Secrets of the Soviet Disease Warfare Program
Were biological weapons used against Germans at Stalingrad?
by Mark Weber
OF HUMANITY’S many noteworthy achievements and inventions, few are as evil and as horrifying as biological warfare: deliberate, government-ordered mass killing of people with lethal diseases. During the Second World War, the Japanese army maintained a secret biological warfare testing program, as did the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1969 President Nixon renounced the use of such weapons, and the US dismantled its extensive biological warfare operation, thereafter restricting research to defensive measures such as immunization.
But as a remarkable new book lays out in grim detail, no regime made greater “progress” in biological warfare than did the Soviet Union. From a unique insider’s perspective, a former high-level scientist in the Soviet biological warfare program tells the story in Biohazard: The Chilling Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World (Random House, 1999). Ken Alibek (born Kanatjan Alibekov) joined the Soviet “Biopreparat” program in 1975, and was its first deputy chief from 1988 to 1992, when he defected to the United States.
During the terrible Russian civil war of 1917-1921, in which the fledgling Soviet regime defeated the dispersed and divided anti-Communist “White” forces, as many as ten million people lost their lives. Most of these deaths came not in combat, but instead were caused by famine and disease — especially typhus.
Conscious of this, the revolutionary Soviet government early on put a high priority on diseases as a method of warfare. In 1928 it issued a secret decree ordering the development of typhus as a battlefield weapon. In the decades that followed, the USSR built and maintained a wide-ranging biological warfare program. For example, Alibek relates, Soviet scientists developed a sophisticated plague warfare capability, and an arsenal in Kirov (now Vyatka) stored 20 tons of plague aerosol weaponry (p. 166).
Wartime Use Against Germans
While he was a graduate student at the Tomsk Medical Institute (1973-75), Alibek studied Soviet wartime medical records that strongly suggested that the Red Army had used tularemia as a weapon against German troops outside Stalingrad in 1942 (pages 29-31). Tularemia is a highly infectious disease that produces debilitating headaches, nausea and high fevers. If untreated, it can be lethal. It is also hard to extinguish, which makes it attractive to anyone trying to produce biological weapons.
Alibek discovered that the “first victims of tularemia were German panzer troops, who fell ill in such large numbers during the late summer of 1942 that the Nazi campaign in southern Russia ground to a temporary halt.” In addition, he relates, thousands of Russian soldiers and civilians living in the Volga region came down with the disease within a week of the initial German outbreak. Never before had there been such a widespread outbreak of the disease in Russia.
Why had so many men first fallen sick with tularemia on the German side only? Furthermore, 70 percent of the Germans infected came down with a pneumonic form of the disease, which (Alibek reports) “could only have been caused by purposeful dissemination.”
Whereas there were ten thousand cases of tularemia reported in the Soviet Union in 1941, in the year 1942 — when the battle of Stalingrad was at its height — the number of cases soared to more than one hundred thousand. Then, in 1943, the incidence of the disease returned to ten thousand. The battle for Stalingrad raged from September 1942 until February 2, 1943, when Friedrich von Paulus, commander of the German Sixth Army, surrendered along with 91,000 officers and men (of whom only 6,000 survived Soviet captivity).
Alibek became convinced that “Soviet troops must have sprayed tularemia at the Germans. A sudden change in the direction of the wind, or contaminated rodents passing through the lines, had infected our soldiers and the disease had then spread through the region.”
To his professor, a Soviet colonel named Aksyonenko, he explained that the evidence he had found “suggests that this epidemic was caused intentionally.” Aksyonenko responded with a stern warning: “Please. I want you to do me a favor and forget you ever said what you just said. I will forget it, too … Never mention to anyone else what you just told me.”
Some years later, an elderly Soviet lieutenant colonel who had worked during the war in the secret bacteriological weapons facility in Kirov told Alibek that a tularemia weapon had been developed there in 1941. He also left him “with no doubt that the weapon had been used.” This same officer further suggested that an “outbreak of Q fever among German troops on leave in Crimea in 1943 was the result of another one of the [Soviet] biological warfare agents” (p. 36).
From The Journal of Historical Review, March/April 1999 (Vol. 18, No. 2), page 32.
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Source: Institute for Historical Review