The Aral Sea was known as “the Sea of Islands,” and once upon a time this camp – now in the middle of the desert – sat on the largest. The secrets buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island lurk in the shadows of the greater Aral desiccation storyline.

It was once the epicenter of biological warfare testing and housed the largest facility in the world. Its labs experimented with some of the deadliest pathogens known to man.

The island operation was shut down in the early 1990s, and authorities believed the remote location of “Anthrax Island” offered the buried biological weapons insulation from the rest of the world. But when the Aral’s water level dropped a land bridge was revealed, which offered anyone access to the site and its arsenal of pathological weapons.

cover photo courtesy MACTAK

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This is the second of a two-part series about the Aral Sea. For part one, click here.

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Early Documented History

Vozroz-map-3Located 2,200 miles (3,500 km) from Moscow and deep in Central Asia, the island was an ideal host for the Soviet Union’s largest open-air biological testing facility.

While the Aral Sea is jurisdictionally divided between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Vozrozhdeniye is part of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic once part of Kazakhstan, but absorbed by Uzbekistan in 1936.

Vozrozhdeniye’s recorded history begins in 1848, when Lieutenant A. I. Butakov of the Imperial Russian Navy and Karl Ernst von Baer of the Russian Geographic Society spotted the island during a survey expedition in 1848. The two named the Aral Sea’s largest island after then-Czar Nikolay I.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks renamed Nikolay Island to Vozrozhdeniye. The name (Vozrozdeniya/Остров Возрождения, pronounced “vohz-rohz-den-ee-yeh”) roughly means “rebirth,” “renaissance,” or “resurrection,” depending on whom you ask.

In 1926 the island was the site of a small Soviet prison camp run by the Soviet Unified State Political Administration (or Joint State Political Directorate – OGPU) to imprison kulaks, the wealthy independent farmers of the Russian Empire.

[ Some sources have incorrectly attributed the name “Vozrozhdeniye” to symbolize the “resurrection” by the kulaks from their criminal past, but the name actually celebrates the birth of the Soviet Union. ]

During the 1920s and 30s a small seasonal fishing village brought the island to life in the summer months.

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A Home for the Biological Warfare (BW) Testing Program

In 1936 ownership of the island transferred to the Sanitarno-Tekhnichesky Institut (STI), the medical-technical institute division in the fifteenth directorate of the Worker’s and Peasant’s Red Army (RKKA).

Aralsk-7-soldiersThat year STI director Ivan Velikanov led an expedition to Vozrozhdeniye to conduct open-air testing of F. tularensis. A rudimentary village was quickly constructed and consisted of barracks, housing, a wharf, and a test range.

An especially cold 1936 winter delayed testing until May of 1937, but once it resumed aircraft routinely delivered aerial-deployed pathogenic cargo to the area including cholera, leprosy, plague, and tularemia.

Initially testing on the island was an effort to determine defensive capabilities of equipment – an innocuous enough rationale that coincidentally rhymed with the explanations delivered by England and the United States regarding their early BW programs. Velikanov’s reign of the STI came to an abrupt end in June of 1937 when the NKVD arrested him and his closest scientists.

gas-masksTesting at Vozrozhdeniye would be temporarily halted by the fiasco, but resumed shortly after once L. M. Khatenever was appointed as the new STI director.

Without explanation, biological testing on Vozrozhdeniye Island was abruptly halted at the end of 1937. Did a major disaster prompt abandonment of the site?

For the next seventeen years, our knowledge of the island’s history goes dark.

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Biopreparat under M.O.D.

Coincidentally it was the advancements made by the U.S. and U.K.’s biological weapon programs during World War II which kick-started the Soviet Union’s second attempt to establish testing facilities on Vozrozhdeniye.

Kantubek-old-2The Soviet Minister of Defense (MOD) turned the island’s lights back on in 1954, and soon began improving the old village’s infrastructure to create a more permanent settlement for Biopreparat (Биопрепарат) operations.

Biopreparat is the name of a Russian biological research program which, according to the U.S., had violated UN’s 1972 Biological Weapons Convention for years by blurring the lines between research and development of pathogens.

It was this program for which chemists, engineers, and scientists designed and tested some of the most deadly diseases humankind has known: Anthrax, botulinum toxin, plague, Q-fever, smallpox, tularemia, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis (among others). Strains were genetically modified to increase casualties while being resilient to withstand known medications and treatments.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Over time, the world’s largest biological warfare testing site became known as  Aralsk-7, a reference to the mainland city from which supplies were delivered and construction on Vozrozhdeniye launched.

Warehouses in Aralsk fed large freighters cargo and supplies earmarked for Vozrozhdeniye. On the island near the headquarters building, 80,000-liter water tanks stored the 350 tons of potable water delivered by Aralsk barges annually (map).

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Kantubek

The town of Kantubek (or Кантюбек/Kantyubek, Map it!) dates to the early 1950s and was located in the North. Kantubek acted as the administrative center and housed the island’s workforce. The settlement was crude and felt isolated from the world, but the town had barracks and offered a cafeteria, canteen, club, parade ground, stadium, and its own power station.

Life on Vozrozhdeniye was far from easy, but at least it was a family-accompanied tour. Free immunizations, medical care, and hardship benefits helped offset working conditions for those assigned to Aralsk-7.

