Military history

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In the thick woods south of Moscow, at Obolensk, the microbiologist Igor Domaradsky redoubled his search for agents of death. He experimented with genetic engineering, combining the gene of diphtheria with the agents of plague or tularemia to make a hybrid pathogen. He turned his results over to the military, never to hear of them again. He labored to engineer a tularemia strain resistant to antibiotics. If used in a weapon, once spread, the disease would be difficult to treat. He created two strains that retained their virulence, but with only limited resistance to antibiotics. This was always the challenge—Domaradsky had never been able to achieve a high resistance and, simultaneously, sufficient virulence. If he got higher resistance, he got less virulence. One of the strains was tested on monkeys, but proved unsatisfactory. Domaradsky was adrift, and his conflict with the institute director, Nikolai Urakov, worsened as the months went by. Urakov blocked one of Domaradsky’s students from receiving a doctorate, questioned Domaradsky’s salary, gave Domaradsky piles of paperwork and insisted Domaradsky move out of his breezy flat in Protvino and into the dark woods at Obolensk. Domaradsky at one point took a daring step, writing a letter of complaint about Urakov to the Politburo. The letter resulted in an internal investigation and more conflict. Finally, Domaradsky asked to be transferred to another job in Moscow. He left Obolensk in the summer of 1987, having done much to launch the biological weapons program, but never to return.

Domaradsky thought his research on genetically modified agents fell short. He believed the search for a tularemia agent was a stopgap idea. It wasn’t contagious and the military wanted more virulent and dangerous pathogens that could spread. Overall, he said, “Very little was done to develop a new generation of these weapons, as had been the original goal” of the interagency council he had joined in Moscow in 1975. “I have to say that it has justified neither the hopes nor the colossal investment of material. Essentially nothing remarkable was ever produced …”1

Domaradsky’s conclusion was premature. As he left, others took up the quest to create the agents of death.

In Domaradsky’s final year at Obolensk, a new scientist arrived. Sergei Popov was the bright young researcher who had worked on genetic engineering at Koltsovo, figuring out how to make the immune system turn on itself. At the time he arrived at Obolensk, the new building for working on dangerous pathogens was rising out of the forest. Popov recalled seeing Domaradsky roaming the halls, a bitter outcast. They did not talk. Popov believes he was brought in as Domaradsky’s successor in the intensifying search for genetically altered agents to be used in a biological weapon. When he departed Koltsovo in 1986, Popov turned over to other scientists his “construct,” the piece of DNA that would be inserted into a genome. Once at Obolensk, he began to look for ways to broaden his early discovery, using bacteria as the vehicle instead of viruses. “New, improved constructs had been provided to me in Obolensk,” he recalled. “My mission was to continue what had been started in Koltsovo.” The goal was to create agents with new and unusual characteristics, causing death in ways that would be unfathomable, and unstoppable.

For Popov, the Obolensk lifestyle seemed a welcome change from Koltsovo. With Moscow only an hour away, Popov drove north and loaded up his car with food and goods unknown in Koltsovo. But at work, Popov ran into resistance from Urakov, who was not pleased. “Urakov did not want me there,” Popov said. “Why would he? It was recognized that he had not kept up with the problem, and that microbiology was underdeveloped at the institute. Domaradsky also failed to meet the goal, and Biopreparat decided to assign a new person who would solve the problem. And imagine, a military general who was told something like this. He was against me from the very beginning! But Biopreparat insisted.”

In the years that followed, Popov sought to engineer some of the most hazardous biological agents ever imagined. Using his earlier experience with the smallpox virus, he sought to create a pathogen that would deceive the victim. With genetic engineering, he hoped to create a deadly one-two punch: a first wave that would cause illness, followed by recovery, then a second wave that would be unexpected and fatal. It was a profoundly evil idea, to manipulate the very smallest building blocks of life, creating a germ that could not be stopped by remedies known to mankind. Nor was the idea his handiwork alone. It was the deliberate policy of the Soviet state.

