Anthrax. Smallpox. Incurable and horrifying Ebola-related fevers. For two decades, while a fearful world prepared for nuclear winter, an elite team of Russian bioweaponeers began to till a new killing field: a bleak tract sown with powerful seeds of mass destruction—by doctors who had committed themselves to creating a biological Armageddon. Biohazard is the never-before-told story of Russia’s darkest, deadliest, and most closely guarded Cold War secret.
No one knows more about Russia’s astounding experiments with biowarfare than Ken Alibek. Now the mastermind behind Russia’s germ warfare effort reveals two decades of shocking breakthroughs . . . how Moscow’s leading scientists actually reengineered hazardous microbes to make them even more virulent . . . the secrets behind the discovery of an invisible, untraceable new class of biological agents just right for use in political assassinations . . . the startling story behind Russia’s attempt to turn a sample of the AIDS virus into the ultimate bioweapon. And in a chilling work of real-world intrigue, Biohazard offers us all a rare glimpse into a shadowy scientific underworld where doctors manufacture mass destruction, where witnesses to errors are silenced forever, and where ground zero is closer than we ever dared believe.
Praise for Biohazard
“Harrowing . . . richly descriptive . . . [an] absorbing account.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Remarkable . . . terrifying revelations . . . [Ken Alibek’s] overall message is ignored at great national peril.”—Newsday
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About the Author
Stephen Handelman is a columnist at Time. He was the Moscow bureau chief of The Toronto Star in the late eighties and early nineties and is the author of Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya.
Read an Excerpt
Late in the winter of 1988, I was called to a meeting at Soviet army headquarters on Kirov Street in Moscow. The note of urgency in the message was hard to ignore. "We've set aside a special room for you, Colonel," said the clipped voice on the phone.
A black Volga was waiting at the curb, its motor running. The two armed bodyguards who accompanied me on top-secret business were slouched alongside, their fur hats pulled low against the cold. One held the door open as I climbed into the backseat, and followed me inside. The second slid in beside my driver, Slava. I told Slava to drive quickly.
It was usually a thirty-minute drive across town from my office to Red Army headquarters, but a fresh snowfall that morning had turned the streets into an Arctic snarl of spinning tires and raging drivers. Once or twice the flashing blue light on our official vehicle aroused the attention of a traffic policeman, who thrust his gloved hand in the air to clear the way.
Close to an hour had passed by the time we finally pulled up in front of the austere granite building that housed the Ministry of Defense. I entered through a side entrance and stamped the snow from my boots. A junior officer took me to a small adjoining room, where I was issued a pass, and then on to a guard booth, where a young soldier examined my pass and picture, stared hard, and waved me on.
The first officer led me up a flight of stairs to a heavy armored door with a coded lock. He punched in a series of numbers and we walked into the sprawling suite of offices occupied by the Fifteenth Directorate of the Soviet army, the military wing of our biological weapons program.
I unzipped my parka and tried to relax.
Although I was a colonel, I never wore my uniform. Like all military personnel at Biopreparat, I was provided with a cover identity as an ordinary scientist. I carried two different versions of my internal passport, the identity card required of every Soviet citizen. One identified me as a civilian employee of Biopreparat. The other showed my military rank.
I had moved to Moscow with my wife Lena and my three children a year earlier, in 1987, to take a position at Biopreparat headquarters. The move to the capital was a refreshing change from the dreariness of army life in the provinces.
Thirteen years at a succession of secret laboratories and institutes in some of the most remote corners of the Soviet Union had not prepared me for the bewildering pace of my new job. There were meetings every week at army headquarters, the Kremlin, the offices of the Communist Party Central Committee, or one of the myriad scientific institutes in our network. By the spring of 1988, when I was named first deputy chief, I was seeing a doctor for a stress-related illness.
The commander of the Fifteenth Directorate, Lieutenant General Vladimir Lebedinsky, looked at me disapprovingly when I entered his office. He was absorbed in a discussion with three colonels, none of whom I had seen before.
"It's about time," he said curtly.
I started to complain about the snow, the traffic, but he waved me into silence.
