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Biological Weapons


TOPIC:  History of Biological Warfare
AGENT:  Anthrax 836
INCIDENT:  Release of Biological Warfare Agent
LOCATION:  Sverdlovsk, USSR
DATE:  April 1979




 In April 1979, the largest inhalation Anthrax release of the 20th Century occurred from an illegal biological weapons factory in the Soviet Union.  The release infected the local civilian, military, and military reserve population and resulted in casualties.  

The Soviet Union attempted to cover up the release even as they responded to the outbreak. 

Subsequent investigations by scientific teams combined with later admissions by Soviet government officials and members exposed the lie, and revealed the outbreak was caused by an accidental weapons grade Anthrax 836 release from the biological weapons plant.  Proof to the West that the Soviets were engaged in Biological Warfare research and production in violation of the 1972 UN Treaty. (5)


On March 30, 1979 at the Biopreperat (Биопрепарат) biological weapons compound in the city of Sverdlovsk (Свердло́вск), a night shift maintenance technician removed a filter for servicing and left a note for the next shift to replace it prior to operations of the plant.  The follow on shift did not replace the filter.  When the plant began the next days production run,  a release of the weaponized Anthrax 836 was carried downwind into the civilian area.  From April 4 to May 18 there were 96 Anthrax cases reported and 64 deaths.

Biopreperat was the Soviet consolidation of a majority of military biological research programs, including genetic modifications, during it's peak research and production period over 40 centers were located throughout the Soviet Union.

Biopreperat was created to circumvent the military restrictions on obtaining biological research and production equipment globally.  Using a civilian ruse as cover, Biopreperat had expanded to over 40 weapons research labs and production facilities, using American, European, and Japanese equipment purchased under the deception of “civilian research”.  

Many facilities and testing areas were located adjacent or inside cities to disguise the true nature of the factory from both civilians and Western Allied intelligence.  The ruse was effective as many Americans could not believe any nation would jeopardize their citizens by such a dangerous placement of a biological weapons factory.  As Raymond Zilinskas noted “No nation would be so stupid as to locate a biological warfare facility within an approachable distance from a major population center.” (6) So for many outside observers, the Biopreperat program retained it’s deceptive veneer of civilian research and development.  

The first open source reporting that the anthrax outbreak at Sverdlovsk might have been a biological weapon came in November 1979 when Russian political exiles in West Germany published information that suggested the “civilian” plant was actually a biological weapons factory.  The Soviets denied these claims, and some Westerners accepted and in some cases promoted these denials.  

In response the Soviets released an official press statement that attempted to claim the outbreak was natural, and the cause had been discovered to be the victims eating contaminated meat obtained from an illegal black market.  To provide cover for this false narrative, the Soviets went through the motions publicly to attempt to divert attention.  Over 100 stray dogs were killed, black market meat shops and butchers were raided, and medical records were confiscated by the KGB, and falsified death certificates issued to show that the cause of death was not inhalation anthrax, but ingested.  Even the dates of the victims deaths were altered to divert evidence away from demonstrating a pattern in the outbreak.  Soviet investigations were sidelined by the KGB.  

The disinformation campaign continued for years.  In 1987 US Intelligence has gleaned enough reports to publicly question the outbreak Sverdlovsk.  President Reagan even mentioned it as a potential violation in a public letter.  (7).  In response,, the Soviets a year later sent a scientific delegation to the US to “disprove” the Presidents assertions, and propagandize in front of Government and private industry specialists the false results of the Anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk.  Natural cutaneous anthrax was presented by the scientific team as the culprit.  Once again, many Americans believed the disinformation campaign, and derided suggestions that it was a biological weapons program and inhalation anthrax was the real cause of the casualties.  

However, there was one Western scientists that noted the lack of data in the Soviet scientists presentations.  Dr. Mathew Meselson a molecular biologist and geneticist who was responsible for influencing the US ban on biological weapons under President Nixon,  was one of few figures who refused to believe the reports without adequate data.  He noted that the Soviets were withholding critical information, and the data they were presenting didn’t add up.  

