Authorities in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which share the former island’s territory, do not encourage visitors. Almost all of the agents responsible for the deadly diseases tested on Vozrozhdeniye are quickly destroyed when exposed to ultraviolet light. The island’s sparse vegetation, hot desert climate, and sandy soil – which reaches summer temperatures of 60°C – all sharply reduce the possibility that pathogenic microorganisms can survive. The important exception is anthrax, a spore that outlives all the others. It can persist in soil for a very long time, and if any spores reach the lungs the chance of death is usually greater than 90%.
Britain harbours considerable expertise when it comes to anthrax, having conducted a few bioweapons tests on the Scottish island of Gruinard during the second world war. Gruinard remained uninhabited by government decree until 1988.
A US team visited Rebirth Island after September 11 2001, concerned that terrorists might find something useful, and ostensibly to clean it up. But nobody I spoke to before leaving for Kazakhstan knew exactly what the Americans had done. As one expert explained, it took more than 40 years to decontaminate Gruinard. “They pumped formaldehyde over the entire island. You have to kill every single spore, and they can live for centuries.”
The US spending a mere few months on the Vozrozhdeniye clean-up wasn’t good enough for him, so I was taking no chances. The looters looked me over with interest when I approached wearing a protective jumpsuit, rubberised overboots and a face mask. I proffered spare suits, brought along just in case, but there were no takers.
Down in the research zone, on a corridor in one of the laboratory buildings, rooms are full of electrical apparatus or equipped with work-benches and metal cages. One room contains a bed with the sheets still on. Above it a poster offers pictorial reminders of the importance of wearing all the necessary protective clothing. The sheets are rumpled, as if the occupant had risen one morning and forgotten to make his bed.
Back out in the sunshine, the gutted remains of a small building are still littered with petri dishes and glass test-tubes. It doesn’t have a roof, and the rafters had been burnt but, scattered across the floor and in neat stacks along lines of metal shelving, most of the glassware is undamaged. There was no way of telling what foul concoctions they contained. So much for the clean-up operation.
The Vozrozhdeniye Island test site in the Aral Sea was part of the older, military BW system. The island was apparently chosen for open-air testing of biological weapons because of its geographical isolation.(26) Vozrozhdeniye is situated in the middle of the Aral Sea, surrounded by large, sparsely populated deserts and semi-deserts that hindered unauthorized access to the secret site. The island’s sparse vegetation, hot, dry climate, and sandy soil that reaches temperatures of 60· C (140· F) in summer all reduced the chances that pathogenic microorganisms would survive and spread.(27) In addition, the insular location prevented the transmission of pathogens to neighboring mainland areas by animals or insects. The northern part of Vozrozhdeniye Island, which Kazakhs call Mergensay, is on Kazakhstani territory. The southern two-thirds of the island is in the Karakalpak autonomous region of Uzbekistan.(28)
In 1936, Vozrozhdeniye Island was transferred to the authority of the Soviet MOD for use by the Red Army’s Scientific Medical Institute.(29) The first expedition of 100 people, headed by Professor Ivan Velikanov, arrived on the island that summer. The researchers were provided with special ships and two airplanes and reportedly conducted experiments involving the spread of tularemia and related microorganisms. In the fall of 1937, however, the expedition was evacuated from the island because of security problems, including the arrest of Velikanov and other specialists.(30)
In 1952, the Soviet government decided to resume BW testing on islands in the Aral Sea. A biological weapons test site, officially referred to as “Aralsk-7,” was built in 1954 on Vozrozhdeniye and Komsomolskiy Islands. The MOD’s Field Scientific Research Laboratory (PNIL) was stationed on Vozrozhdeniye Island to conduct the experiments.(31) Military unit 25484, comprising several hundred people, was also based on the island and reported to a larger unit based in Aralsk.(32) The PNIL developed methods of biological defense and decontamination for Soviet troops. Samples of military hardware, equipment, and protective clothing reportedly passed field tests at the island before being mass-produced. During the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, military protective gear developed for Afghan conditions was tested at the PNIL.(33)
Infrastructure and BW Development
The BW test site on Vozrozhdeniye Island was divided into a testing complex in the southern part of the island and a military settlement in the northern part where officers, some with families, and soldiers lived. The settlement had barracks, residential houses, an elementary school, a nursery school, a cafeteria, warehouses, and a power station. Personnel were subjected to regular immunizations and received hardship benefits.(34) PNIL laboratory buildings, located near the residential area, possessed up-to-date equipment and a Biosafety Level 3 containment unit.(35) Also located in the northern part of the island was Barkhan Airport, which provided regular plane and helicopter transportation to the mainland, and a seaport at Udobnaya Bay. Special fast patrol boats protected the island from intruders.