Of all the military commanders I dealt with, Lebedinsky was the one I most hated to keep waiting. He had taken a paternal interest in my career since we first met in a laboratory at Omutninsk, six hundred miles east of Moscow, where I'd been assigned for several years after graduating from military medical school. Then in his sixties and at the end of an illustrious military career, he was one of the few senior officers who didn't hold my youth against me. At thirty-eight, I had vaulted over older and more experienced scientists to become the youngest first deputy director in Biopreparat's history. Many of the scientists I used to work for were now taking orders from me, and they didn't bother to hide their resentment.
Lebedinsky turned to the three colonels.
"Are we ready?" he said.
They nodded, and the general led us into an adjoining soundproof room. Notepads had been placed on the large wooden table, in front of each chair.
An orderly arrived with four steaming glasses of tea. Lebedinsky waited for him to leave and firmly closed the door.
"I'm not staying," he said, as I glanced at the glasses and did a quick count.
The three colonels came from the Biological Group, a unit of the General Staff Operations Directorate whose role was to arm bombers and missiles with the weapons we produced. It was the first time I had met anyone from that unit. Biopreparat was then developing a new biological weapon every year. Most of our time was devoted to research; we paid little attention to the details of deployment.
Lebedinsky quickly explained the reason for the special meeting. A decision had been made at the highest levels, he said, to arm SS-18 missiles with disease agents.
"We need to calculate how much time it will take to prepare the missiles for launching. I'm counting on you to help us out."
I nodded, as if this were a perfectly reasonable request. But I had been caught off guard. The giant SS-18 missiles, which could carry ten five-hundred-kiloton warheads apiece over a range of six thousand miles, had never been considered before as delivery vehicles for a biological attack.
When the Soviet biological warfare program began in the 1920s, our scientists attached crop sprayers to low-flying planes and hoped that a contrary wind wouldn't blow the germs the wrong way. After World War II, bombers armed with explosives were added to the arsenal. The Cold War fueled the development of ever more destructive armaments, and by the 1970s we had managed to harness single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles for use in the delivery of biological agents. Multiple-warhead missiles represented more of a challenge. Few of the agents we had weaponized could be prepared in sufficient quantities to fill hundreds of warheads simultaneously.
Work I had done with anthrax a few years earlier must have caught the attention of our strategic planners. Through a series of tests, I'd found a way to create a more potent anthrax weapon, so that fewer spores would be needed in an attack. The new technique allowed us to load more missiles with anthrax without straining our labs' resources. In the language of American nuclear strategists, we could produce "more bang for the buck."
I was being asked to put my discovery to work.
The colonels knew little about the fine points of microorganisms, but they understood missile technology. If I could develop the pathogens in sufficient quantities, they would target the warheads on major cities in the United States and Europe.
I made a few quick calculations on my notepad. At least four hundred kilograms of anthrax, prepared in dry form for use as an aerosol, would be required for ten warheads.
Our seed stock for anthrax production was kept inside refrigerated storerooms at three production facilities in Penza, Kurgan, and Stepnogorsk. The seed stock would have to be put through a delicate fermenting process to breed the billions of spores required. The process was complicatedand it took time. A single twenty-ton fermenter working at full capacity could produce enough spores to fill one missile in one or two days. With additives, we could probably boost the output to five hundred or six hundred kilograms a day. I finished my calculations and leaned back in my chair.
"With the fermenters we have available, it would take ten to fourteen days," I said.
The colonels looked pleased. Two weeks was not a problem. No one expected to go to war overnight.
The colonels didn't tell me which cities had been targeted for biological attack, and I didn't ask. New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago were some of the targets to come up in subsequent meetings, but they were abstract concepts to me at the time. All I cared about was ensuring that our weapons would do the job they were designed for.
We stood up to stretch. The tension in the room lifted. Three of us went out to the hallway for a smoke. I had discovered that you could learn more in such casual moments than in a month's worth of memos passed around The System. The colonels were suddenly talkative.
Pressure from the top military command was making their lives impossible, they complained. No sooner had one weapons system been organized than an order came down to refine another one.
I told them we were having the same problembut we all read the newspapers. Mikhail Gorbachev and his team of self-described reformers were publicly heralding a new era of rapprochement with the West. We joked that the mysteries of perestroika were beyond the scope of simple military men.
