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Soviet biological weapons program

soviet biological weapons program, us biological weapons program
The Soviet Union began a biological weapons program in the 1920s During World War II, Joseph Stalin was forced to move his biological warfare BW operations out of the path of advancing German forces and may have used tularemia against German troops in 1942 near Stalingrad

By 1960, numerous BW research facilities existed throughout the Soviet Union Although the USSR also signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention BWC, the Soviets subsequently augmented their biowarfare programs Over the course of its history, the Soviet program is known to have weaponized and stockpiled the following eleven bio-agents1 and to have pursued basic research on many more:

  • Bacillus anthracis anthrax
  • Yersinia pestis plague
  • Francisella tularensis tularemia
  • Burkholderia mallei glanders
  • Brucella spp brucellosis
  • Coxiella burnetii Q-fever
  • Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus VEE
  • Botulinum toxin botulism
  • Staphylococcal enterotoxin B
  • Smallpox
  • Marburg virus

These programs became immense and were conducted at 52 clandestine sites employing over 50,000 people Annualized production capacity for weaponized smallpox, for example, was 90 to 100 tons In the 1980s and 1990s, many of these agents were genetically altered to resist heat, cold, and antibiotics In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin admitted to an offensive bio-weapons program as well as to the true nature of the Sverdlovsk biological weapons accident of 1979, which had resulted in the deaths of at least 64 people Defecting Soviet bioweaponeers such as Colonel Kanatjan Alibekov confirmed that the program had been massive and still existed An agreement was signed with the US and UK promising to end bio-weapons programs and convert BW facilities to benevolent purposes, but compliance with the agreement — and the fate of the former Soviet bio-agents and facilities — is still mostly undocumented


  • 1 History
    • 11 Pre-World War II
    • 12 World War II
    • 13 The Cold War
      • 131 Post-BWC developments
    • 14 The post-Soviet era
  • 2 List of Soviet/Russian BW institutions, programs and projects
  • 3 Notable bio-agent outbreaks and accidents
    • 31 Smallpox
    • 32 Anthrax
    • 33 Marburg virus
  • 4 List of Soviet/Russian bioweaponeers
  • 5 See also
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links


Pre-World War IIedit

The Soviet BW program began in the 1920s at the Leningrad Military Academy under the control of the state security apparatus, known as the GPU This occurred despite the fact that the USSR was a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Convention, which banned both chemical and biological weapons2

1928 - Revolutionary Military Council signed a decree about weaponization of typhus The Leningrad Military academy began cultivating typhus in chicken embryos Human experimentation occurred with typhus, glanders and melioidosis in the Solovetsky camp3 A laboratory on vaccine and serum research was also established near Moscow in 1928, within the Military Chemical Agency This laboratory was turned into the Red Army's Scientific Research Institute of Microbiology in 19334

World War IIedit

During World War II, Stalin was forced to move his BW operations out of the path of advancing German forces5

1941: Soviet bioweapons facilities are transferred to the city of Kirov

1942: Alleged use of tularemia against German troops36

Tularemia was allegedly used against German troops in 1942 near Stalingrad3 Around 10,000 cases of tularemia had been reported in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1943 However, the number of cases jumped to more than 100,000 in the year of the Stalingrad outbreak German Panzer troops fell ill in such significant numbers during the late summer of 1942 that the German military campaign came to a temporary halt German soldiers became ill with the rare pulmonary form of tularemia, which may indicate the use of an aerosol biological weapon the ordinary transmission pathway is through ticks and rodents According to Kenneth Alibek, the used tularemia weapon had been developed in the Kirov military facility3 It was suggested by some, however, that the outbreak might have been of natural origin, since a pulmonary form of tularemia has also been noted in natural outbreaks in Martha's Vineyard in 20006

In the Soviet Union, the outbreak at Stalingrad was described as a natural outbreak Crops were left in the field during the German offensive and the rodent population swelled, putting many inhabitants into contact with infected rodents In some parts of the Stalingrad Oblast, as many as 75% of the inhabitants became infected It was also noted that before the war, there was a so-called "threshing tularemia", caused by people inhaling infected dusts soiled by rodents while threshing grain7

