Anthrax and anxiety

The other day I watched a documentary about some highly disturbing revelations to come out of the former Soviet Union.

In 1969 the United States, under then President Richard Nixon, unilaterally abandoned all testing and development on germ warfare. Nixon claimed he did this because he found these weapons simply too horrible to fathom. Pessimists claimed that Nixon was simply trying to cast himself as a peacemaker. (This was during the Vietnam War era, remember.)

What were Nixon’s true motivations? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The Soviets, being the Soviets, took the most cynical, zero-sum interpretation possible. They signed the Biological Weapons Convention, along with many other countries, in 1972. In secret, however, they ramped up their germ warfare program to previously unimagined levels.

(Supposedly, the Soviets believed that Richard Nixon was lying about the U.S. unilaterally abandoning its germ warfare program. What country would do such a thing? (Certainly the USSR never would.) But in this case, at least, Nixon had been telling the truth.)

The Soviets built a huge anthrax weapons development facility near Yekaterinburg. (This was where Czar Nicholas II and his family were massacred by drunken Marxist revolutionaries in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution.) The Soviet government told the world—and its own people—that the site made nothing but conventional military tanks.

This being the USSR, there was an inevitable foul-up. Some anthrax, in aerosol form, was accidentally released into the air in 1979. Several hundred people died as a result. The Soviet government told the world (and its own people) that the deaths had occurred from ordinary food poisoning.

After this disaster, the Soviets built another biological weapons facility in a remote area of Kazakhstan. This facility created enough weaponized anthrax to wipe out all human life on the entire planet.

Then the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The government of the now independent Kazakhstan really wanted nothing to do with the USSR’s massive germ warfare facility—or its stockpiles. Throughout the 1990s, various efforts were made to clean up the site, and dispose of the stockpiles in a safe manner.

Much of the anthrax was placed into sealed containers and dumped into the Aral Sea, which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although this sounds inherently dubious, they figured it would be safe there.

But there was a problem.

The Aral Sea has been slowly drying up for decades. Why? More Soviet ingenuity at work. During the Khrushchev era, Moscow had the brilliant idea of diverting the two major rivers that feed the Aral Sea, in an effort to irrigate a desert in the area.

So the once submerged containers are gradually being exposed.

Most of these containers are still difficult to get to. But there are certainly terrorist groups with a lot of motivation, and there’s all that anthrax sitting out there, in those containers.

Oh, and it gets better: There are still scores of unemployed germ warfare experts from the former Soviet Union. Many of them are only in their fifties. And many of them are selling Chinese-made trinkets in Astana in order to make ends meet.


This is a lot to worry about, when you think about it: While the development of a nuclear weapon would likely be an overwhelming task for a stateless terrorist group, biological weapons require much fewer resources.

It is no exaggeration to say that the former Soviet Union’s biological weapons program could still wipe out all human life on earth. The USSR left a long shadow, and nothing left in that shadow was good.