I don't remember giving a moment's thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people.
Anthrax takes one to five days to incubate in the body. Victims often won't know that an anthrax attack has taken place until after they begin to feel the first symptoms. Even then, the nature of the illness will not at first be clear. The earliest signs of troublea slight nasal stuffiness, twinges of pain in the joints, fatigue, and a dry, persistent coughresemble the onset of a cold or flu. To most people, the symptoms will seem too inconsequential to warrant a visit to the doctor.
In this first stage, pulmonary anthrax can be treated with antibiotics. But it would take a highly alert public health system to recognize the evidence of an anthrax attack. Few physicians are trained to identify the disease, and the unremarkable nature of early symptoms makes an accurate diagnosis difficult.
The first symptoms are followed several days later by the anthrax "eclipse," a period in which the initial discomfort seems to fade, concealing the approaching danger. Proliferating bacteria will have begun to engulf the lymph nodes, local headquarters of the body's disease protection system. Within a matter of hours the bacteria will have taken over the entire lymphatic system. From there, they enter the bloodstream, continuing to multiply at a furious pace. Soon they begin to release a toxin that attacks all organs but is particularly damaging to the lungs, filling them with liquid and gradually cutting off their supply of oxygen.
Within twenty-four hours of this toxin's release, a victim's skin will begin to turn a faint bluish color. At this stage, every breath becomes more painful than the last. A choking fit and convulsions follow. The end usually comes suddenly: some victims of pulmonary anthrax have been known to die in the middle of a conversation. The disease is fatal in over 90 percent of untreated cases.
A hundred kilograms of anthrax spores would, in optimal atmospheric conditions, kill up to three million people in any of the densely populated metropolitan areas of the United States. A single SS-18 could wipe out the population of a city as large as New York. Anthrax was not the only biological weapon earmarked for the SS-18s. When we sat down again after our break, we went over the available menu of toxic choices.
Plague could be prepared on a similar schedule. The plague weapon we had created in our laboratories was more virulent than the bubonic plague, which killed one quarter of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages. Smallpox was stockpiled in underground bunkers at our military plants, and we were developing a weapon prototype based on a rare filovirus called Marburg, a cousin of Ebola.
Nearly three hundred projects were outlined in the last Five-Year Plan we had been given by the Military-Industrial Commission, known by its Russian initials as the VPK. The VPK coordinated all of the Soviet Union's industrial production for military purposes. This gave it effective control over two thirds of the nation's industrial enterprises. A separate biological weapons directorate monitored our progress until our "products" were ready to be delivered to the Ministry of Defense, which we referred to as the Customer.
Our meeting ended after an hour or so of additional calculations. We shook hands, packed our papers, and congratulated one another on a productive session. On my way out I looked into Lebedinsky's office, but he was already gone. I never saw the colonels again. Driving back to my office, I opened my briefcase to jot down a few more notes. Anyone who peered through the window would have seen a frowning, slightly overweight bureaucrat preoccupied with the country's business.
A strange twist of fortune had brought me to the pinnacle of power in Russia, a country that was not my own. My great-grandfather had been a khan, a member of the nobility in what is now Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, but I grew up in a system that lavished few of its privileges on non-Russians. My wife and daughter and two young sons had risen with me to a lifestyle inconceivable to the majority of Soviet citizens. With the combined salary of a senior bureaucrat and a high-ranking military officer, I earned as much as a Soviet government minister. But in the Communist system, money was not the measure of worth. What counted was the special status that gave us access to perks and influence in our supposedly egalitarian society.
Turning into the hidden driveway that led to the offices of Biopreparat on Samokatnaya Street, I began to focus on the rest of the day. I would only have time for a quick lunch before facing the mountain of messages and paperwork on my desk. The Volga glided past a concrete wall into a small courtyard. I packed up my notes and said a quick good-bye to Slava.
Slava never gave any hint of suspecting what went on in the meetings he took me to, and I never confided in him. We had been warned to be careful of what we said to lower-ranking employees. But I imagined he drew conclusions of his own, given the odd bits of conversation he overheard.
"Will you need me later?" he asked.
"Probably not till I go home," I told him. "I might be late again tonight."
