Vozrozhdeniye (translated "Rebirth") Island lies in the
Aral sea between the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan
and Uzbekistan. This remote spot once housed the world's
largest open-air test site for biological weapons.
From 1936 until 1991, Vozrozhdinye Island was part of the
Soviet Union’s secret biological weapons program. The island’s
isolated location and hot, dry climate made it the ideal
setting for aerosol testing of biological weapons. Surrounded
by the Aral Sea and its vast deserts, the island was relatively
invulnerable to unauthorized access. The surrounding sea, along
with the island’s hot temperatures and sandy soil, also reduced
the chances that the dangerous organisms released during tests
would be transmitted to the mainland.
Among the pathogens tested on Vozrozhdeniye Island were
the causative agents of anthrax, plague, and tularemia.
Strains of these bacteria had been engineered by Soviet
scientists to be resistant to multiple antibiotics and
In 1954, a biological weapons complex was constructed on
Vozrozhdeniye Island. An open-air test site was
constructed on the southern end of the Island, with a
laboratory complex located ten miles away. A military housing
settlement was built on the northern end of the island.
The prevailing winds on Vozrozhdeniye always blow from north to south,
probably influenced the selection of these locations, with the
protection of the residents in mind. From this satellite image
taken in the 1960’s, the layout of the BW complex
and residential settlement can be seen.
The biological weapons complex on Vozrozhdeniye Island is
suspected to have been comprised of more than 80 buildings.
The open-air test site included a weather station, observation
tower, and devices used to measure the concentration of biological
particles in the air. The laboratory complex contained high-containment
facilities designed for work with dangerous pathogens, as well as cages
for the animals used in experiments to test the effects of biological weapons.
The military settlement on the opposite end of the
island housed scientists, military personnel, and some
of their families. The settlement included military barracks,
residential housing, an elementary school, nursery school,
cafeteria, warehouses, and a power station. During the peak
testing periods from April through August in its operative years,
up to 800 scientists and troops
were stationed on Vozrozhdeniye Island.
At the BW complex, experiments were conducted on horses,
monkeys, sheep, donkeys, and rodents to study the
physical effects of aerosol biological weapons. Animals
were exposed to biological aerosols at the open air
test site, and then returned to the laboratory to
monitor the progression of disease. Autopsies were
performed on the animals after they died. Military
vehicles were also used in tests to determine their
defensive capabilities against biological warfare.
Still other tests were aimed at observing the dissemination
patterns of biological aerosol clouds.
In the 1980’s, the governments of the United States and
Britain became increasingly convinced that the Soviet Union
possessed a biological weapons program. When confronted
with their accusations, then leader Mikhail Gorbachev
denied the existence of such a program, and invited Western
experts to tour Soviet scientific facilities as proof.
Gorbachev then ordered the large stores of anthrax bacteria
held near Irkutsk be buried, to avoid discovery by an
The anthrax bacteria, estimated between 100 and 200 tons,
was put into large steel drums and mixed with bleach to
kill the spores. The drums were shipped to Vozrozhdeniye
Island, where their contents were dumped into eleven pits,
five to eight feet deep, in an area smaller than a football
field. In 1992, on the basis of information from a Soviet
defector, the U.S. sent a team to the island to take soil
samples. The samples revealed that not all of the anthrax
had been killed by the bleach; viable spores of weaponized
anthrax were present.
Most of the infrastructure of the old BW complex on Vozrozhdeniye Island
lies within the present borders of Uzbekistan. In 2001, under the Cooperative
Threat Reduction program, Uzbekistan and the United States signed an agreement
to clean up Vozrozhdeniye Island and destroy the buried anthrax. The agreement
includes a two-stage plan: first to decontaminate the island, and then to
dismantle the old BW complex. The first stage was completed in June 2002.
At this time, no timetable or budget has been determined for the second stage.
Moscow has never acknowledged that the smallpox virus was among the weaponized
agents tested on Vozrozhdeniye Island. However, a formerly secret Soviet report
on an outbreak of smallpox in 1971 has caused some to believe that it was.
In 2002, the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California obtained
a copy of a secret Soviet report documenting an outbreak of smallpox in the city
of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1971. A young female scientist on a research vessel in
the Aral Sea contracted smallpox. Ten persons in her home town of Aralsk became
infected, three of whom died. Soviet public health officials hypothesized in the report
that the smallpox came from a port of call in Afghanistan, but an American scientist theorizes
that the research vessel sailed close to Vozrozhdeniye Island, where an open-air test
of the smallpox virus was taking place.
Dr. Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National
Laboratory, believes airborne particles of smallpox virus
were carried by the wind from the south of Vozrozhdeniye
Island to the research vessel, where the scientist was
working long hours on the ship’s upper deck. Zelicoff
also asserts that the rate of disease transmission to
persons who had been vaccinated against smallpox suggests
(but does not prove) that the strain used in the test
had been engineered to be unusually potent. Zelicoff’s
theory is a subject of debate among experts, but if true,
would be the first evidence Soviet field testing of smallpox.
Today, Vozrozhdeniye Island is no longer an island, but a
peninsula. In the 1960’s, the Soviet government began diverting
water from the Aral Sea’s source rivers for irrigation of
cotton fields. Since that time, the Aral Sea’s volume has
decreased by over 75 percent. A land bridge has now formed
between Vozrozhdeniye and the Uzbek mainland.
The remnants of Vozrozhdeniye Island
now lie unguarded. Before the U.S./Uzbek
decontamination effort in 2002, there was no
barrier between outsiders and the buried anthrax.
Although the U.S. government believes that no
anthrax was extracted from the island before
the cleanup, there is no way to be certain.
The reduction of the Aral Sea has also caused environmental
and health problems in the area. Dust storms spread salt
and toxic residue left behind from the sea, and summer
temperatures now reach 120° F. What was once an isolated
government community is now an exposed desert wasteland.
Vozrozhdeniye Island, like the Soviet regime that controlled
it, is no more; but its secrets are still coming to light.