The method Popov took was to construct a pathogen within a pathogen; the second one would deliver the deadly assault. He told Urakov he wanted to try five different microbes as the vehicle, or the first stage of the illness. Each of the agents was under control of a different group at the institute, and Popov would have to work with them all. The five were: Burkhholderia mallei, which causes glanders, an infectious disease primarily affecting horses; Burkholderia pseudomallei, which causes melioidosis, an infectious disease prevalent in tropical climates; Yersinia pestis, which causes plague; Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax; and Legionella, which leads to legionellosis, or Legionnaires’ disease. Although Popov was at the center of the research, thousands of people participated in it. The best and brightest graduates from Soviet universities were recruited for Obolensk. Each floor of the new building was outfitted for work on different pathogens. Popov scrutinized each for signs that it would make a good carrier. Anthrax didn’t work; plague was not good enough. Eventually, Popov found that only Legionella would succeed. The amount needed was small; a lethal dose was only a few Legionella cells. But there were technical obstacles; it wasn’t easy to grow enough Legionella to experiment with and, if weaponized, it would be very difficult to mass-produce.

For the second stage, Popov returned to the lessons of Koltsovo and his discovery there. He inserted into Legionella the genetic material that would cause the body to attack its own nervous system. Nerves are covered with a myelin insulation that helps them transmit impulses. Popov’s plan was to cause the body’s immune system to destroy the myelin. This would cause paralysis and, eventually, death. If the new genetically engineered pathogen worked, the victim would first come down with Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia. “Some of the infected would die, and some recover, absolutely recover. However, in two weeks the recovered person would develop paralysis and would die,” Popov explained. The paralysis and death were caused by the destruction of the myelin insulation. In effect, the body would wreck its own nervous system. “When your body tries to heal itself,” Popov said, “it actually does the reverse.”

“It was deceptive,” Popov said. “The first wave disease would disappear or would never be an acute disease. It could be a little bit of coughing, or nothing, you don’t feel it, that’s it. And then two weeks later, the disease would be hardly treatable, actually there would be no way to effectively treat it.”

The idea took him years to perfect. But the result was so terrible that when Popov saw what happened to guinea pigs during testing, he was overwhelmed with doubt.2

On the bleak steppe of Kazakhstan, new workers streamed into the massive new factory at Stepnogorsk. By 1986, Ken Alibek, the chief of the anthrax assembly line, recalled that he supervised nine hundred people, and the Soviets had created “the most effective anthrax weapon ever produced.” He remembered working at a frenzied pace, spending all his days and nights in the laboratories. “I still shuddered occasionally when I looked at the bacteria multiplying in our fermenters and considered that they could end the lives of millions of people. But the secret culture of our labs had changed my outlook.”

The pressure-cooker environment took a heavy toll, and accidents happened every week. Once, he recalled, a technician was infected with anthrax. The man’s neck began to bulge, closing off his breathing. Antibiotics did not work. Within days, death seemed inevitable. At the last minute, they injected the man with a huge dose of anthrax antiserum and saved him. “The technician’s narrow escape drove home the potency of our new weapon,” Alibek recalled in his memoir. “Our powdered and liquid formulations of anthrax were three times as strong as the weapons that had been developed at Sverdlovsk.”

In 1987, the anthrax was tested on Vozrozhdeniye Island, according to Alibek. With the success of the tests, the old facility in Sverdlovsk, where the accident had occurred eight years earlier, was no longer needed. The massive new factory at Stepnogorsk was far superior. “Our factory could turn out two tons of anthrax a day in a process as reliable and efficient as producing tanks, trucks, cars or Coca-Cola,” Alibek said. “With the creation of the world’s first industrial-scale biological weapons factory, the Soviet Union became the world’s first—and only—biological superpower.”3

But not everything was quite as efficient as Alibek claimed. Popov recalled that Stepnogorsk suffered “huge problems.” Among them, “People in charge were drunkards, and they didn’t care very much about what they did. The only requirement was that anthrax had to kill; they tested the product on animals. From the microbiological standpoint, they did a dirty work. As a result, the facility was very unproductive, and the results were often miserable—sometimes good, but sometimes they harvested no anthrax. The anthrax cells dissolved in the process we call phage lysis.” This is a virus that attacks the bacteria. “So, quite often the anthrax microbe just didn’t survive in those huge fermenters. And Biopreparat people often complained about it. They asked if we could help Alibek with his problem … They could not solve it. They thought the reason was the poor sterility of the components.”

Nonetheless, Alibek recalled, the larger goal was achieved. “Stepnogorsk demonstrated our ability to wage biological warfare on a scale matched by no other nation in history. We had taken the science of biowarfare further in the previous four years than it had traveled in the four decades since World War II.”