“These weapons were extraordinarily potent. Some of them were actually engineered, genetically, to become more lethal than the strains in nature.”

– Dr. Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute

Kantubek*

The operation expanded over the decades, and by 1990 there were 90 structures in Kantubek alone.

During test season the town was home to as many as 2,000 (more than 600 of which were soldiers), but this number declined to about 200 during the off-season.

kantubek-aerial

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Field Scientific Research Laboratory (PNIL)

About 1.5 miles (2.5 km) south of Kantubek is the island’s laboratory complex, a state-of-the-art testing facility complete with a Biosafety Level 3 containment unit. Known as the Field Scientific Research Laboratory (PNIL), the lab complex employed Military Unit 25484, a top-secret cadre of researchers and scientists possessing the highest-levels of security clearance.

The PNIL was a Soviet biological warfare skunk-works established to test aerosol delivery, defenses to bacteria, and vaccination-proof strains. At its peak, between 50 and 60 buildings housed animals and top scientists from all over the Soviet Union, including technicians from the institutes at Kirov, Sverdlovsk, and Zagorsk.

V60 and V61 are the PNIL’s two largest buildings. The former was used for necropsies, with an intake system on the first floor. The second floor of Building V60 contained washing and decontamination equipment, air storage tanks, water, and decontamination fluid that was constantly pumped throughout the floor. On the third floor was an advanced air handling system that filtered and sterilized air before exhausting it to the outside.

[ According to Colonel Gennadi Lepyoshkin, an estimated 200 to 300 nonhuman primates were used for testing each year. ]

Animal cages were stacked dozens to a room, temporary housing for the ailing animals before a trip into one of the six examination laboratories. The PNIL’s lab staff numbered between 50 and 80 and were capable of performing several hundred necropsies per day.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Building V61 was a 3-story pre-deployment animal facility that originally served as a primate holding cell before later adding testing. In this building six large rooms contained additional stacked cages, also used to restrain baboons and macaques.

Nearby, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, and rabbits were caged in the smaller surrounding structures.

[ Map: Building V60 | Building V61 ]

Lab-Complex-Aug-1957

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PNIL Directors:

• 1954-1980: Nikolay N. Sergeev

• 1980-1985: Yury P. Grigorashkin

• 1985-1992: Viktor V. Donchenko*

            * According to a report after the U.S. visit in 1997, Donchenko’s name was still posted on his office door in the ruins of the old PNIL.

 

(Above right: surveillance photo of PNIL circa 1957)

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Ports: Air & Sea

Vozroz-Barkhan-Airfield-2West-Northwest of town the workers constructed Barkhan Airport (pictured at left and below, map), a crude multi-runway airport capable of handling cargo aircraft and built before the region had advanced radar capabilities.

Further north was sea access via the now long-defunct port of Udobnaya Bay (map) (not to be confused with the other Udobnaya Bay) on the northern tip of Vozrozhdeniye Island.

The port was home to the island’s defense fleet. Intruders who dared venture within 25 miles (40 km) of the island were paid a visit by an unfriendly armada of fast boats, capable of fast deployment from Udobnaya in the North.

[ Map exploration: See Vozrozhdeniye’s ships permanently docked in sand at the former Udobnaya port. ]

The majority of the buildings left today date from the 1970s, with the exception of a few originals which date back to the 1950s and 60s. The tallest structure on the island was a multi-purpose 40-foot observation tower.  It contained a 360-degree lookout, radio communications equipment, and a weather station.

Barkhan Airfield, Vozrozhdeniya Island
Barkhan Airfield, Vozrozhdeniye

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The Range

weather-station-2
Abandoned Weather Station (courtesy MACTAK)

Farther south were the various testing ranges, scattered throughout the southern part of the island. The sites were between four and nine miles (6.4 & 10 km) downwind from the lab complex.

The open-air testing sites spanned 41.7 square miles (108 km²/26,688 acres) across the Southern part of the island. The testing range was used to identify dissemination patterns and to study the effectiveness of various dispersion methods of biological agents. Arrays of germ agent detection-equipped telephone poles spaced in one-kilometer intervals delivered deadly cargo and monitored the results of exposure.

Aralsk-7 range tie
Aralsk-7 range tie, today sans animal

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Heat generally reduces the absorption and shelf-life of lethal spores; to better control dissemination and limit collateral damage, biological testing at Aralsk-7 was typically conducted in late spring and throughout the summer. Between May and September range temperatures would routinely reach 120 degrees F (49 degrees C).

Testing was conducted at night to avoid the sun’s germicidal UV irradiation, take advantage of the inversion layer, and most importantly – to avoid detection by U.S. satellites. The deadly cargoes were designed for humans but tested on animals: Donkeys, guinea pigs, hamsters, horses, mice, monkeys, and sheep were restrained to range ties and exposed to various pathological and weaponized bacterial strains – typically delivered via “mini bombs” or distributed as aerosol particles in the atmosphere.

animal-cages-2[ From 1966 until 1984, the United States used the KH-8 Gambit 3 satellite, which lacked infrared and thus did not have nighttime detection. The U.S. did not have a satellite with infrared capability until the mid-1980s with the KH-11.  ]

Today there is little evidence of the range’s former mission. The only semblances of the prior activities are stacked rusty cages and the ordered posts with occasional restraining chain still dangling in the wind.

