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The Soviet Union began a biological weapons program in the 1920s although the Soviet Union was a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Convention, which banned both chemical and biological weapons. During World War II, Joseph Stalin was forced to move his biological weapons (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-agents[1] (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.


Pre-World War II

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 weapons.[2]

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 camp.[3] 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 1933.[4]

World War II

During World War II, Stalin was forced to move his BW operations out of the path of advancing German forces [5] 1941: Soviet bioweapons facilities are transferred to the city of Kirov.

1942: Alleged use of tularemia against German troops.[3][6]

Tularemia was allegedly used against German troops in 1942 near Stalingrad.[3] 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 facility.[3] It was suggested by some, however, that the outbreak might be of natural origin, since a pulmonary form of tularemia has also been noted in natural outbreaks in Martha's Vineyard in 2000.[6]

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 grain.[7]

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 War

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 Moscow.[3] 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 program.[8] 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 tons.[9]

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 1990.[3] 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 Alibek.[3] (aka Kanatjan Alibekov).

It has been reported that Russia made smallpox available to Iraq in the beginning of the 1990s.[10]

Post-BWC developments

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 era

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 people.[11] 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 existed. 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 purposes.[12]

Compliance with the agreement as well as the fate of the former Soviet bio-agents and facilities, is still mostly undocumented.[13]

1990s: 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".[14] At least two agents died, presumably from the transported pathogens [14]

2000s (decade): The academician, "A.S.", 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 Pushchino [4]

List of Soviet/Russian BW institutions, programs and projects

  • 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
    • 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 accidents


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.” [10][15]


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 Alibek.[3]

Marburg virus

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 accidentally died from 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 1990.[3]

List of Soviet/Russian bioweaponeers

  • Igor Domaradskij[16]
  • Kanatjan Alibekov, known as Ken Alibek[17]
  • Vladimir Pasechnik[18]
  • Sergei Popov[19]
  • Yuri Ovchinnikov[20]
  • Nikolai Ustinov, died of Marburg virus disease
  • Pyotr Burgasov

See also


  1. Cook, Michelle Stem and Amy F. Woolf (April 10, 2002), Preventing Proliferation of Biological Weapons: U.S. 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. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 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 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Alibek" defined multiple times with different content
  4. 4.0 4.1 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. 6.0 6.1 Eric Croddy & Sarka Krcalova. Tularemia, Biological Warfare, and the Battle for Stalingrad (1942-1943). Military Medicine 166.10 (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. 10.0 10.1 Shoham D, Wolfson Z (2004). "The Russian biological weapons program: vanished or disappeared?". pp. 241–61. Digital object identifier:10.1080/10408410490468812. PMID 15646399. 
  11. J Miller, S Engelberg, and W Broad (2001), Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
  12. 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: Retrieved January 18, 2006.
  13. Adherence To and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, Washington, DC: US Department of State; 2005. Available at: Retrieved August 9, 2006.
  14. 14.0 14.1 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]
  15. "Smallpox - not a bad weapon" (in Russian). Interview with General Burgasov. Moscow News. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  16. Domaradskij, Igor V. and Wendy Orent (2003), Biowarrior: Inside the Soviet/Russian Biological War Machine; Prometheus Books.
  17. "Interview: Dr Kanatjan Alibekov". Frontline. PBS. Retrieved 8 March 2010. 
  18. "Obituary: Vladimir Pasechnik". London: Daily Telegraph. 29 November 2001. Retrieved 8 March 2010. 
  19. "Interviews With Biowarriors: Sergei Popov", (2001) NOVA Online.
  20. Birstein, Vadim J. (2004), The Perversion Of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science, Westview Press ISBN 0-8133-4280-5.

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