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CBW Corner

CBW Corner

Providing a resource for arms control treaty implementers to assist them with keeping
up-to-date on the issues and events critical to understanding and eliminating chemical and biological weapons.


Vozrozhdeniye: Island of Plagues

  • 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 environmental stresses.

  • 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 outside inspection.

  • 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.

    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.

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