Week 14 Preparedness Blog: Soviet Union Bioterrorism Program 1945 to 1973

Week 14 - May 18, 2018

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

Soviet Union Bioterrorism Program 1945 -1973

The Soviet Union emerged victorious from World War Two having absorbed catastrophic infrastructure and economic losses, along with a combined twenty-seven million military and civilian deaths. Convinced of inevitable war with the Western European democracies and United States, the Soviets Union was determined to establish a territorial buffer zone between itself and western Europe. Subsequently, Soviet dominated communist governments were established in the eastern European nations conquered during the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Soviet economy was rebuilt by requiring war reparations from the eastern European communist countries, as well as transferring these same nations’ industrial infrastructure to Russian territory and establishing trade agreements with each country designed to provide markets for Soviet produced goods. Per the mantra of eventual war with the West, Soviet industry in Post-World War Two years until Stalin’s death in 1953 was focused on military production at the expense of consumer goods and agricultural reforms. The call to nationalism over communism had contributed greatly to Russian victory against Germany, but after victory was achieved Stalin rapidly returned to the authoritarian and repressive Marxist philosophy of governing designed to control citizens and convince them of the dangers and evils of democracy and capitalistic freedom.

Nikita Khrushchev replaced Stalin as supreme leader of the Soviet Union, determined to streamline the rigid economic command structure, which greatly inhibited Russian ability to take advantage of rapid technological developments. Khrushchev set forth “The Thaw”: loosening Stalinist controls on government, economy and society; reforming Soviet structure to allow for a more progressive, modernized nation better equipped to compete on the world stage. Khrushchev realized the Soviet Unio,n with its massive land holdings, one sixth of the world’s arable land, was under Russian domain, and incredible abundant natural resources, was well positioned for super power status. He set about to reduce bureaucratic obstacles and substantially expand technical education programs leading to significant scientific and technological breakthroughs. Soviet advancements were particularly noteworthy in the rocket and space technology field where former German scientists working with newly trained and educated Soviet scientists led to the Soviet Union being the world leader in both rocketry and space achievements. Ironically, Soviet technological advances served as a wake-up call and substantial fear factor to the western democracies and United States, setting off a three-decade arms race with massive defense spending that would put increasingly greater pressure on the Soviet economy.

Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1964. The Russia Brezhnev was to lead during the 1960’s and beginning of the 1970’s was one attempting to balance the traditional Soviet high priority of national defense thru heavy investment in the military industrial complex with an ever more educated society demanding improvements in living conditions. Brezhnev began transitioning Russian manufacturing to increase production of consumer goods while attempting to maintain previous military production levels. However, Brezhnev faced a near impossible task: government-controlled allocation of all resources and monopolized eastern European communist markets had long insulated Soviet industries from foreign competition. Consequently, a free market system to stimulate competition, provide worker incentives and develop quality production methodologies were all lacking. The Soviet economy was increasingly unable to meet neither the growing expectations of its citizens nor the demands of its military leadership.           

Successful utilization of Tularemia and Q-fever against the Germans during World War Two strongly encouraged the Soviets to continue expansion of their bioweapons program. The same education programs, which delivered generations of engineers and physical scientists for the rocket, space and nuclear programs would in turn bring forth generations of biological and chemical scientists for the Soviet bioweapons and chemical weapons programs. The time frame from the end of World War Two until 1973 would represent Phase I of the Soviet bioweapons program with utilization of basic microbiological and genetic techniques of the period to develop robust and virulent biological warfare agents from deadly microbes. As advancements in the Soviet rocket program were significantly aided by knowledge obtained from former German scientists, the Soviet biological warfare program was greatly enhanced by expertise gleaned from former Unit 731 Program Japanese scientists. By the 1960’s biological warfare agent production facilities were to be found throughout the Soviet Union and in 1971 testing of weaponized smallpox at an island in the Aral Sea would lead to a smallpox outbreak and numerous civilian deaths. It would be Soviet discovery of biological warfare agent testing at an American held island in the Pacific Ocean that would lead to massive expansion of their bioagent program during the 1970’s and 1980’s.


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