Alibek was promoted and transferred to Moscow in September 1987. After just a few months, he was given his first major assignment at Biopreparat headquarters. He was to supervise creation of a new smallpox weapon. He spent an afternoon reading over a top-secret document that he described as a five-year plan for biological weapons development, signed by Gorbachev in February 1986. The document carried a line for what kind of weapon, what kind of systems and when each would be tested between 1986 and 1990, he said. Among other things in the plan, Alibek saw a line for funding a 630-liter viral reactor to produce smallpox at Koltsovo. “Our military leaders,” he recalled in his memoir, “had decided to concentrate on one of the toughest challenges of bioweaponeering —the transformation of viruses into weapons of war.” He added, “Gorbachev’s Five Year Plan—and his generous funding, which would amount to over $1 billion by the end of the decade—allowed us to catch up with and then surpass Western technology.”4

When Alibek visited Vector, the smallpox project was just getting off the ground. “Vector’s prize acquisition was the expensive new viral reactor authorized by Gorbachev’s decree,” he recalled. “Designed by one of our Moscow institutes … it was the first of its kind in the world. It stood about five feet high and was enclosed within thick stainless steel walls. An agitator at the bottom kept the mixture inside churning like clothes in a washing machine. Pipes led out in several directions, both for waste matter and weapons-ready material. A window on its convex roof allowed scientists to observe the viral culture at all times.”

Popov also knew of the five-year plan for biological weapons and was certain it had been approved at the highest levels. “We didn’t have any doubt the Central Committee was behind all of this. Not a single doubt,” he said. Once, in Moscow, Popov also read a top-secret document in a folder that described the long-term program. “I remember that I misplaced the document and took it somewhere as I was walking through Biopreparat offices, and they chased me because it was a top-secret document. I had it in my folder, it wasn’t even a briefcase, they gave it to me in a folder, there was a special table I had to sit at. I don’t know how it happened, maybe I went to the restroom or something.” The guards grabbed him and returned him to the table.

In all of Gorbachev’s struggle for disarmament—his determination to push back the military and its powerful designers, his willingness to abandon the doctrine of two blocs inexorably at odds, his rhetoric about a world free of nuclear destruction and danger—there was one unexplained gap. Hidden in secret institutes, referred to obliquely even in the Kremlin as “works on special problems,” the biological weapons drive was going at full speed at the same moment that Gorbachev reached the apex of his cooperation with Reagan. Gorbachev abhorred nuclear weapons, and he declared his intention to eliminate chemical weapons. Did he also fear the pathogens?

One key question is how much Gorbachev knew about the program. The record suggests that some members of the Politburo knew in great detail what kinds of horrors were being cooked up at Obolensk and Vector. Lev Zaikov, the Politburo member in charge of the military-industrial complex, who was Katayev’s boss, certainly knew. Gorbachev must have become aware of the program when he became general secretary in 1985, and perhaps before. There is a document in Katayev’s files that lists a Central Committee resolution on biological weapons on November 18, 1986. This was in effect an order from the Politburo that Gorbachev certainly would have known about. Three sources—Alibek, who built the anthrax assembly line; Popov, who worked at both Koltsovo and Obolensk; and Vladimir Pasechnik, a well-informed institute chief in the system who later defected to Britain—claim that Gorbachev and the Politburo were kept abreast of the program in the late 1980s. Alibek claims to have seen the specific five-year plan signed by Gorbachev. Chernyaev, perhaps the closest aide to Gorbachev, also confirmed in an interview that Gorbachev knew the Soviet Union was in violation of the biological weapons treaty. Chernyaev insisted that Gorbachev wanted to end the biological weapons program, but the military misled him, promising to shut it down, although they did not.5 “Not even Gorbachev was fully informed about the activities of our military-industrial complex,” Chernyaev wrote in his memoirs.

It is also not known what intelligence Gorbachev received from the KGB. The United States had abandoned offensive biological weapons in 1969, but scientists in the Soviet program have insisted they were told by the KGB for many years that the American offensive germ warfare program did exist; it was just well hidden.

If Gorbachev knew of the Soviet program, and if he was so determined to slow the arms race in missiles, why did he not take stronger action to slow the arms race in test tubes? He had done so much else with glasnost to unearth the misdeeds of the Soviet past—admitting the mass repressions of Stalin, for example—why could he not expose or stop the dangerous germ warfare efforts that began long before he came to power? This is difficult to answer.

