the genetic revolution happened in the West, Soviet scientists rushed to apply these new techniques to produce antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. They were able to develop multi-antibiotic-resistant strains of plague with a far larger spectrum of resistance, sufficient to overcome practically all antibiotic treatments.
In parallel to these programs, the Poison laboratory—a covert research and development facility of the Soviet secret police—was busy testing deadly poisons on prisoners from the Gulags. The goal was to find a tasteless, odourless chemical that could not be detected postmortem. Candidate poisons were given to the victims with a meal or drink as “medication.”
Unlike what happened to the Nazi experiments and Unit 731 in Japan, it is truly disturbing to think this biological weapons stockpile might not have been destroyed, and these research programs would have continued undetected today. Former Soviet weapons scientists never had to face justice, and their skills became available in the international market—silently spreading like deadly viruses that could strike and devastate humanity one day.