“We used monkeys, about 200 to 300 each year. Our staff would take them out to the range and they would put them in cages next to devices that measured the concentration of germs in the air.

Then after they were exposed, they were taken to the labs, where we would test their blood and monitor the development of a disease in them. They would die within weeks, and we would perform autopsies.”

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, retired Soviet Army Colonel

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According to former head of Biological Defense in the Fifteenth Directorate, General Valentin Yevstigneyev, Soviet weapons were not the only ones tested at Aralsk-7:

There was a workshop where we did indeed manufacture four kinds of U.S. one-pound, two-pound, and four-pound bombs. The workers produced these “toys” literally on their laps. But it could not be done any other way; we had to learn to assess the biological situation if these weapons were used. We charged the munitions, drove out to an island in the Aral Sea, blew them up, installed biological reconnaissance instruments, watched what kind of cloud was produced, and so on and so forth… We now have marvelous calculations which are used by everyone from the Defense Ministry itself to the Ministry for Affairs of Civil Defense, Emergency Situations, and Elimination of Natural Disasters.

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Vozroz-comm-bldg

Some challenge this version of events, citing both the statement’s factual inaccuracies and the general’s known abilities in psychological operations. Yevstigneyev’s soundbite seemed to artificially and purposefully diminish U.S. military technology.

Whether or not it was true didn’t matter; the comments were intended to galvanize Russian perceptions and affect worldwide perception of U.S. capabilities.

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Why do countries conduct open-air testing?

To observe & measure behavior, lifespan, and virulence of agents.

To verify delivery vehicle’s ability to disseminate agent effectively.

To determine if delivery vehicle & cargo can operate dependably together.

Testing defenses to BW attacks requires simulating BW attacks.

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Incidents & Leaks

Kantubek-11The secrecy surrounding Aralsk-7 and the general Soviet methods of record-keeping leave us with little factual history regarding the operational activities on the island. Despite this, a handful of incidents have managed to make it into the press – albeit even then we rarely get all the facts.

Western press only learned of the region’s 1971 smallpox outbreak decades later, when the story came to light in 2002. During the 1971 testing season, an accidental release of variola virus from the island infected ten people in the nearby city of Aralsk, killing three.

Kantubek-12A research vessel from the city, clearly unaware of the island’s activities, was taking Aral Sea samples near Vozrozhdeniye.

A 24 year-old fisheries expert became patient zero when she caught more than fish with her casting nets. Once public officials learned of her condition, the entire city of fifty thousand was quarantined and vaccinated.

mactak-1photos courtesy MACTAK

Kantubek residence hall
Kantubek residence hall

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[ Read about the Soviet Union’s “biological Chernobyl” which killed over 100 people: The 1979 Sverdlovsk Anthrax Leak. (or this pdf, which goes into more detail and is written by one of the inspectors on site). ]

On another occasion, a scientist dropped a Petri dish containing weaponized anthrax on the floor and tried to cover up the mistake. When the cover-up was discovered, the punishment was a reprimand and smaller paycheck.

In a recent trip to the former island, an unmarked grave was discovered near the laboratory complex. It was only learned from Russian defectors the grave contained the remains of a scientist who died decades earlier of an infection contracted while handling weaponized germs.

Her actions (and death) were not officially recorded.

Looters chopped down light & utility poles for their valuable fixtures & metals
Looters chopped down light posts for their fixtures (courtesy MACTAK)

[ BW laboratory accidents still occur today: In 2004 46 year-old Antonina Presnyakova was handling a syringe with blood from a guinea pig infected with Ebola virus. The needle penetrated two layers of gloves before piercing her palm. She was immediately moved to isolation, but died two weeks later. ]

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The Alibek Account

Western powers had long suspected there was secret testing at Vozrozhdeniye, but the bombshell would come in 1992 with the defection of a former Biopreparat director and anthrax production plant manager, Kanatzhan Alibekov (Канаджан Алибеков/Kanadzhan Alibayov/Канатжан Алибеков aka Kenneth “Ken” Alibek – pictured below right).

Ken AlibekAlibek was a gifted scientist with an impressive resume: The ethnic Kazakh held a Doctorate of Medicine, a PhD in Medical Microbiology, and a Doctorate of Sciences in Biotechnology. In addition to this he had reached the rank of Colonel in the Soviet Armed Forces.

During his time in the army Alibek served as the chief scientist and first Deputy Director of the Main Directorate, a BW program under Biopreparat. Ken had previously been in charge of the BW plant at Stepnogorsk before being tasked to run the laboratory at Vozrozhdeniye Island.

In 1992 Colonel Alibek revealed that, dating to the 1970s, there were additional bacteria and germs tested beyond those with which the West was familiar (Tularemia, Q-fever, brucellosis, glanders, and plague studies). According to Alibek, Aralsk-7 personnel exterminated every living thing on the test range before releasing the weaponized germ agents – both to act as an experimental control and to limit the unintentional spreading of pathogens.

However some insects and rodents burrow deep in soil, and may have survived the poisoning long enough to spread it beyond the “controlled” testing environment of the range.