One explanation may be that the biological weapons program was so entrenched that Gorbachev might have decided it was impossible to tackle, or at the very least, as a tactical matter, that he should wait until later to deal with it. In other cases it took Gorbachev years to bring about a change in course and overturn past errors and deep secrecy involving military affairs.

Also, Gorbachev might have felt himself unable to challenge the authority of those who ran the biological weapons empire. The Chernobyl experience was relevant—it showed him how hard it was to confront the nuclear priesthood, and surely the biological weapons scientists and generals could be just as difficult. In Gorbachev’s last two years, as his power waned, he may simply have lacked the willpower or stature to take on a new power struggle. “He didn’t know how to exercise his control,” Chernyaev said. Gorbachev may have been reluctant to admit the full scope of Soviet violations out of fear of what it could do to his public image and that of his “new thinking” all over the world. He may have opted to avoid the whole subject because he had no idea how to handle the impact of such a damaging disclosure.

One reason that has been suggested by Soviet officials for Gorbachev’s inaction is that biological weapons may have been seen as some kind of military asset, to be held in reserve, perhaps to compensate for other shortcomings in defense. But it is doubtful Gorbachev preserved the pathogens out of any sense of their strategic or military value. Gorbachev was clearly determined to ease the threat of war, not build new weapons of such comparable power and danger.

Still, it remains a puzzle why, given Gorbachev’s dedication to glasnost and his enormous effort at disarmament in the nuclear field, he did not do more to stop the dangerous biological weapons program. In all the years of Gorbachev’s drive for change and openness, the Soviet Union continued to cover up Biopreparat and all it encompassed.

One of the most elaborate deceptions involved the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax leak, the worst disaster of the Soviet biological weapons program. Through the decade of the 1980s, the Soviets fabricated details about the outbreak to suggest it had explicable, natural causes, such as tainted meat. Soviet officials spread these falsehoods around the world. They lied in international meetings, to other scientists and to themselves. They misled the distinguished Harvard molecular biologist Matthew Meselson, who had been called in by the CIA to puzzle over the early reports about the Sverdlovsk accident in 1980.

Meselson had been trying through the 1980s to answer the questions he first raised when studying the intelligence reports. An effort in 1983 to organize an expedition to Sverdlovsk fell apart after the Korean airliner shoot down that year. In 1986, he was invited to come to Moscow by officials at the Ministry of Health. On that visit, Meselson met with several top Soviet health officials, including Pyotr Burgasov, the deputy health minister who, at the time of the outbreak, spread the story that contaminated meat was the cause of the anthrax epidemic. Burgasov probably knew better; he had been involved with the Soviet biological weapons program since the 1950s and had served in the Sverdlovsk facility from 1958 to 1963. In the meetings in Moscow with Meselson, August 27–30, 1986, Burgasov repeated that contaminated meat was the cause and added that contaminated bone meal had been fed to cattle and caused the epidemic. Meselson also met with Vladimir Nikiforov, chief of the infectious diseases department at the Central Postgraduate Institute, located within the Botkin Hospital in Moscow, and Olga Yampolskaya, a specialist in infectious diseases there, who had been present during the Sverdlovsk epidemic. Nikiforov was the courtly scientist who had courageously told the Sverdlovsk pathologists to hide and preserve their autopsy results in 1979. But now he was advancing the official line. Nikiforov showed Meselson fourteen photographic slides from the autopsies that, he insisted, supported the argument that anthrax had been ingested by eating the contaminated meat. The lungs of the victims, he claimed, were “undamaged and free of hemorrhage.” Before leaving Moscow on August 29, Meselson told the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy what he found in his discussions. The Soviet officials had insisted victims had died from intestinal anthrax; Meselson said he had no way of knowing if the story was true, but it “did seem to hang together.”6

