Book Review / The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History

The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press 2012)
Raymond Zilinskas and Milton Leitenberg
Hardcover. 960 pages. $55.00

Reviewed by Justin Ludgate (GMU Biodefense MS Program)

In researching one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Soviet Union, Raymond Zilinskas and Milton Leitenberg’s work on the history of the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program (BW) program is ambitious to say the least. The authors describe the current view of the Soviet Union’s BW program as being an incomplete picture cobbled together from precious few, often flawed, primary sources due to the compartmentalization and secrecy that veiled the program. Zilinskas and Leitenberg bring new research and analysis to the table and provide the most comprehensive examination to date of the Soviet BW program. The book itself is vast and covers everything about the program from research on weaponizing Francisella tularensis to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s failures to end offensive BW research.

Overall, the tone of the book suggests future concerns regarding Russia’s failure to abide by international agreements, such as the Biological Weapons Convention, due to the ongoing concern of closed Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) biological research facilities. Though not without criticism, the authors do note that U.S. efforts to prevent BW related proliferation of materials, technology, or personnel were largely successful thanks to programs such as the U.S. Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program and the Department of State’s International Science and Technology Center.

The book’s first goal is to describe the Soviet BW program as thoroughly as possible, as it was the largest of its kind in the world. The first chapter covers the program’s history between 1918 and 1972, or the “first generation” of the Soviet BW program. The Soviet BW program was initially influenced by the parallel needs of combating endemic diseases and preventing a recurrence of the high level of disease-related deaths suffered by the armed forces during World War I and the subsequent civil war. Prior to World War II, the military concentrated its efforts on weaponizing agents such as Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis, and various types of Rickettsiae. All of these pathogens were endemic to the Soviet Union and defensive research efforts such as vaccine development often paralleled offensive research, creating a complicated dual-use relationship. The Soviet Union later exploited this dual-use relationship to establish cover stories for institutions dedicated to offensive BW research during the program’s second generation which ran from 1972 until 1992.

The authors credit the massive growth of the “modern” Soviet BW program experienced after 1970 to the machinations of a scientist named Yury A. Ovchinnikov, who convinced the MOD that biotechnology research could provide the Soviet Union with a potent weapon. At that time, scientists were dependent on the patronage of the Soviet government, as there were no private institutions capable of funding scientific projects. The MOD and the Military Industrial Commission (VPK) in particular were highly sought after patrons due to their deep pockets. However, the funding came with strings attached. Scientists interested in studying bacteria, viruses, and genetics were often obliged to conduct military research, whether they were aware of it or not. While Ovchinnikov was successful in securing funding from the MOD, the bargain ensured the continued militarization of biology in the Soviet Union for years to come.

By 1972, the 15th Directorate of the MOD was tasked with overseeing a network of BW research institutes, located in Kirov, Zagorsk, and Sverdlovsk. In 1973, a new network of offensive and defensive BW research institutes, named Biopreparat, was established. Officially reporting to a civilian authority, many aspects of offensive research were undertaken by military scientists and senior officials within the new organization held military rank. The book provides a host of details about the history, research, and current workings of former Biopreparat institutes such as Vector, the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology, and the Stepnogorsk Scientific Experimental-Industrial Base. This includes the dire economic situation these institutes found themselves in following the cessation of funds flowing from the Soviet state apparatus after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The second goal of the book is to ascertain whether the drastic loss of funding to BW institutes within Biopreparat and the MOD, following the end of the Soviet Union, caused a “brain drain” of former BW scientists to other nations or the proliferation and sale of BW-related material. The authors argue that U.S. threat reduction programs were largely successful in preventing the proliferation of BW research, materials, and personnel. However, a closed system of institutes with historic ties to the Soviet BW program still exists today. Worse, the authors argue that a regression has taken place in Putin’s Russia. The Russian government now refuses to admit that there ever was an offensive BW program and has reverted to the Soviet-era story that the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk was caused by contaminated meat and not an accident at a military BW site.

In writing this book, the authors faced a daunting task. Compartmentalization within the Soviet BW program ensured that even high-level sources, such as Ken Alibek, Vladimir Pasechnik, and Igor Domaradsky, did not necessarily possess the full picture of the Soviet BW program. The authors interviewed various other scientists involved in Biopreparat, but their identities are largely kept anonymous due to a decree from the Russian government that criminalizes any discussion of former Soviet state secrets. The lack of sources within the MOD leads to significant gaps in the book regarding Soviet BW munitions, doctrine, and strategy.

Overall, the book is a comprehensive analysis of the Soviet BW program, including its origin, evolution, motivation, and accomplishments and failures. The Soviet Union’s BW program is a great topic for anyone studying biodefense as it offers both scientific and political insights.  The writing style is easy to follow, although readers with little scientific background may have to refer to the glossary during some of the more technical sections of the book. The acronyms and changing names of certain institutes involved in the BW program can be confusing, but that is to be expected given the sheer size and scope of the Soviet BW program. In synthesizing new and previously available sources, this book provides the most objective assessment of the Soviet Union’s BW program, as well as the implications of this program on the future of international security. That being said, the authors are careful to point out the limitations of their research and gaps in their knowledge of various aspects of the Soviet BW program, indicating that much remains to be learned about the largest and most advanced BW program in history.

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