“In 1986, Matthew Meselson reviewed previously unsuccessful requests to Soviet officials to being independent scientists to Sverdlovsk to investigate.  This resulted in an investigation to come to Moscow for discussions with the four physicians who had gone to Sverdlovsk to deal with the outbreak.” (8)  It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that outside investigative teams were allowed into Svederlovsk in June 1992 and August 1993.

From his initial meeting in Moscow, Dr. Meselson continued to press for information and access, and over the course of many years and the site visits in 1992/1993 was able to obtain enough information including samples hidden from the KGB cleaners, to piece together a provable case.  His conclusion was that inhalation anthrax was the culprit.  In addition, by collecting topographical maps and adding the locations of the victims combined with the historical wind speeds over the period in question, Dr. Meselson and his team were able to conclude that the outbreak started with a release from the Svederlovsk plant on April 1st.  (9)

The US finally received confirmation of Biopreperat in October of1989 when Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, Director of the Institute for Ultra Pure Biological Preparations in Biopreparat, defected and revealed the weaponization programs to include development of multiple warhead ICBM biological delivery vehicles designed to infect a large portion of American cities. The information Dr. Pasechnik provided helped to confirm the view that the Sovets were producing weaponized inhalation Anthrax in Sverdlovsk. (10)

His study was later validated by President Boris Yeltsin  in an interview in 1992, and the former Deputy Director of Biopreperat, Ken Alibek (Kanatzhan "Kanat" Alibekov) in his book on Soviet biological weapons programs.  





1919-1920:  The Soviet Union invades Poland.  The resulting Typhus outbreak severely effects the invading Soviet Army and the effects reach into the Soviet Union.  This, combined with the recent H1N1 global influenza outbreak, impresses upon the Soviet leadership the efficacy of biological weapons as a means of warfare.

1921:  The Soviet Union creates a toxin weapons laboratory and human experiment and testing

program.  Known infamously as “Kamera” or “The Cell”.  Human experiments on political

prisoners are conducted with a variety of chemical agents and poisons such as mustard gas,

ricin, digitoxin, and curare.  These toxins are later used by the USSR against civilians and

political enemies in Mongolia, Manchuria,Xinjiang, and elsewhere.  

Yagoda’s poison factories paved the way for massive biological weapons research and

production a few years later.  










Above:  Genrikh Yagoda founded the OGPU poison factories and

headed the human experiment programs that tested toxins on

human prisoners and civilians.  

1925:  First international treaty banning biological weapons.  The 1925 Geneva Protocol for the

Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological

Methods of Warfare.  (1)  

*Biological weapons ban portion of the protocol was introduced by Poland.

1928:  On April 5, the Soviets sign the Geneva Protocols agreeing to prohibit research, testing,

production, and use of biological agents for warfare. (1)

1928:  The Soviet Revolutionary Military Council signs a secret decree ordering the transformation of Typhus

into a battlefield weapon, launching the USSR as the first modern nation state biological weapons producer.  (2)  

The research and development is initially housed in the Leningrad Military Academy.

1930s:  USSR establishes Solovetsky Island as part of it’s “Gulag Archipelago” and the second biological agent

testing site where prisoners from concentration camps were used for experiments. (3) 

1931:  The Soviet Union moves research, testing, and production to the OGPU, one of the predecessors of the KGB to maintain secrecy.  The OGPU (Объединённое государственное политическое управление при or «Unified State Political Directorate») would be responsible for military and covert use of biological WMD production until the 1950s.  

1930s:  Biological and poison agents are used against political prisoners in Europe and against populations in the Asian regions of Mongolia, Manchuria, Xinjiang, and other parts of what is now known as China.  

1941:  Germany invades the USSR.  Soviet bioweapons sites are evacuated and moved to Kirov, west of the Ural Mountains.  Testing moves to Vozrozhdeniya island (Остров Возрождения).

1942:  Francisella tularensis (Tularemia) developed in the Kirov bioweapons lab  is deployed against German Armor units, resulting in an estimated 90,000 cases.   (4)

1943:  Q Fever, also developed in Kirov, is deployed against German troops and ethnic allies in the Crimea.  