“My job in Stepnogorsk was, in effect, to create the world’s most efficient assembly line for the mass production of weaponized anthrax.”

– Colonel Ken Alibek, former anthrax plant director

monkey-test-plagueThe Soviet defector spoke of test animal burial pits around Vozrozhdeniye, some containing as many as a hundred corpses. The exact pit locations have not been publicly revealed, but one can imagine the questions a future civilization might have when it discovers the mass graves.

In 1982 Biopreparat tested a newly-developed vaccine-resistant strain of F. tularensis. According to Alibek, “nearly all of the immunized monkeys died.”

By 1987 the Soviet Union had named the city of Aralsk in its declaration of germ weapon sites as dictated by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. However Moscow failed to mention Vozrozhdeniye Island – at least until 1992, after the site had already been shut down.

Dr-Ken-Alibek[ In his book “Biological Threat” Alibek revealed Soviet scientists researched methods to weaponize HIV. ]

Alibek ultimately did not approve of the island’s activities. It was Ken who sent the memo to Mikhail Gorbachev proposing a cessation of the U.S.S.R.’s BW program at Biopreparat.

Ken later resigned his post, and against advice of the KGB, fled with his family to the United States. Since defecting Ken has become an advocate against biological warfare and has helped the U.S. decipher intelligence gathered about various international illegal BW programs.

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Secret Anthrax Disposal

hazmat-drumsIn 1988 orders came from Soviet leadership to quickly dispose of the anthrax at Sverdlovsk-19 (map) in advance of a suspected international inspection.

Under duress, germ scientists at the facility in Sverdlovsk (also known as Compound 19) scrambled to move hundreds of tons of anthrax with no warning. The infectious agent was loaded into stainless TR-250 containers and prepared for shipment out of the area.

anthrax-burial-pitTo neutralize the anthrax Compound 19’s scientists added sodium hypochlorite (when dissolved in water: bleach), which served as a disinfectant and antimicrobial agent.

The containers were then sent to Vozrozhdeniye Island, where they were emptied into eleven pits northwest of the laboratory complex in an area known as PRSL-52 (map).

(Above right & below: PRSL-52 burial pits, Aralsk-7)

Burial pits were roughly 2 m wide, 5 m long, and 3 m deep, and they were covered – but because spores tend to clump together when dry, some were protected from the bleach and remained viable.

[ Bleach can reduce anthrax bacterial spore populations, but only under specific controlled conditions limiting concentration, pH, and contact time. ]

Teams from Unit 25484 worked throughout the night to bury hundreds of tons of anthrax. Most of the drums were dumped and removed, but those left behind are rusting biological time bombs.

rusty-drumsMoscow has yet to acknowledge the scope and nature of activities on Vozrozhdeniye Island, even after comments by top Russian researchers have filled in the blanks for U.S. intelligence.

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Kantubek-1960s[ ”…in 1970 it was a beautiful place,” recounts Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a retired colonel in the Soviet Army who once ran the island’s bio-weapons production plant. ‘

‘The water was clear; it came right up to the town, and we used to swim and sunbathe after work. The atmosphere was friendly, people were earning good money and we were provided with everything, except there weren’t a lot of vegetables.” ]

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Finger-pointing

The Soviet MOD drew criticism from Western media for its poor weapons disposal practices and withholding required information about BW facilities (as directed by the 1972 BW Convention) from the international community. Meanwhile, the United States was engaging in similar behaviors.

Vigo_plantThe Soviets denied allegations of BW testing and began psychological operations of their own by returning volley.

After an inspection of Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company’s Vigo Ordnance Plant (at left), the Soviet inspection team fired back against the United States with reports of finding anthrax production and storage.

The allegations weren’t completely outrageous if one knew Vigo’s full history. What the Soviet inspectors had seen were the dilapidated World War II-era anthrax facilities still located in the complex.

[ Vigo was a designated BW facility opened in the summer of 1945 during the height of World War II and closed shortly thereafter. Despite never becoming fully operational, Vigo produced 8,000 pounds of anthrax stimulant before being shut down. ]

But while the Army acknowledges the plant was intended to produce anthrax bombs, they remind the process had not completed because the war ended before the site was finished. Officially, the facility held stimulants but never harbored virulent weaponized pathogens.

[ Pfizer shut down the 66 year-old Vigo property in 2008. The majority of Vigo’s WWII-era structures were torn down long ago (except the original administration building), but restrictions against new construction means their foundations have been preserved. Explore remnants of old Vigo Anthrax Plant on Google Maps. ]

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Yet when the Pfizer assumed possession of the Vigo plant in 1947, the company was given no blueprints or records of the facility and its maintenance history.

Pfizer was told certain areas of the site were permanently off-limits, and the employees were told to not disturb the intricate piping – suspicious precautions for a site that allegedly never produced weaponized pathogens. By this time, however, the only thread posed by the old WWII-era buildings was that of collapse: Untouched since being shuttered, today the structures were decrepit and falling apart.

Whether or not the Soviet allegations had merit was beside the point; the diversion was enough to distract and create doubt among the international community. Allegations of impropriety during the era continue to follow American pharmaceutical companies today.