The Moscow headquarters of Biopreparat, or the Main Directorate of the Council of Soviet Ministers as it was officially (and uninformatively) called, protected its secrets behind a yellow brick mansion with a green roof that had served as the home of the nineteenth-century vodka merchant Pyotr Smirnoff. The building's past and present associations provided an ironic symmetry: Smirnoff's product has done more than any foreign invader to undermine the health of Russian citizens.
Samokatnaya Street is so small and narrow that a pedestrian could easily miss it while walking down the nearby Yauza Embankment, overlooking one of the waterways that joins the Moscow River as it flows toward the Kremlin. There were five other buildings on our street, all largely obscured in the spring and summer by the thick foliage of ancient trees mercifully ignored by Communist city planners.
Despite its image as an impersonal city of cold buildings and wide boulevards, Moscow is dotted with hidden havens such as these. Even in winter, Samokatnaya Street was free from the surrounding bustle of the neighborhood, with its shabby residential apartment blocks, factories, and onion-dome churches.
Three centuries ago the area around Samokatnaya Street was known as the German Quarter. It was the only place in old Muscovy where foreigners (then universally described as German, regardless of their nationality) were allowed to live and carry on their businessat a safe distance from ordinary Russians, whom they might otherwise have infected with alien ideas, but close enough for the czars to exploit their skills.
A car bearing American diplomatic plates once turned up the street and parked opposite the building. KGB guards watched from inside as several people got out, peered at the fence for a few moments, and then returned and drove off. We talked about it for days afterward. Savva Yermoshin, the KGB commander in charge of the building, was one of my closest friends at the time. He declared confidently that there was nothing to worry about, but security was tighter than usual for weeks.
I walked up a marble staircase, one of the few remaining architectural features of the old mansion, to my offices on the second floor. Nearly 150 people worked at headquarters, including technicians and administrative personnel, but the building exuded an air of restrained silence.
My secretary, Marina, was a plump, efficient woman in her late twenties. A slight tilt of her head told me that Yury Kalinin, the director of Biopreparat and my immediate boss, was already at work.
Marina sat with Kalinin's secretary, Tatyana, in the reception area connecting our offices. The two women disliked each other intensely because of some ancient quarrel and rarely spoke. When I wanted to speak to Kalinin, I had to address Tatyana directly. This time I bypassed her and knocked on his door. A brusque voice told me to enter.
Major General Yury Tikhonovich Kalinin, chief of the Main Directorate and deputy minister in the Ministry of Medical and Microbiological Industry, was sitting behind an enormous antique desk. A pair of heavy curtains had been drawn over the window near his armchair, and his office was wrapped in gloomy darkness. A picture of Mikhail Gorbachev hung on one wall. There was a gray safe in the corner.
I coughed and waited for him to notice me.
"So?" he said at last, without looking up.
"The meeting on Kirov Street lasted a little longer than I had expected," I said. "I thought I would check in."
"Interesting?" The general never used two words when one would do.
When I first visited his office as a young captain, Leonid Brezhnev's picture was hanging on the wall. Over the years, the portraits had changed to Yury Andropov, and then, briefly, to Konstantin Chernenko, reflecting the quick succession of ailing leaders who occupied the Kremlin during the early 1980s. Kalinin had no political opinions so far as I could tell. One leader was as good as another. What he respected was power.
I began to tell him about the plan to use SS-18s, but he seemed to know everything already. I wondered if Lebedinsky had called him. "I knew you could handle it," he said and raised his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Back to work, right?"
As usual, I was left with the impression that there were areas of this strange secret universe that I would never have access to. Not until much later did I realize that this was only Kalinin's way of spinning the illusions he needed to strengthen and maintain his authority. Kalinin had risen swiftly in the army's chemical warfare corpssome claimed thanks to well-placed marriagesbut he was an engineer, not a scientist. He was also impetuous, a man who enjoyed making quick decisions that took people by surprisenot the least his decision to bring me to Moscow. Against my natural inclinations, I admired him. In our gray bureaucracy, he stood out as an aristocrat.
He was tall, slim, an elegant dresser. His imported suits must have cost him more than he could afford, even on a general's salary. He lived with his second wife, a shy woman said to be the daughter of a four-star general, in a neighborhood Muscovites nicknamed "Tsarskoye Selo" ("Czar's Village")a kind of inside joke because of the high-level officials it housed.