1946:  Stalin orders KGB Chief Lavrenty Beria to increase Soviet production and research.  The worlds largest biological weapons complex at the time is established in Sverdlovsk incorporating captured Japanese research elements.  The laboratory is under the auspices of the Red Army, but overall control is still by the KGB.

1953:  KGB Chief Beria is executed and biological warfare is transferred to the new 15th Directorate of the Red Army under the medical services commander Colonel General Yefim Smirnov.  General Smirnov is an aggressive advocate for biological warfare and expands the Soviet program to become a strategic weapon, veiled in as much secrecy as the Soviet nuclear program.  

1956:  General Zhukov announces that the Soviet Union is ready to employ biological and chemical weapons in the next war.

1950s:   Anti crop and livestock weapons were developed under the Department of Agriculture under the euphemistically termed “Ecology” program.  Most biological warfare factories and labs are located in urban areas, in some cases adjacent to schools in order to disguise their purposes from both Soviet civilians and Western Allied intelligence.  

1960s:  ICBM testing for biological payload delivery begins testing over the Pacific Ocean.  The program will continue until the late 1980s.

1971:  Accidental release of smallpox on Vozrozhdeniya island.  

1972:  The United Nations opens the Biological Warfare Convention up for signatures, and the Soviet Union signs it. “The BWC bans the development, production, stockpiling or possession, and transfer of microbial or other biological toxins except for a small quantity for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes. It imposes the same obligations in relation to weapons, equipment and means of delivery of agents or toxins. The 1925 Geneva Protocol and related rules of customary international law prohibit the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and of all analogous liquids, materials, or devices and prohibits use of bacteriological methods of warfare.“  (5)

1973:  Genetic modification research with the military is initiated.  Molecular Biologist Yuri Ovchinnikov, Vice President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences initiated a genetic research program with the Ministry of Defence to develop new biological weapons.

1973:  Biopreperat (Биопрепарат) is formed to provide a civilian disguise to provide a civilian cover to biological warfare research in order to avoid international scrutiny and bypass military restrictions proposed in the 1972 UN Biological Warfare Convention (1972 BWC).  Biopreperat would also consolidate and accelerate genetic biological testing. The delivery technology development would remain with the Red Army.  It consolidated a majority of biological and genetically modified biological weapons research resources into one department, that was the largest in the world at the time.  

1979:  Large scale civilian population testing begins in the Soviet Union against civilians.  Non lethal bacteria and viruses are covertly released into the population to test vectors, delivery method efficiency, and other problems with offensive biological warfare development.  



1.  “The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. The Protocol was drawn up and signed at a conference which was held in Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations from 4 May to 17 June 1925, and it entered into force on 8 February 1928. and

2.  Alibek, Ken.  Biohazzard The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World – Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It.  (New York:  Random House, 1999.), p. 35.

3.  Ibid., p. 35

4.  Croddy, E. & Krcálová, S,  Tularemia, "Biological Warfare, and the Battle for Stalingrad (1942-1943)". Military Medicine, Vol. 166, No. 10: 837-8838. Accessed 1 Feb 2020 from  see also Alibek, Ken.  Biohazzard The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World – Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It.  (New York:  Random House, 1999.), p. 33. and. (2001). 

5.   For full text see$file/BWC-text-English.pdf

6.  Alibek, Ken.  Biohazzard The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World – Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It.  (New York:  Random House, 1999.), p. 70.

7.  Reagan, Ronald.  “Letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate Transmitting a Report on Soviet Noncompliance With Arms Control Agreements” December 2, 1987.   Ronald Reagan Library Archives Online.

8.  Lederberg, Joshua. ed.  Biological Weapons Limiting the Threat.  (Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1999.), p. 193.

9.  Ibid., p. 193-209. 

10.  Michael J. Ainscough, Colonel, USAF.   “Next Generation Bioweapons: The Technology Of Genetic Engineering Applied To Biowarfare And Bioterrorism”  Counterproliferation Paper No. 14. (April 2002),  Maxwell Air Force Base Counterproliferation Center .

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