[ According to CNS Occasional Paper by Tucker and Zilinskas, (“The 1971 Smallpox Epidemic in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program“), some of the pathogens tested in aerosol form were genetically modified strains that produce atypical disease processes and are resistant to existing medications, potentially complicating diagnosis and treatment. ]

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Known Soviet Biological Warfare (BW) Installations

Soviet-Biological-Warfare-Installati[1]

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U.S. Intelligence

Before the late 1950s, Western knowledge of activities on Vozrozhdeniye Island was virtually non-existent. It was not until the CIA and U.S. Air Force combined advances in photography with advances in aviation to bring new capabilities (provided by state-of-the-art aircraft such as the Lockheed U-2) the world had never seen before.

It was during a U-2 mission in 1957 the United States would acquire its first robust reconnaissance photographs of Vozrozhdeniye Island. (below)

Kantubek, August 1957

Intelligence gathered showed this island in the Aral Sea contained more than 150 buildings of various sizes. The structures were in two distinct groupings and separated by two-to-three miles. Experts could ascertain the larger northern settlement was the operational administration and housing area. The buildings, they estimated, were capable of accommodating up to 1,500 staff and their families.

The second grouping to the south appeared to be a laboratory site, its high walls and ordered arrays of buildings offered a glimpse into the Soviet BW testing program. From here, a web of crude dirt roads spread out to one of a half-dozen test sites. Each test site contained a shed or tower, a concrete pad, and rows of poles buried in the ground.

USAF/CIA Reconnaissance Photos: Kantubek

Above: 1957. Below (L to R): 1962, 1965, 1970

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Over the years the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) continued to gather intelligence (when not dealing with embarrassments in other mission failures) before developing an understanding of the overall scope of operations on the island.

Today the CIA describes the merits of the island’s location for biological warfare (BW) testing as such:

The island is well suited to BW experimentation. It is located quite a distance from the nearest shore of the Aral Sea, which itself lies in an arid, barren, and sparsely settled region of the USSR. Animal ecology difficulties which would plague a mainland facility are virtually nonexistent; only a transient bird population presents a problem in containing the spread of experimental diseases. Security against observation and accidental or intentional intrusion by unauthorized persons is at a maximum. The climate is suitable for testing the influence of a variety of environmental conditions. Trials could be carried out over water, as the British had demonstrated during their offshore BW trials at Bermuda. The site offers few of the restrictions which the U.S. mainland facility has had to overcome.

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Shutdown

aral-desiccation-2The last military troops left the island in 1991, but Vozrozhdeniye’s decline started with its receding Aral coastline in 1973. The pier at Udobnaya had to be lengthened every year as the beaches stretched farther away.

On the other side of the water, the docks in Aralsk had become inaccessible as the city’s harbor shoaled. Canals had to be dug to the docks to restore access to the Aral. Before long even those dried out, leaving ships stranded and unable to transport their cargo and fish (at right).

By the late 1980s the island lacked any usable shipping lanes to Aralsk. To compensate, Unit 25484 was given large trucks to transport supplies from Aralsk to the southern port of M’oynoq (decimated itself, but still functioning), before then being transported to Vozrozhdeniye by ship.

[ Between 1928 and 1989, Soviet officials did not report a single plague case to the World Health Organization, despite having the second-largest enzootic plague area in the world and known cases every year. ]

vozrozhdeniya-scrap-heapDesertions started occurring in 1990 when the island’s occupants saw the writing on the wall. The impending collapse of the Soviet Union began influencing contractions.

At a November 1991 meeting by the Fifteenth Directorate, the decision was made to shut the island down.

Those who had not already left were cleared out during the personnel evacuations in the following months. The PNIL laboratories (below right) were mothballed and sanitized over the next year while skeleton crews guarded the site.

vozroz-lab-complex-4In 1992 the issuance of edict “On Urgent Measures for Radically Improving the Living Conditions of the Aral Area Residents” included the official closing announcement of the Vozrozhdeniye site.

On April 11, 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s Edict No. 390On Ensuring the Implementation of International Obligations Regarding Biological Weapons” ordered all offensive biological weapon programs be terminated. By the end of the month, the last Russian troops had left Vozrozhdeniye.

[ Between 1989 and 1990, the Aral split into the North Aral and South Aral Seas. ]

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Russia agreed to dismantle and decontaminate Vozrozhdeniye within three years, but the country’s disinterest in the endeavor coincided with a sudden lack of project financing. This combined with little oversight resulted in a lack of action.

What the rest of the world didn’t know was that Biopreparat had not terminated researching pathogens; the laboratory had merely relocated to Lakhta, a small town on the outskirts of St. Petersburg (an allegation Moscow has denied).

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Kantubek Stadium once hosted weekend sporting events.
The stands at Kantubek Stadium were packed during weekend sporting events.

 “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.”

– Ken Alibekov, former weapons plant director

After Alibekov brought Vozrozhdeniye activity to light, the intelligence community went to work locating the anthrax burial sites through satellite imagery. In late 1992 the U.S. Department of Defense was satisfied with the information it had gathered and deployed a team to retrieve soil samples for testing.

Results revealed the soil contained virulent spores of anthrax.

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Discovery and Risk

vozroz-lab-6-PNILThroughout the 1990s Moscow’s attitude toward Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan regarding Vozrozhdeniye Island was uncooperative.