In September 1986, the Soviet officials offered the same false explanation in Geneva at the Second Review Conference for the Biological Weapons Convention. Soviet officials prepared a briefing for Gorbachev warning him that suspicions were deepening in the West that the Soviet Union had something to hide. Nonetheless, the cover-up continued at the conference and afterward.7 On October 10–12, 1986, Joshua Lederberg, president of Rockefeller University, who was chairman of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the National Academy of Sciences, visited Moscow. Lederberg was a pioneering microbiologist, recipient of the 1953 Nobel Prize for the discovery that bacteria engage in a form of sexual reproduction and thus possess a genetic mechanism similar to those of higher organisms. Lederberg was presented with the story that anthrax bacteria had been spread by contaminated meat from cattle fed a bonemeal supplement that was improperly sterilized, and produced from naturally infected carcasses. Like Meselson, Lederberg was deceived. “My personal conclusion,” Lederberg later wrote, “is that the present Soviet account of the epidemic is plausible on its face and internally consistent.” The Soviet explanations are “very likely to be true.”8

In Moscow, on November 18, 1986, the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers approved a measure, proposed by the Defense Ministry, to move the secret formulas for biological weapons and the manufacturing plants away from the military. Specifically, the measure called for action by 1992—in the course of the next six years—to eliminate “the stockpile of biological recipes and industrial capacities for production of biological weapons located at the sites of this ministry.” This appears to mean that over the next six years, the Defense Ministry would transfer the formulas and production facilities to the better-concealed Biopreparat complex. Such a move was already undertaken with the anthrax facility at Sverdlovsk, which was moved to Stepnogorsk. The reason for the move, according to the documents, was to meet the goal “of insuring openness of work in conditions of international verification.” This was code for the fact that Soviet leaders wanted to keep the program alive—and well hidden—at a time when international inspectors might be nosing around. It seems extremely likely that such a high-level action by the Central Committee, which was led by members of the Politburo, would have come to Gorbachev’s attention.9

In 1987, a fresh worry arose in Moscow among the top echelons of Biopreparat and the military. For all their efforts at secrecy, a speech on chemical weapons treaty verification by Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze threatened to crack open the door to their empire. During Gorbachev’s glasnost, Soviet diplomats in several negotiations had expressed a willingness to allow more intrusive verification of arms control treaties, to show they were not cheating. This new openness was the spirit of a speech August 6, 1987, by Shevardnadze at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. In the spring, Gorbachev had announced the Soviet Union would stop manufacturing chemical weapons. Now, Shevardnadze went further and promised support for “the principle of mandatory challenge inspections without right of refusal.” This was a “vivid manifestation” of Soviet commitment to “genuine and effective verification,” he said. For years, the United States had accused the Soviet Union of violating treaties and demanded effective verification. It was the essence of Reagan’s favorite Russian slogan, “trust, but verify.” While Shevardnadze’s overture was made for chemical weapons, it dawned on Soviet biological warfare experts back in Moscow that it could easily be applied to them, too. The inspections could take unpredictable turns. If the West wanted to peek into a suspect facility—say, Obolensk or Koltsovo or Stepnogorsk—how could they refuse? Nikita Smidovich, an aide to Shevardnadze who wrote the Geneva speech, said the biological weapons chiefs realized the chemical inspections threatened their closed world. They concluded, he said, if the inspectors “can go everywhere, they will probably get to us as well, so we need to get prepared.”10

On October 2, 1987, after Shevardnadze’s speech, the Central Committee and Council of Ministers issued an order to speed up preparations for possible international inspections. The goal was not to be open, but the opposite: continue the secret germ warfare program by moving the formulas and factories to a more secret place. And do it quicker.11

The Sverdlovsk deception reached a new level of audacity April 10–17, 1988, when Burgasov, Nikiforov and a third Soviet medical official, Vladimir Sergiyev, came to the United States with a presentation of their theory about contaminated meat and bonemeal. Meselson said he arranged the visit in hopes that the Soviet officials would be exposed to expert questioning from American scientists. The Soviets delivered their bogus story to distinguished audiences three times: at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore and the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It was clear to us that infectious meat was the cause,” claimed Burgasov. “The whole idea of some sort of aerosol is impossible,” he said. He dismissed the possibility of a leak of anthrax bacteria from Compound 19. “I couldn’t imagine that in the midst of the highly populated area that there could be any work on highly dangerous pathogens,” he said, although he knew that was probably what happened. Nikiforov, who also knew the truth, narrated autopsy slides that portrayed great black intestinal sores, which pointed toward contaminated meat, not inhalation. In all, the Soviet officials had addressed more than two hundred private and government medical scientists and arms control experts, delivering untruths to all of them. Afterward, summarizing the Soviet presentations, Meselson wrote that he found the Soviet explanation “plausible and consistent with what is known from previous outbreaks of human and animal anthrax in the USSR and elsewhere, including the US.” Meselson still hoped to send a group of American scientists to Sverdlovsk.12

