The USSR’s interest in biological weapons stretches back as far as the Twenties, but first came to light in World War 2 when it was claimed Joseph Stalin used tularaemia against German troops near Stalingrad. But, by the Sixties – the height of the Cold War – biological warfare facilities were hidden throughout the former Soviet Union. These programmes became immense and were conducted at 52 clandestine sites employing over 50,000 people.
In their 2018 mini-series, “Secret Soviet Death Island,” YouTube channel Second Thought laid bare the shocking details of just one of these facilities.
The series detailed: “In the aftermath of World War 1, the Red Army had formulated a plan to develop a secret military base.
“This was not intended as just another staging area for troops, instead it had a much more nefarious purpose, the goal was to find an island isolated enough to safely conduct tests and produce weapons that could kill huge numbers of people quickly and cheaply.
“Their weapon of choice – disease.
Weapons that could kill huge numbers of people quickly and cheaply.
“After the end of World War 2, the Soviets struggled to find an appropriate location and after several failed attempts to build their facility near the border with other nations, they decided that the only course of action was to select a spot well within their borders, but far from population centres and ideally isolated by water.
“By 1948, the Soviets had found the perfect location –Vozrozhdeniya – or Rebirth Island, located in the middle of what used to be the Aral Sea.”
The series went on to discuss the activities that occurred on this top-secret facility.
It added: “When the first personnel arrived on the island, they described it as a paradise – they could sunbathe or go for a swim in the crystal-clear waters.
“But the work these scientists were doing was in stark contrast to the idyllic island scenery.
“Their job was pretty straightforward, weaponise diseases to make them even more deadly and contagious – anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, tularemia and other diseases were studied and, in some cases, genetically modified to resist existing cures.
“Every summer, the bioweapons facility employed the use of two to three hundred monkeys as their test subjects and the experiments were conducted in the summer because the elevated temperatures made it less-likely for diseases to spread.”
According to the series, research was carried out to understand the potential for weaponising.
It added: “The monkeys were taken to an open-air test range about 15km from the facility, where they were placed in cages near devices that measured the concentration of germs in the air.
“Once the monkeys had been sufficiently exposed, they were taken back to the lab for study, until they died a few weeks after.
“The scientists would then perform autopsies to learn more about how the diseases worked.
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“At its peak Rebirth Island was home to 1,500 researchers, their family and security personnel.”
But, the US caught wind of the plans and things soon went south.
The series explained: “But in the Sixties, things started to unravel, the CIA discovered the secret base thanks to aerial photographs.
“Then, in 1971, the first of a series of deadly accidents occurred, 15 kilometres off the coast of the island.
“A scientists aboard a research vessel strayed into a brownish haze on the water and was diagnosed with smallpox a few days later.
“After returning home, she infected 10 other people, three of whom died from the disease.
“A year later in 1972, the BBC reported the death of two missing fishermen in their boats and it was determined they had died of the plague.
“Finally, in 1988, 50,000 Saiga antelopes all died over the course of a single hour.”
The series explained how the secrets of the Soviet Union were spilt after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It continued: “After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the island facility was abandoned, its inhabitants evacuated and the buildings left largely untouched – a reminder of what could have been the driving force behind the deadliest biological warfare.
“Luckily, the notion of mass destruction largely lost its appeal among the world’s superpowers after the Cold War and the use of biological weapons remains a horrible crime.
“In 2001, the United States decided to send a team to visit the island and clean it up.
“They destroyed some of the facilities, but the extent of their work was never fully revealed.”
Although the USSR signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), research was found to continue through to the Eighties.
Over the course of its history, the Soviet programme is known to have weaponised and stockpiled 11 bioagents.
In the Nineties, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted to an offensive bioweapons program as well as to the true nature of the Sverdlovsk biological weapons accident of 1979, which had resulted in the deaths of at least 64 people.
An agreement was signed with the US and UK promising to end bio-weapons programs and convert BW facilities to benevolent purposes, but compliance with the agreement is still mostly undocumented.
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