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Inside the biological weapons factory at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union was prepared to make tons of anthrax if the orders came from Moscow [Photo courtesy Andy Weber]

Cracking open the Soviet biological weapons system, 1990

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
(Doubleday, 2009)

By David E. Hoffman

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David E. Hoffman

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Anthrax at Sverdlovsk, 1979

Washington, D.C., May 6, 2010 - Internal documents reveal that in the final years of the Cold War the top leadership of the Soviet Union debated the cover-up of their illicit biological weapons program in the face of protests from the United States and Great Britain.

The documents, first disclosed in a new book by David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, are being posted in English translation today by the National Security Archive.

The records, along with other evidence reported in the book, show how the Kremlin rebuffed the protests from the West over the massive germ warfare effort. Even after a top Soviet scientist defected to Britain in 1989 and began to reveal details of the program, the Soviet officials decided to continue the concealment. The Soviet program was a violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which Moscow had signed.

The documents show that Eduard Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, Dmitri Yazov, the defense minister, and Lev Zaikov, the Politburo member overseeing the military-industrial complex, among others, were aware of the concealment and actively involved in discussing it in the years when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was advancing his glasnost reforms and attempting to slow the nuclear arms race.

Zaikov reported to Gorbachev about biological weapons in a key memo on May 15, 1990. A translation of the memo is included in the documents being posted today.

The book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, examines the final years of the superpower competition and explores what happened to the weapons and the weapons scientists after the Soviet collapse. The book was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

The book is based in part on thousands of pages of documents obtained by Hoffman detailing key decisions about the Soviet military-industrial complex and arms control in the 1980s. The documents were collected by Vitaly Katayev, a professional staff member of the Central Committee, and are now deposited at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The book is also based on extensive documentation of the final years of the Cold War in the collection of the National Security Archive.


The germ warfare system – a Kremlin struggle, 1989-1990

An anthrax epidemic in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 raised suspicions in the West that the Soviet Union was working on offensive biological weapons, in violation of the treaty. Just upwind from the affected neighborhood was a military biological weapons facility. Soviet officials had repeatedly insisted that the Sverdlovsk outbreak had natural causes, such as tainted meat. The true reasons for the outbreak remained hidden.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union had built a massive research organization for biological weapons, known as Biopreparat, which was concealed by a cover story that it was for civilian purposes.

In late October, 1989, Vladimir Pasechnik, one of the leading institute directors in the system, defected to Great Britain.  He began to describe to the British the enormous scope and ambition of the Biopreparat system, which included developing new genetically-engineered pathogens. His revelations were quietly shared with the United States as well.

The Berlin Wall fell November 9, and on December 2-3, President Bush met Gorbachev at the Malta summit. There were many pressing issues, including the future of Germany and Gorbachev’s waning power at home. Bush did not discuss with Gorbachev the disturbing reports about a Soviet biological weapons program.

At the same time, Soviet officials realized that Pasechnik could unmask many of their secrets, and they began to steel themselves for questions. Weeks after the Malta summit, a conflict broke out among Soviet officials about how much to say to the West about the Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak.

Document 1 - A reference note, or spravka, on the reasons for the Sverdlovsk outbreak.  This draft internal memorandum, dated Dec. 19, 1989, notes the persistent questions from abroad and at home about Sverdlovsk. The memo says there was a high-level discussion about how to respond, and the decision was made to keep up the cover story that the anthrax outbreak had natural causes. However, the memo hints at the possibility that the military compound was linked to the outbreak.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

On January 5, 1990, the Soviet Foreign Ministry, under Shevardnadze, made a very modest effort to bring some more openness to the issue. The ministry circulated a draft Central Committee resolution to 15 people. The ministry proposed telling the West that the Sverdlovsk accident was under investigation and suggested exchanging some information with the United States about this and other questions surrounding biological weapons.

Document 2 - Ministry of Defense strongly objects. In this January 10, 1990 memo Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov objects to the Foreign Ministry’s proposals for more openness about Sverdlovsk and biological weapons.  Yazov says there was no accident at the military compound and there should be no exchange with the Americans, because this would contradict all the Soviet claims that it never had biological weapons.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

Document 3 - Foreign Ministry retreats. In this memo, dated January 11, 1990, Viktor Karpov, a deputy Foreign Minister, pulls back, saying that the language in the resolution was “unfortunate ambiguous wording.” It is stricken from the resolution.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

Document 4 - Central Committee staffers comment.  An excerpt from a memo in which two Central Committee staffers, one of whom is Katayev, comment that Karpov should not have circulated the draft resolution and claim that he had “no right to disclose” information about biological weapons.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

The United States and Great Britain, now in possession of Pasechnik’s disclosures, quietly confronted the Soviets. On May 14, 1990, the British and American ambassadors in Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite and Jack F. Matlock Jr., delivered a joint démarche, or formal protest. Among others, they took it to Alexander Bessmertnykh, Shevardnadze’s First Deputy.

Document 5 - The Bessmertnykh notes. These are the detailed notes made by Bessmertnykh about the U.S.-British demarche. The two ambassadors said that they had information the Soviet Union had a large-scale, secret program in the field of biological weapons.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

The demarche got the Kremlin’s attention. The next day, May 15, 1990, Lev Zaikov, the Politburo member for the military-industrial complex, sent a typewritten letter to Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. Although Gorbachev’s role in the biological weapons program is not clear up to this point, the Zaikov letter shows that he was informed of some details on this date.

Document 6 - The Zaikov letter to Gorbachev. In this important memo, which he wrote at Gorbachev’s request, Zaikov puts a very selective spin on the history and activities of the Soviet germ warfare program. It is evident from the letter that Soviet officials lied not only to the world, but to each other, including the president of the country.
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

For more analysis of the letter, see The Dead Hand, pp. 346-348.

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III was invited to join Shevardnadze on a sightseeing trip to Zagorsk, a town forty-three miles northeast of the Kremlin with a famous Russian Orthodox monastery. Baker had prepared a short paper outlining what the United States knew.

As they cruised to Zagorsk in Shevardnadze’s ZIL limousine, flying Soviet and American flags on the front, with no aides but two interpreters in the car, Baker raised the issue of biological weapons and handed the paper to Shevardnadze. Baker recalled that Shevardnadze said, in the present tense, “he didn’t think it could be so, but he would check it out.”

The issue of biological weapons came up again at the Washington summit. On Saturday, June 2, 1990, President Bush and Gorbachev had a private discussion about it at Camp David.

And in July 1990, Baker gave Shevardnadze yet another paper outlining American concerns about biological weapons.

Shevardnadze was scheduled to meet Baker in August at Lake Baikal. On July 27 and again on July 30, 1990, a group of officials gathered at Zaikov’s office in Moscow to draft the talking points that Shevardnadze would use to respond to Baker.

Document 7 and Document 8: Shevardnadze’s talking points for Baker on Aug. 1, 1990.  Shevardnadze essentially continues the cover-up. He says, “We have no biological weapons.” Document 7 is a draft, and Document 8 consists of Shevardnadze’s actual talking points.  In his memoirs, Shevardnadze alluded to this moment: “If anything, Jim could have had some doubts about my honesty, in connection with an unpleasant story I do not intend to tell here.” He added, “Lying is always unproductive.”
[Source: Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Katayev collection]

The Shevardnadze response was followed by a long negotiation which resulted in the first U.K.-U.S. visits to the Soviet biological weapons complex in January, 1991. But the Western experts who visited came away with even deeper suspicions that a massive germ warfare program existed.

The stonewalling would continue even after the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

For more, see The Dead Hand.


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