Alibek, who had built the anthrax assembly line at Stepnogorsk and was now working in Moscow at the Biopreparat headquarters, sensed the tension over possible international inspections. “Once knowledgeable foreign scientists set foot in one of our installations, our secret would be out,” he wrote in his memoir. When Alibek became first deputy director of Biopreparat in 1988, he was put in charge of hiding the evidence. The assignment soon crowded out his other duties. A special task force for the deception plans was set up at the Moscow Institute of Applied Biochemistry. Even the name of the institute was itself a deception. “The institute had no connection with biochemistry: its function was to design and manufacture equipment for our labs,” he said. The task force was given the equivalent of $400,000 to create a cover story, or “legend,” for Biopreparat operations and to demonstrate the “civilian” character of the work, that they were making medicines to defend against disease, or pesticides.

“Nevertheless, some of us worried that foreign inspectors would see through our schemes.” By 1988, Biopreparat had produced an instruction manual for employees on how to answer questions for inspectors, Alibek said. “Every conceivable question—What is this room for? Why is this equipment here?—was followed by a prepared reply, which workers were expected to memorize.”

“I was most concerned about our smallpox project,” he said. “If foreign inspectors brought the right equipment to the Vector compound in Siberia, they would immediately pick up evidence of smallpox.” As part of the global smallpox eradication effort, in which the Soviet Union had played a leading role, there were supposed to be only two repositories for the remaining smallpox strains, one in the United States and the other in Moscow at the Ivanovsky Institute of the Ministry of Health. This is what the Soviet Union had pledged to the World Health Organization. What the world didn’t know until years later was that the Soviet Union had broken its word.13

In 1988, worried about foreign inspections, an order was given by the Soviet military to get rid of a large supply of anthrax spores that had been removed from Sverdlovsk after the accident. This Bacillus anthracis had been in storage at the town of Zima, near Irkutsk, in Siberia. When the order came to destroy it, more than one hundred tons of anthrax solution, in 250-liter stainless steel containers, was taken by train, and then by ship, to Vozrozhdeniye Island, where it was mixed with hydrogen peroxide and formic acid, and then buried in eleven graves dug in the earth. The graves, four to six feet deep, were unlined, so nothing would prevent the anthrax from seeping deeper into the ground. As they lay there under the earth, the anthrax spores were not all destroyed. Some remained active for many years to come.14

One thousand miles east of Moscow, in a flatlands beyond the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, stood a nondescript rectangle-shaped compound, more than a mile long and nearly a mile wide, situated almost precisely on a north-south axis, with orderly rows of low-lying wood-plank warehouses and corrugated metal rooftops, surrounded by trees and traversed by rail lines. Inside the warehouses, berths cradled row upon row of projectiles, from 85mm artillery rounds to larger warheads for Scud missiles. They were set on racks like so many wine bottles in a dark cellar. In this one remote compound, near the town of Shchuchye in western Siberia, 1.9 million projectiles were filled with 5,447 metric tons of the nerve agents sarin, soman and a Soviet analogue of the nerve gas VX. All told, it was 13.6 percent of the Soviet chemical weapons arsenal.15 The projectiles were the legacy of a shadowy era of the arms race in which the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union stockpiled massive amounts of chemical weapons, while negotiations to restrict them dragged on for two decades in Geneva without result. From the beginning of his disarmament drive, Gorbachev wanted to be rid of these chemical weapons.

The killing power of chemical weapons is monstrous. Less than ten milligrams of the American nerve agent VX—a small drop of fluid on the skin—could kill a grown man in fifteen minutes or less. A liter of such an agent contains enough lethal doses, theoretically, to kill one million people.16 Such nerve agents serve no peaceful purpose—they are solely agents of death. The author Jonathan Tucker described them as colorless, odorless liquids that enter the body through the lungs or skin and attack the nervous system. The victim falls to the ground, convulses and loses consciousness, after which inhibition of the breathing center of the brain and paralysis of the respiratory muscles cause death by asphyxiation within minutes.