The Russians were not forthcoming about the island’s former operations, which made cleanup efforts a difficult proposition for the two countries.

In 1995 authorities from the two countries asked Washington D.C. for help, and on June 6th specialists from the United States secretly visited the island.

“Vozrozhdeniye Island is what we inherited from the former Soviet Union.”

–  Uzbek Ambassador Shavkat Khamrakulov

The expedition confirmed what the CIA already suspected: The experimental field lab had been dismantled, the site’s infrastructure destroyed, and the settlement abandoned.

Field tests carried out on the island involved the release of weaponized pathogens: microorganisms specially developed by military scientists to be virulent, hardy, and antibiotic-resistant.”

– Dr. Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute

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The streets in front of Kantubek’s former Billeting (hotel) are overgrown today (courtesy MACTAK)

Kantubek-14The invitation did result in an intelligence goldmine for the United States; soil samples taken from the area in June of 1995 confirmed anthrax spores were still virulent.

The desiccation of the Aral Sea resulted in the resurfacing of dozens of vaults containing weaponized viruses thought to be safely buried a decade prior.

A 1997 exploratory trip to the island yielded two human cemeteries, each with four to five graves. To no one’s surprise causes of death weren’t listed.

No one believes it was natural causes.

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No Longer an Island

As the island grew in size, concerns abounded regarding the fate of the buried pathogens once Vozrozhdeniye connected to the mainland.

[ Vozrozhdeniye Island grew from 77 square miles (200 km2) in 1960 to more than 770 square miles (2,000 km2) by 1992. ]

Before long animals would have access to the former island, could stir up the spores, which could then be distributed via windstorm – a frequent occurrence in the Karakum.

Those aware of the danger fear the country’s infrastructure would be incapable of handling the resulting miasma, which could render the region uninhabitable and fan the flames of a continent-wide pandemic.

“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.”

– Dr. Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute

This land bridge south of Vozrozhdeniye was once the Aral's seabed.
This land bridge south of Vozrozhdeniye was once the bed of the Aral Sea (courtesy MAKTAK)

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A land bridge could also expose buried chemical weapons, something that might be of interest to scavengers and terrorists – both of whom have near-complete access to the unpatrolled area.

Between November of 2000 and June of 2001, this fear escalated when the dropping water levels joined Vozrozhdeniye with the mainland.

Researchers from the Monterey Institute have called Vozrozhdeniye a “toxic time bomb” set to infect Central Asia with some of the deadliest germs on earth. Those in search of biological weapons need only a shovel and time.

Despite the land bridge opening access to all, fears of the spores falling into the wrong hands need not be overblown, according to Sonya Ben Ouagrham, a biological non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute.

…It would be possible [for a terrorist] to simply go there and dig up the spores, but the problem is how to know if they are still virulent. You need to test them, which requires specialists, time, and money.”

Monterey’s Dr. Tucker echoed Ouagrham’s thoughts:

There has been scavenging of metals and other valuable items from the island, but the location of the anthrax burial sites is not generally known to the locals. People would be lucky if they were able to find the appropriate site from which to take samples.

And that’s not to speak of the fact scavengers lack the knowledge or means to test which spores would still be virulent.

“There was testing of plague on the island… it is unknown whether or not there may be a reservoir of infected rodents on the island.”

– Dr. Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute

vozroz-lab-5

The United States didn’t want to take a chance. To prevent opportunity the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) committed $6 million for decontamination of the anthrax pits in October of 2001. By April of 2002 a group from defense contractor Raytheon was establishing a decontamination team in Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan. The specialists camped out on Vozrozhdeniye and evaluated the eleven anthrax pits.

Six of the eleven samples taken yielded viable B. anthracis spores. For the next two months the team worked around-the-clock to decontaminate the anthrax. By June 6th, 2002, they had finished. Project cost: $4M-$5M U.S.

Vozroz-kantubek-1 vozroz-garagephotos courtesy MACTAK

[ How did the 2002 team decontaminate the anthrax? New trenches were dug next to the anthrax pits and lined with plastic. Several thousand kilograms of powdered calcium hypochlorite were then poured into the new pits. Finally team members moved the contaminated material into the new trenches where the mixture dried out for six days before being heat-treated. Afterward the material was reburied in the pits and covered.

Did it work? By May 26, 2002 more than 1,000 samples had been analyzed, none had viable spores remaining. ]

*

A New Economy

The loss of the Aral Sea & its associated industries left over 100,000 people throughout Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan without employment. Many relocated in search of opportunity, but those who stayed were forced to find alternate ways to earn a living.

Not long after the Russians abandoned Vozrozhdeniye, locals flocked to the site and proceeded to purloin any equipment and materials of value. Aral recyclers traveled to the island on small boats to salvage everything from floorboards to metal siding and copper wiring. Using torches the scavengers retrieve valuable materials from the abandoned town, taking them back to the mainland for barter or construction.

“…terrorism is more scary… biological weapons are cheap. We calculated that to achieve an effect on one square kilometer [of the population] it costs $2,000 with conventional weapons, $800 with a nuclear weapon, $600 with a chemical weapon and $1 with a bio-weapon. One dollar.”