The open-air test site in the southern part of the island was used for studying the dissemination patterns of BW agent aerosols and methods to detect them, and the effective range of aerosol bomblets with biological agents of different types.(36) The testing grounds were equipped with an array of telephone poles with detectors mounted on them, spaced at one-kilometer intervals.(37) BW agents tested at the Vozrozhdeniye site had been developed at the MOD facilities in Kirov, Sverdlovsk, and Zagorsk, and the Biopreparat center in Stepnogorsk, and included anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, plague, typhus, Q fever, smallpox, botulinum toxin, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. The experiments were conducted on horses, monkeys, sheep, and donkeys, and on laboratory animals such as white mice, guinea pigs, and hamsters.(38) In addition to common pathogenic strains, special strains developed for military purposes were tested at the island.(39) Bacterial simulants were also used to study the dissemination of aerosol particles in the atmosphere.
The fact that the island’s prevailing winds always blow toward the south, away from the northern settlement, was probably an important factor in designing the site. The BW aerosol tests were also conducted in such a way as to avoid contaminating the northern military settlement, and a special service on the island was responsible for environmental control.(40) Nevertheless, the activities on the secret island caused serious concerns among local residents because of repeated epidemics and the mass deaths of animals and fish in the area.(41) Individual cases of infectious disease also occurred in people who spent time on the island.(42)
Desiccation of the Aral Sea
By the early 1990s, the desiccation of the Aral Sea, which had been taking place since the 1960s because of the diversion of water into irrigation projects, had begun to impair the operation of the Vozrozhdeniye test site. Although the island was initially 200 square kilometers in size, it expanded to 2,000 square kilometers by 1990.(43) The shrinkage of the Aral Sea increased operational expenditures at the test site, particularly the cost of importing necessary items.(44) The site’s port had to be relocated several dozen kilometers away from the settlement, increasing the need for ground transportation and the size of the labor force needed for loading and unloading operations.(45) Kazakhstani specialists believe that by 2010, the island will be connected to the mainland; there is already a shallow zone between the island and the settlement of Muynak on the Uzbekistani coast. The emergence of a land bridge would eliminate the major security benefits of the island.(46)
The Moscow authorities did not allow Kazakhstani public representatives to visit Vozrozhdeniye Island until 1990.(47) The first Kazakhstani commission, headed by N. I. Ibrayev, Deputy Chairman of the Kzylorda Oblast Executive Committee of the CPSU, visited the island in August 1990. The visit was hosted by Valeriy Sinevich, the commander of the military unit stationed on the island, and Victor Donchenko, deputy head of the PNIL.(48) In the spring of 1992, a second Kazakhstani government commission headed by Svyatoslav Medvedev, Minister of Ecology and Bioresources, visited the island. In August 1992, an independent expert commission of the Aral-Asia-Kazakhstan non-governmental organization also visited.(49) The Russian military authorities claimed that no offensive testing or research had been conducted on the island and that the site had tested only defenses against biological weapons.(50)
Evacuation of Russian military personnel from Vozrozhdeniye Island began in 1991, when the PNIL specialists left and the laboratories were mothballed.(51) On January 18, 1992, the Supreme Soviet of newly independent Kazakhstan issued the edict “On Urgent Measures for Radically Improving the Living Conditions of Aral Area Residents,” which officially closed the Vozrozhdeniye military site. On April 11, 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s Edict No. 390, “On Ensuring the Implementation of International Obligations Regarding Biological Weapons,” ordered that all offensive BW programs be shut down. Following this decree, the Russian government declared that the Vozrozhdeniye site was closed, the special structures would be dismantled, and within two to three years the island would be decontaminated and transferred to Kazakhstani control.(52) In August 1995, specialists from the US Department of Defense visited Vozrozhdeniye Island and confirmed that the experimental field lab had been dismantled, the site’s infrastructure destroyed, and the military settlement abandoned.(53)
After the Russian authorities left Vozrozhdeniye Island in 1992, local residents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan flocked to the island to seize abandoned military equipment that the Russian forces had been unable to take with them. It is to be hoped that the looting occurred in the safer, residential part of the island. Kazakhstan has not yet used the portion of the island under its jurisdiction for economic purposes, and specialists remain concerned about environmental contamination.