The Soviets had amassed at least forty thousand tons of chemical agents, and the United States thirty-one thousand tons. While silent about biological weapons, Gorbachev openly sought to get rid of the chemical arms. He announced in Prague on April 13, 1987, that the Soviet Union would stop manufacturing them. He mothballed the Soviet factories for making the chemicals and filling the munitions.

After his speech on surprise inspections in Geneva, Shevardnadze invited foreign observers to a top-secret Soviet chemical weapons testing facility at Shikhany, on the Volga River 560 miles southeast of Moscow. Shevardnadze said he wanted to “build an atmosphere of trust.” On October 3–4, 1987, a delegation of 110 experts from 45 countries and 55 journalists were flown there in four airplanes. At the facility, on a freshly poured concrete slab, the delegation saw nineteen projectiles and containers, including hand grenades, rocket and artillery rounds, and a nine-foot-tall chemical warhead for the Scud.17 The visit seemed to be another sign of the Gorbachev glasnost. Yuri Nazarkin, the Soviet representative at arms control talks, declared, “We have nothing to hide.”18 This was not quite true. Missing from the lineup on the concrete pad was a new type of chemical weapon Soviet scientists were desperately trying to develop to keep pace with the United States.

Until the 1980s, both the United States and Soviet Union built chemical weapons that contained a single agent that would be dispersed when detonated. This was called a unitary chemical weapon. The agents tended to degrade over time. The United States stopped manufacturing them in 1969, when potential hazards were discovered in the U.S. arsenal. In 1985, Congress approved destroying the older weapons while authorizing the creation of a new type of chemical weapon, known as a binary. It would have two parts, each a stable ingredient that, when combined at the last minute in the shell or bomb, would turn into a toxic cocktail. This was a tricky engineering feat, but a binary weapon might have a longer shelf life. Reagan approved production of the new binary weapon right after the December 1987 summit with Gorbachev. “Maybe that will get the Soviets to join us in eliminating chemical warfare,” he wrote in his diary.19 The Soviets were already rushing—in secret—to create the same thing. They experimented with binary weapons in the 1970s, but failed to come up with a successful model. Then, in the 1980s, they launched another quest. One part of this new drive was to create a binary weapon out of ordinary chemicals that might be used in fertilizer or pesticides. These were called the novichok generation of agents, or the “new guy.”

Vil Mirzayanov was a witness to the potential power of these deadly nerve agents. He had worked for many years at the headquarters of chemical weapons research in Moscow. In May 1987, one of his friends, an experienced military chemist, Andrei Zheleznyakov, suffered an accident. He was a test engineer whose job was to check finished products. He was working on a binary weapon, one of the novichok generation. According to Mirzayanov, there was a chemical reactor under a fume hood, and then a pipe carrying the substance to a spectrometer, which was too big to put under the hood. It was in the room, with ventilation on the ceiling, but not protected by the hood.

The pipe somehow broke, and the poison leaked into the air. Zheleznyakov quickly sealed the leak, but it was too late. He felt the impact immediately—myosis, the constriction of the pupil of the eye. “I saw rings before my eyes—red, orange,” he later recalled. “Bells were ringing inside my head. I choked. Add to this the feeling of fear—as if something was about to happen at any moment. I sat down and told the guys: I think it has ‘got’ me. They dragged me out of the room—I was still able to move—and took me to the chief. He looked at me and said, ‘Have a cup of tea, everything will be fine.’ I drank the tea and immediately threw up.

“They took me to the medical unit,” he added, “where I was injected with an antidote. I felt a little better. The chief told me: ‘Go home and lie down. Come back tomorrow.’ They assigned me an escort, and we walked past a few bus stops. We were already passing the church near Ilyich Square, when suddenly I saw the church lighting up and falling apart. I remember nothing else.”

His escort dragged Zheleznyakov back to the medical unit. They called an ambulance and took him to the hospital, accompanied by KGB agents, who told doctors he had suffered food poisoning from eating contaminated sausage. The KGB agents made the doctors sign a pledge never to discuss the case. After eighteen days in intensive care, doctors managed to save his life.

At the end of the hospitalization, he was given a pension and told to remain silent. Zheleznyakov suffered aftereffects for a long time, including chronic weakness in his arms, toxic hepatitis, epilepsy, severe depression and an inability to concentrate. Zheleznyakov had been a jovial man and was known as a talented woodcarver, but the accident left him unable to work or be creative. He died five years after the accident.20

Novichok had shown its teeth.

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