Week 13 Preparedness Blog: Soviet Union World War Two Bioterrorism Program

Week 13 - May 11, 2018

by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association

Soviet Union World War Two Bioterrorism Program

The republic, formed by abdication of Russian Czar Nicholas in March 1917, was supplanted in November of 1917 by Vladimir Lenin led Bolshevik Revolution; however, Civil War would erupt and continue until 1921 between the Bolsheviks and all the groups opposing them, who were labeled as “White Russians”. Bolshevik’s Red Army, though substantially outnumbered and out resourced, would achieve final victory; largely due to White Russian groups inability to align and agree upon a common strategy. The Red Army, with its unified leadership, was able to isolate and defeat each of the opposing groups one by one: truly an example of divide and conquer.

Three years of world war and three years of civil war had devastated the Russian economy. Lenin’s rule would be short, dying of a stroke in 1924 to be replaced by Josef Stalin.  Stalin was determined to bring the Soviet Union into the 20th century technologically; carrying out a series of five-year plans designed to reform the Russian agricultural sector and modernize Russian industry. Unfortunately, production and technology reforms were accompanied by mass imprisonments and executions of citizens accused or interpreted as challenging, opposing or threatening Stalin and his plans. During Stalin’s reign, an estimated thirty million Soviet citizens experienced imprisonment and/or forced labor, with another twenty million being executed.

While the Soviet Union was achieving technological advances during the 1920’s and 1930’s, it was also in the process of developing a biological weapons program. Even though the Soviet Union had signed the 1925 Geneva Convention banning development and use of biological and chemical weapons of warfare, by the 1930’s the Soviets were experimenting with typhus, glanders and melioidosis at multiple bioweapons research sites. When the Nazi Germany invasion in the summer of 1941 threatened to overrun European Russia, the bioweapons infrastructure was deemed important enough to be moved deeper inland, along with munition and armament manufacturing plants.

The Soviet Union would barely survive German invasion in 1941, and in 1942 the Germans renewed their offensive attacking southern Russian towards the Volga region wheat fields and the Caucasus region oil fields. By the Fall of 1942, German forces appeared unstoppable and completely assured of reaching their economic objectives in southern Russia with Russian troops retreating and providing minimal opposition. However, when German troops reached the key industrial and political target of Stalingrad (Stalin’s city), they became ill and their offensive stalled. Soviet forces were able to regroup and reorganize; reinforcements were deployed and a Russian counterattack in November 1942 would lead to German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943 and surrender of 250,000 soldiers.

In the mid 1970’s, while a graduate student researching infectious disease trends for the Soviet Union, future Soviet Bioweapons Program Deputy Director Ken Alibek became convinced Russian forces had released weaponized tularemia to stop German advances at the Battle of Stalingrad. The evidence Alibek accumulated was overwhelmingly compelling. Annually, there were 10,000 cases of tularemia cases in the Soviet Union, but during the Battle of Stalingrad, tularemia cases soared to 100,000; by far the largest outbreak of tularemia in Russian history. Furthermore, 70% of German tularemia cases during the battle were the pneumonic form, rather than the cutaneous form more commonly associated with natural exposure; strongly indicating aerosolized infection. Again, the uncontrollable nature of biological weapons was evidenced by many Russian soldiers and civilians in the battlefield region becoming ill with tularemia; probably due to shifting of winds during spraying of the weaponized tularemia. The final piece of evidence was that, within a year, tularemia case levels had returned to normal. Alibek was eventually able to speak with scientists who confirmed Soviets had developed a tularemia bioweapon in 1941, as well as evidence of Soviet release of Coxiella burnetii (Q-Fever) against German forces in the Crimea region near the Black Sea during roughly the same time frame.

World War Two was immensely costly to the Soviet Union, with almost nine million military personnel killed and over seventeen million civilian deaths; however, it was able to achieve victory by unifying its 200 million citizens from multiple ethnic groups into one insurmountable force. This unified defense against the Nazi Germany invaders was accomplished despite decades of totalitarian rule encompassed by mass imprisonments and executions during the Stalin regime; a demonstration of love for their homeland by the Russian people despite their feelings for Stalin. Both world wars left indelible impressions on the Russian leadership to always ensure they maximized territorial buffers and used all available tools of warfare to defend themselves; including. and especially. biological agents.


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