These weapons were extraordinarily potent. Some of them were actually engineered, genetically, to become more lethal than the strains in nature,” said the institute’s Jonathan Tucker.
In 1988, in a hasty effort to bury evidence of its alleged biological warfare program, the Soviet military hauled tons of bleach-soaked anthrax canisters to Vozrozhdeniye, doused them with even more bleach and then dumped them, the institute says.
The Monterey Institute claims that anthrax is still simmering in the island’s soil. Tucker said that U.S. scientists who took samples from Vozrozhdeniye in 1997 were able to recover viable spores that could be grown in a culture to form live anthrax bacteria.
Russia has never acknowledged any role in the anthrax dump. But the institute’s allegations are backed by a former top Russian biological researcher.
“It is clear, when you destroy tons and tons of their weapons, it wouldn’t be possible to kill everything. And now, what we know, is this island is contaminated,” said Ken Alibek, who was chief of Russia’s biological weapons research and development program before defecting to the United States in 1992.
If anthrax spores have survived, it is possible rodents, birds and other wildlife on the island have been infected, researchers said.
With Vozrozhdeniye now expanding toward the shore, scientists fear infected animals could soon spread toxins to neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
“This island is definitely a potential time bomb, because the shrinking of the sea and the likely emergence within a few years of a land bridge to the mainland and the possibility that insects and rodents, carrying deadly diseases, could cross over and infect the local population,” Tucker said.
There may be yet another concern. Alibek said 60,000 to 70,000 scientists, engineers and technicians worked on biological weapons before the break up of the Soviet Union. Where they went or what they’re doing now, he says, no one seems to know.
Yet it is on this piece of arid scrubland that the legacy of the Soviet germ-warfare program is most menacing.
Before each test, poison was sprayed over the area to kill all insects and animals and make sure they didn’t catch whatever disease was being tested. But since many burrow against the fierce summer heat, some probably survived.
Lepyoshkin and others who worked on the Soviet bioweapons program say it is most likely that some of these surviving local rodents were exposed to the weapons-grade bubonic plague bacteria and survived that too. Fleas would transmit the plague from generation to generation. The disease is resistant to antibiotics and more contagious than the natural kind, which affects a handful of people each year in Central Asia.
The scavengers, who have little knowledge of and less interest in what went on in Kantubek (”I don’t see any microbes,” one scoffed) are risking their lives, Lepyoshkin says. They are risking the lives of others too: if a scavenger contracts the plague and makes it to a hospital, he could start an epidemic.
And more visitors are coming. In 2001, the Kazakh government announced with great fanfare that the Aral Sea region contains major oil deposits. Lepyoshkin says that two shallow wells have been drilled by the Uzbeks on Vozrozhdeniye. So far, no one has fallen ill.
How do I get there? Don’t.
For even more detailed info see Sometimes Interesting‘s post.