At the conclusion of the war, Soviet troops invading Manchuria captured many Unit 731 Japanese scientists and learned of their extensive human experimentation through captured documents and prisoner interrogations Emboldened by these discoveries, Stalin put KGB chief Lavrenty Beria in charge of a new BW program

The Cold Waredit

1946: A biological weapons facility was established in Sverdlovsk

The first smallpox weapons factory in the Soviet Union was established in 1947 in the city of Zagorsk, close to Moscow3 It was produced by injecting small amounts of the virus into chicken eggs An especially virulent strain codenamed India-1967 or India-1 was brought from India in 1967 by a special Soviet medical team that was sent to India to help eradicate the virus The pathogen was manufactured and stockpiled in large quantities throughout the 1970s and 1980s

1953: The fifteenth directorate of the Red Army takes responsibility for the program

By 1960, numerous BW research facilities existed throughout the Soviet Union Although the USSR also signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention BWC, the Soviets subsequently augmented their biowarfare programs They doubted the United States’ claimed compliance with the BWC, which further motivated their program8 The Soviet BW effort became a huge program, comprising various institutions under different ministries along with commercial facilities and collectively known as Biopreparat after 1973 Biopreparat pursued offensive research, development, and production of biological agents under the guise of legitimate civil biotechnology research It conducted its clandestine activities at 52 sites and employed over 50,000 people Annualized production capacity for weaponized smallpox, rabies, and typhus, for example, was 90 to 100 tons9

1973: A "civilian" main directorate Biopreparat was founded Other organizations involved in the design and production of biological weapons were the Soviet Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health, USSR Academy of Sciences, and KGB

A production line to manufacture smallpox on an industrial scale was launched in the Vector Institute in 19903 The development of genetically altered strains of smallpox was presumably conducted in the Institute under the leadership of Dr Sergei Netyosov in the mid-1990s, according to Kenneth Alibek3 aka Kanatjan Alibekov

It has been reported that Russia made smallpox available to Iraq in the beginning of the 1990s10

Post-BWC developmentsedit

The Soviet Union continued the development and mass production of offensive biological weapons, despite having signed the 1972 BWC The development and production were conducted by a main directorate "Biopreparat" along with the Soviet Ministry of Defense, the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture, the Soviet Ministry of Health, the USSR Academy of Sciences, the KGB, and other state organizations

In the 1980s, the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture successfully developed variants of foot-and-mouth disease and rinderpest against cows, African swine fever for pigs, and psittacosis to kill chicken These agents were prepared to be sprayed down from tanks attached to airplanes over hundreds of miles The secret program was code-named "Ecology"3

The post-Soviet eraedit

In the 1990s, the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, admitted to an offensive bio-weapons program as well as to the true nature of the Sverdlovsk biological weapons accident of 1979, which had resulted in the deaths of at least 64 people11 Soviet defectors, including Colonel Kanatjan Alibekov, the first deputy chief of Biopreparat from 1988 to 1992, confirmed that the program had been massive and that it still existed12 In September 1992, Russia signed an agreement with the United States and Great Britain promising to end its bio-weapons program and to convert its facilities for benevolent scientific and medical purposes13

Compliance with the agreement, as well as the fate of the former Soviet bio-agents and facilities, is still mostly undocumented14 Leitenberg and Zilinskas, in The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History 2012, state flatly that "In March 1992Yeltsin acknowledged the existence of an illegal BW program in the former Soviet Union and ordered it to be dissolved His decree was, however, not obeyed"15 They conclude that "In hindsight, we know that with the ultimate failure of the negotiations process and the continued Russian refusal to open the facilities to the present day, neither the Yeltsin or Putin administrations ever carried out 'a visible campaign to dismantle once and for all' the residual elements of the Soviet BW program"16

1990-1999: Specimens of deadly bacteria and viruses were stolen from western laboratories and delivered by Aeroflot planes to support the Russian biological weapons program At least one of the pilots was a Russian Foreign Intelligence Service officer"17 At least two agents died, presumably from the transported pathogens17

2000-2009: The academician, "AS", proposed a new biological warfare program, called the "Biological Shield of Russia" to president Vladimir Putin The program reportedly includes institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences from Pushchino4