Gennadi Lepyoshkin, retired Soviet Army Colonel

By 2002 estimates had the scavengers’ annual haul eclipsing 120 tons of material. To date Moscow has not appeared publicly concerned, however those intimate with the dangers believe the recyclers are risking their lives – and the lives of others too.

Colonel Lepyoshkin underlines the threat:

If one contracts the plague and makes it to a hospital, he or she could start an epidemic.”

And what of the 60,000 to 70,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians who lived in Kantubek and worked for the PNIL for all those years? No one seems to know.

*

Today

When the Southeast Aral Sea finally disappeared in 2008, Vozrozhdeniye Island – as a distinct geographical feature – ceased to exist.

The U.S. Department of Defense and the Uzbek Ministry of Defense signed an agreement in October of 2011 allowing for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program to spend up to $6 million to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons materials and technology from Uzbekistan.

“Six million dollars may not be sufficient because we do not really understand the scope of the threat… But it is certainly enough to start the work.”

– Ambassador Shavkat Khamrakulov

Kantubek (indicated above) is no longer on an island. (courtesy Google)

CTR is prohibited by law from engaging in economic conversion or environmental remediation; ergo, the program’s goal was to destroy the residual live spores in the burial pits and to dismantle the laboratory complex.

The decontamination process was arduous and expensive, but in 2002 a team from the American Defense Threat Reduction Agency (ADTRA) spent several months treating between 100 and 200 tons of anthrax with a special decontamination solution. guinard-island-signEvery spore must be killed; if not, they are capable of living for centuries.

So how efficacious was the ninety-day anthrax decontamination effort in 2002? The British spent more than forty years dealing with their anthrax cleanup on Gruinard Island. On the other side of the Atlantic Pine Bluff has been an ongoing issue for the Americans, and has kept them busy for decades.

“There was testing of plague on the island… it is unknown whether or not there may be a reservoir of infected rodents on the island.”

– Dr. Jonathan Tucker, Monterey Institute

If uncertain decontamination was the biggest concern for the Americans, the weaponized plagues developed to resist vaccinations are the biggest concern for the defected Russian scientists.

Fleas could catch the plague from gerbils and transmit the virus from generation to generation – and while the gerbils get a little sick from the weaponized strain, they survive. An infected human won’t.

Kantubek-19There are positives. Because sunlight is a disinfectant, no viable pathogens remain on the surface of the island or the newly exposed seabed – and as the Aral’s water level erodes further, bacteria that does escape to the surface will eventually be neutralized naturally.

And while Vozrozhdeniya had an odious raison d’être, the PNIL did develop anthrax and plague vaccines which have been used for more than 40 years.

Biopreparat-VECTORBiopreparat is still around, however the resources spent on researching weaponized strains pales in comparison to the directorate’s budgets of the Cold War era. Threats to Russia in 20124 are numerous, but biological warfare is low on the list.

Russia continues to conduct biological testing, but today that work occurs at the State Research Center of Virology and Biology (aka VECTOR, the Russian equivalent to the U.S. Center for Disease Control) in Koltsovo. (pictured at left)

Today empty buildings and overgrown campus lawns indicate a lower expenditure on weaponized BW programs by the government, but only the naive would believe such programs have been completely terminated. (explore on map)

[ Did you know? VECTOR is one of two repositories in the world to still have the smallpox virus. The other? In Atlanta, Georgia, home of the United States’ CDC.  ]

*

Exploring Vozrozhdeniya Island

A stroll through what’s left of Kantubek today yields a scene of empty abandoned structures and exposed skeletal rooftops picked clean to the rafters. There is an eerie quiet only disturbed by the occasional wind. No birds or other animals disturb the peace here.

Street signs are rusting and slowly collapsing over the streets covered in overgrowth. Doors are the only obstacles to the derelict buildings now, but they offer no resistance to intruders as they hang by broken hinges, squeaking every time a breeze blows. Large industrial pieces of furniture and other objects either too big or worth too little to move have been left behind.

Yet in spite of the looting, there is still plenty left behind. Books are open and strewn about the floor and broken chairs lie are on their sides. Dishes in cupboards and pictures on walls tell of the rapid evacuation that must have taken place decades earlier. One roofless room is littered with broken test tubes and petri dishes glistening in the sun. In another building, undamaged glassware still sits on shelves neatly organized into rows.

The scavengers smartly leave these alone.

Rusted and broken-down trucks sit at the edge of town by what used to be the shore of the Aral Sea.

Two T-52 tanks and two armored personnel carriers still sit in what’s left of a testing garage, once used to study armament resistance to germ warfare (pictured below).

vozroz-tanks
courtesy Alexander_MSK

To ensure the artillery would be of no use to enemies, the departing Russians rendered them inoperable by destroying the barrel of one and turret of the other.

Another ramshackle building contains hundreds of animal cages – once home to the test guinea pigs, mice, and rabbits – that are now rusted and stacked in storage rooms.

A germ-proof full-body suit, complete with gas mask, is crumpled in the corner and next to a dusty three decade-old issue of the British Medical Journal.

Not far from Kantubek, the ships that once ruled the South Aral Sea are still anchored in sand.

