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Soviet biological weapons program – Wikipedia

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World War II[edit]


Lavrentiy Beria, commander of Soviet BW programme in 1939


By 1939, with the USSR on a war footing, the Soviet leadership is reported to have believed that the “imperialistic and fascistic countries” had actively undertaken BW preparations and that the use of such weapons, in case of emergency, was a foregone conclusion. Stalin in response ordered an acceleration of BW preparations and appointed Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, the head of the NKVD, in overall command of the country’s biological warfare programme. In May 1941, a number of measures codenamed Yurta were implemented to counter the perceived threat of biological sabotage by the German and Japanese intelligence services. As a result there was a tightening-up of state control over personnel working on microbial pathogens and an emphasis on the gathering of intelligence from foreign legations relating to the feasibility and use of biological weapons.[15]n

On the 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany commenced Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometre front. Such was the rapidity and depth of penetration of the attack that, by September, the Red Army’s BW facility – the Sanitary Technical Institute (STI) – on Gorodomlya Island, was under immediate threat of capture. At some point around the 25 September, the facility was evacuated and the buildings partially destroyed. There are various accounts regarding the relocation of STI, with official Russian sources indicating that it was initially transferred to Saratov. In the later summer of 1942, in the face of the German offensive to capture Stalingrad, there was a second evacuation of STI, which was eventually permanently relocated to Kirov, located some 896 kilometres north-east of Moscow on the Vyatka river.[16]n

In his history of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, Christopher Bellamy argues that if either side was going to break the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of gas and bacteriological warfare, then 1942 was the most likely year.[17] This conclusion is not surprising, since it was precisely at this moment, that both the fate of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich hung precariously in the balance during the build-up to, and the outcome of, the Battle of Stalingrad. In his account of the Soviet BW programme, Alibek, a former senior manager of Biopreparat, raises the intriguing possibility that in the late summer of 1942 the Red Army engaged in the deliberate aerosol dissemination of Francisella tularensis (the causative agent of tularaemia) against German panzer troops near Stalingrad.[12] However, a number of prominent scholars have disputed Alibek’s version of events. Chief among these is Erhardt Geissler who notes that tularaemia is endemic in the region and in any case a large outbreak occurred during the winter of 1941-1942. He points to evidence that infected rodents were the key to the large-scale outbreaks and that inhalationary tularaemia may have resulted from inhalation of dust from contaminated straw in matresses. Crucially, Geissler notes that there are no contemporary accounts by the German army or intelligence services regarding the use of F. tularensis as a biological weapon at Stalingrad.[18]n

In the Far East the Soviet Union had been subject of a BW attack in 1939 during the battles of Khalkin Gol (Nomonhan) by Japan’s Unit 731 under Shirxc5x8d Ishii. Further attacks were initiated against the Soviet Union by Unit 100 in the summer of 1942, and at a later unspecified date, again by Unit 731. On the 9 August 1945, the Soviet Union launched its invasion of Japanese-controlled Manchuria. Two major Japanese offensive BW installations at Pingfang and Changchun were overrun by the Red Army. However, General Otozxc5x8d Yamada, Commander of the Kwantung Army had already ordered the destruction and evacuation of these facilities. The NKVD now switched its focus to apprehending any personnel associated with Units 100 and 731 and began a process of filtration of the 560,000-760,000 Japanese prisoners of war. In December 1949, the military figures identified by the Soviets as participating in the Japanese BW programme were put on trial in Khabarovsk. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to terms ranging from two to twenty-five years in Soviet labour correction camps. However, the officers, doctors and other personnel from Unit 731 were in fact transferred to the comparative comfort of the NKVD special prison camp No. 48 – a tsarist-era red-brick manor house located in Cherntsy (Ivanovo region). The leniency with which the Japanese BW specialists were treated – the longest sentence any served was seven years – has led a number of scholars to conclude that some sort of deal was struck between the Soviet authorities and the Unit 731 personnel held captive in the USSR.[19]