Kalinin never smoked and rarely drank, which set him apart from his peers, and was in excellent shape for a Soviet man in his early fifties. His black hair was always impeccably combed. With his high cheekbones and eagle nose, he looked like a member of the old Russian nobility.
Women adored him, and rumors of his amorous inclinations spiced up office gossip. Late one night I knocked on his door and walked in just as the general and Tatyana were hastily rearranging their clothes. He never mentioned it, and neither did I.
The charm Kalinin reserved for women was rarely experienced by his male subordinates. As I came to feel less awed in his presence, I would sometimes bring to him the case of a scientist or technician who needed a leave of absence for personal reasons. He invariably refused to listen.
"So," he would bark. "Now you're a psychiatrist!"
And he would order me back to work.
After even the briefest session with Kalinin I would retreat to my office with a sense of relief. I worked in a large room with a high ceiling and a window that looked out over a park by the riverbank. An oak desk I'd inherited from my predecessor occupied nearly half the space. The desk held the real symbols of my authority: five telephones. In Soviet government offices, an executive's status could be measured by the number of his phonesan indication of multiple sources of authority. I even had a kremlyovka, the small white phone that connects everyone in the upper reaches of the Soviet government, from the general secretary of the Communist Party to ordinary ministers of state.
Personal mementos of family or friends were taboo in the offices of senior government officials, but I had hung portraits of a few Russian scientists: D. I. Mendeleyev, who invented the periodic table of elements; Nikolai Pirogov, a nineteenth-century pioneer in military surgery; Professor Ilya Mechnikov, a Russian microbiologist who discovered cellular immunity.
I was eager to identify with Russia's glorious scientific past. Some day, I promised myself, I would return to pure research, or medicine. The only other items in my office to suggest my training were books on microbiology, biochemistry, and medicine.
Sitting in a corner was a Western computer. I never used it, but it was another sign of "special" status in a regime that prohibited its citizens from owning a copier. I would have preferred a television or radio, but the KGB had banned them from the offices of senior personnel. Our security chiefs claimed that Western electronic surveillance was so good that foreign agents could decipher our deepest secrets by analyzing the vibrations of our conversations on glass. It made little sense to me: why not then ban the computer as well? The KGB was thorough, and it lived by its own impenetrable logic. Once a month, security officers shooed all the lab chiefs and division heads out of their offices to check for bugs. Some believed that they were really checking on equipment they had themselves installed to record our conversations.
We all knew that we were being watched, but no one questioned the security precautions. We were engaged in secret combat against enemies who, we were told, would stop at nothing. The Americans had hidden behind a similar veil of secrecy when they launched the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. Biopreparat, we believed, was our Manhattan Project.
Marina came in with a stack of messages. "Someone from Yermoshin's office is here to see you," she said.
A young KGB officer stepped in after her and waited for her to leave.
"Yes?" I said. But I knew what would happen next.
Since we operated under the fiction that none of the secretaries knew what we did, they could not be allowed in our presence when our "secrets" were discussed.
The officer handed me a folder with a note from Yermoshin. "Stuff from the third floor," I read in his hurried scrawl.
The third floor was home to our "First Department," the unit responsible for maintaining our secret files and all communications with Biopreparat facilities around the country. The only people allowed in, besides security personnel, were Kalinin and myself. It was administered by the KGB.
Sometimes I went upstairs myself. For one thing, it was the only place in the building where you could copy documents. The First Department was the sole custodian of our copier machine. It also offered a good opportunity to gossip with Yermoshin. Our families had spent time together a few weekends earlier.
I riffled through the papers in front of me while the officer stayed in the room, as he was obliged to do.
There were requests for supplies from one of our lab chiefs in Siberia; a notice of an "urgent" meeting at the Kremlin later that afternoon; a minor accident at one of our labs in western Russia which had sparked a debate between physicians at the Ministry of Health, who wanted to isolate the infected workers, and a general at the lab, who didn't. The general, typically, argued that isolation was unnecessary and would only stir up the staff. And there were the latest reports of a field test in the Aral Sea.