List of Soviet/Russian BW institutions, programs and projectsedit

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it
  • Biopreparat 18 labs, test sites, and production centers
    • Stepnagorsk Scientific and Technical Institute for Microbiology, Stepnogorsk, northern Kazakhstan
    • Institute of Ultra Pure Biochemical Preparations, Leningrad, a weaponized plague center
    • Vector State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR, a weaponized smallpox center
    • Institute of Applied Biochemistry, Omutninsk
    • Kirov bioweapons production facility, Kirov, Kirov Oblast
    • Zagorsk smallpox production facility, Zagorsk Today Virological Center NIIM Scientific research institute Russian Defense Ministry in Sergiyev Posad
    • Berdsk bioweapons production facility, Berdsk
    • Bioweapons research facility, Obolensk
    • Sverdlovsk bioweapons production facility Military Compound 19, Sverdlovsk, a weaponized anthrax center
    • Aralsk-7, Vozrozhdeniya Renaissance Island, Aral Sea, this BW test site was built here and on neighboring Komsomolskiy Island in 1954
  • Poison laboratory of the Soviet secret services
  • Project Bonfire, development of antibiotic-resistant microbial strains
  • Project Factor, creation of microbial weapons with new properties of high virulence, improved stability, and new clinical syndromes

Notable bio-agent outbreaks and accidentsedit


Main article: Aral smallpox incident

An outbreak of weaponized smallpox occurred during testing in 1971 General Prof Peter Burgasov, former Chief Sanitary Physician of the Soviet Army, and a senior researcher within the program of biological weapons described this incident:

“On Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest formulations of smallpox were tested Suddenly, I was informed that there were mysterious cases of mortalities in Aralsk A research ship of the Aral fleet had come within 15 km from the island it was forbidden to come any closer than 40 km The lab technician of this ship took samples of plankton twice a day from the top deck The smallpox formulation— 400 gr of which was exploded on the island—”got her”, and she became infected After returning home to Aralsk, she infected several people, including children All of them died I suspected the reason for this and called the General Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Defense and requested to forbid the Alma-Ata train from stopping in Aralsk As a result, an epidemic throughout the country was prevented I called Andropov, who at that time was the Chief of the KGB, and informed him of the unique formulation of smallpox obtained on Vozrozhdeniya Island”1018


Main article: Sverdlovsk anthrax leak

Spores of weaponized anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility near the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 The death toll was at least 105, but no one knows the exact number, because all hospital records and other evidence were destroyed by the KGB, according to former Biopreparat deputy director Kenneth Alibek3

Marburg virusedit

The Soviet Union reportedly had a large biological weapons program enhancing the usefulness of the Marburg virus The development was conducted in Vector Institute under the leadership of Dr Ustinov who was accidentally killed by the virus The samples of Marburg taken from Ustinov's organs were more powerful than the original strain The new strain, called "Variant U", had been successfully weaponized and approved by the Soviet Ministry of Defense in 19903

List of Soviet/Russian bioweaponeersedit

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it
  • Igor Domaradskij19
  • Kanatjan Alibekov, known as Ken Alibek20
  • Vladimir Pasechnik21
  • Sergei Popov22
  • Yuri Ovchinnikov23
  • Nikolai Ustinov, died of Marburg virus disease
  • Pyotr Burgasov