*

Map Exploration: Vozrozhdeniya Sites Today

• The Island’s main airfield (Ostrov Vozrozhdeniye): [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

Kantubek-field• The secondary airfield (Ostrov Vozrozhdeniya Southwest): [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• The town of Kantubek: [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• Kantubek’s former track & soccer field (футбол/fútbol/football, pictured at right) [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• What’s left of the largely-disassembled Lab Complex: [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• A former Aralsk-7 Test Site: [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• Another Aralsk-7 former Test Site: [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• And yet another Aralsk-7 former Test Site: [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

• One more Aralsk-7 former Test Site: [ Google Maps | Bing Maps ]

*

Did You Know?

• Anthrax (bacillus anthracis) is a rod-shaped bacterium (below).

• Anthrax is spread by spores, not direct contact; however spores may be transmitted from person to person on clothing and shoes.

anthrax-1 • Anthrax-dishB. anthracis bacterial spores can survive in the ground for one hundred years and can be reactivated at any time (and multiply rapidly) by coming into contact with a host.

The bacterium’s long lifespan leads to a near-global presence of anthrax spores at burial sites of animals killed by B. anthracis over the centuries. Disturbed grave sites have been known to cause reinfection even after 70 years.

• Anthrax is especially rare in dogs and cats: In 2001 only one case was reported in the United States.

• The Monterey Institute was a pioneer for being one of the first U.S. non-governmental organizations to develop ties with the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 1996 the entities have worked toward creating a nonproliferation culture in Uzbekistan.

• In the video game Command & Conquer: Generals, the island was under U.S. occupation but was captured by the fictional Global Liberation Army.

• The plight of the Aral coast was portrayed in the 1989 film Psy; it was shot on location showing scenes of abandoned buildings and ships.

• In 2000, the MirrorMundo foundation produced a documentary film called Delta Blues about the problems arising from the drying up of the sea. (watch on Youtube)

• In October 2013, Al Jazeera produced a documentary describing the current situation called People of The Lake.

• The area and its former Soviet biological weapons base and laboratories was featured in a mission in the video game, Call Of Duty: Black Ops.

• In fiction thriller The Home Team: Weapons Grade, by Dennis Chalker and Kevin Dockery, the villains dig up two metric tons of “Anthrax 836” from an impromptu dump site 11 kilometers from Rebirth Island for use in a terror plot.

**

This concludes the end of Part II. If you missed Part I, click here.

***

32 COMMENTS

  1. The thought and detail you put into these articles is amazing. Thank you so much for giving these incredible lost and forgotten places attention. I appreciate your site so much. 🙂

  2. This one gives me the heeby jeebies! It’s like something straight out of a movie; either Resident Evil with the Umbrella Corporation researching deadly strains of various diseases that will invariably get out and destroy civilisation. Or something Bond would waltz into and steal from under the Russians’ noses.

    Either way, its far to sketchy and dangerous to just up and leave. I guess that is what happens when communism falls. Let’s just hope that, as the article suggests, some dodgy group don’t get in there and try to dig up some of the old stock.

    Oh and it’s criminal what is happening to the Aral Sea, environmental vandalism on a grand scale.

    Great job as usual SI…

    • Ha, great analogy. Not far off from Umbrella, probably one of the closer real-life examples I would imagine. Was it Raccoon City? Yes, both places I don’t think I’d like to visit – but fascinate the heck out of me.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I see how you went down the rabbit hole here: abandonments, Soviet intrigues, colossal man-made natural disaster, some of the deadliest pathogens known to man…
    Rest assured, though, that this is most emphatically not on my list of places to see. Kudos on the great post. They keep getting better.

    • No? I thought this would have been right up there with Chernobyl’s reactor 4 and Syria. 😛

      Thanks buddy, I would love to see what shots you could produce in Vozrozhdeniye though. Go wave that lens-shaped wand or whatever it is you use. 😉

  4. Man’s inhumanity to man never ceases to amaze me. But the Soviets have slaughtered millions of their own people in the last 100 years so I guess nothing should be surprising.

  5. This post sent chills up my spine. To hear of the inappropriately handled genetically engineered biological weapons and the testing that performed without though of human or animal life sickens me. I’m sure there was more disposal “mishaps” that had occurred other than the anthrax incident. What man does in the name of war is downright maddening. What an informative series – Great work as usual! This is one place I would not like to visit! 🙂

    • I bet if one knew of all the mishaps not reported all over the world it would be impossible to handle. I think there’s something to the “ignorance is bliss” concept – within reason obviously. Yes, we should probably just play it safe and stay away. Not on my bucket list either! 😉

  6. Impressive research work, as usual.

    Why do I suddenly feel the need to go through the disinfection ritual from “The Andromeda Strain” (the 1971 version) ?

  7. I liked the article a lot until you posted a link about US biowarfare in Korea. Anyone who looks at the evidence and isn’t a Stalinist or schizophrenic will know that it was a propaganda ploy by the Chinese and the Norks to discredit the US. All of the labs the Chinese set up to gather evidence never presented any findings, the US pilots who admitted to it were starved and tortured beforehand, documents uncovered after the Cold War proved it was false, the only independent verification came from a communist scientist, and some of the anecdotal evidence was absurd. A Chinese general reported having a bioweapon-carrying spat on him from an American airplane.
    Good articles are ruined whenever 60 year old disinformation campaigns are given credence, even in passing.

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