See alsoedit

  • History of biological warfare
  • United States biological weapons program


  1. ^ Cook, Michelle Stem and Amy F Woolf April 10, 2002, Preventing Proliferation of Biological Weapons: US Assistance to the Former Soviet States, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, pg 3
  2. ^ Martin, James W, George W Christopher and Edward M Eitzen 2007, “History of Biological Weapons: From Poisoned Darts to Intentional Epidemics”, In: Dembek, Zygmunt F 2007, Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare, Series: Textbooks of Military Medicine, Washington, DC: The Borden Institute, pg 11
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kenneth Alibek and S Handelman Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World - Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran it 1999 Delta 2000 ISBN 0-385-33496-6 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Alibek" defined multiple times with different content see the help page Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Alibek" defined multiple times with different content see the help page
  4. ^ a b Vadim J Birstein The Perversion Of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science Westview Press 2004 ISBN 0-8133-4280-5
  5. ^ Ken Alibek and K Handelman 1999, Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World Trade From the Inside by the Man Who Ran It, New York, NY: Random House
  6. ^ a b Eric Croddy & Sarka Krcalova Tularemia, Biological Warfare, and the Battle for Stalingrad 1942-1943 Military Medicine 16610 October 2001
  7. ^ Yelkin, I I 1980, "Military Epidemiological Doctrine Based on Protection of Troops Against Epidemics During the 1941 - 1945 Great Patriotic War" in Translation: Tularemia in the USSR JPRS 82072 25 October 1982 ADA357123
  8. ^ Alibek, Op cit
  9. ^ B Beckett 1983, Weapons of Tomorrow, New York, NY: Plenum Press
  10. ^ a b Shoham D, Wolfson Z 2004 "The Russian biological weapons program: vanished or disappeared" Crit Rev Microbiol 30 4: 241–61 PMID 15646399 doi:101080/10408410490468812 
  11. ^ J Miller, S Engelberg, and W Broad 2001, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
  12. ^ "Perspective, Volume IX, Number 1" Institute for the Study of Conflict Ideology and Policy Retrieved 8 April 2015 
  13. ^ M Leitenberg 2001, Working Paper: Biological Weapons in the 20th Century: A Review and Analysis, College Park, Md: Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland; 2001 Available at: wwwcissmumdedu/documents/bw%2020th%cpdf Retrieved January 18, 2006
  14. ^ Adherence To and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, Washington, DC: US Department of State; 2005 Available at: http://wwwstategov/documents/organization/52113pdf Retrieved August 9, 2006
  15. ^ Leitenberg, Milton and Raymond A Zilinskas 2012, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, pg 14
  16. ^ Leitenberg and Zilinskas, Op cit, pp 643-644
  17. ^ a b Alexander Kouzminov Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West, Greenhill Books, 2006, ISBN 1-85367-646-2 1
  18. ^ "Smallpox - not a bad weapon" Interview with General Burgasov in Russian Moscow News Retrieved 2007-06-18 
  19. ^ Domaradskij, Igor V and Wendy Orent 2003, Biowarrior: Inside the Soviet/Russian Biological War Machine; Prometheus Books
  20. ^ "Interview: Dr Kanatjan Alibekov" Frontline PBS Retrieved 8 March 2010 
  21. ^ "Obituary: Vladimir Pasechnik" London: Daily Telegraph 29 November 2001 Retrieved 8 March 2010 
  22. ^ "Interviews With Biowarriors: Sergei Popov", 2001 NOVA Online
  23. ^ Birstein, Vadim J 2004, The Perversion Of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science, Westview Press ISBN 0-8133-4280-5

External linksedit

  • Soviet Defector Warns of Biological Weapons By Tim Werner, New York Times, February 25, 1998
  • Statement by Dr Kenneth Alibek before the Joint Economic Committee of United States Congress, May 20, 1998
  • Post-World War II Programs of Biological Weapons
  • The Russian Biological Weapons Program: Vanished or Disappeared by Dany Shoham and Ze'ev Wolfson, Critical Reviews in Microbiology, Volume 30, Number 4, October–December 2004, pp 241–261
  • Red Lies: Biological warfare and the Soviet Union, CBC News Online, February 18, 2004
  • An Obscure Weapon of the Cold War Edges Into the Limelight, by Gretchen Vogel, Science, Vol 302, pp 222 – 223
  • History of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism
  • Soviet Army used 'rat weapon' during WWII
  • Memories of bioweapons developer Domaradsky Russian
  • Re-Evaluating Russia's Biological Weapons Policy, as Reflected in the Criminal Code and Official Admissions: Insubordination Leading to a President's Subordination by Jan T Knoph; Kristina S Westerdahl Critical Reviews in Microbiology, Volume 32, Issue 1 January 2006, pages 1 – 13
  • "The Memoirs of an Inconvenient Man: Revelations About Biological Weapons Research in the Soviet Union" by Igor V Domaradskij and Wendy Orent, Critical Reviews in Microbiology, Volume 27, Issue 4 October 2001, pages 239 - 266
  • Russian Biological and Chemical Weapons, a useful page about non-state weapons transfers with a lot of links to information from CRS, the GAO and NGOs
  • Bioweapons from Russia: Stemming the Flow, by Jonathan B Tucker

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