The Sverdlovsk Event

In April 1979, a sudden outbreak of a deadly disease hit a large Russian city located 1400 kilometers east of Moscow. Today, the city is called Yekaterinburg; back then, it was known as Sverdlovsk.

Hundreds of people and unknown numbers of pets and livestock were collapsing of fatigue, fever and shortness of breath. The black lesions that began appearing on their skin identified the illness even before the doctors confirmed it: it was anthrax.

TASS, Russia’s chief news agency, reported the outbreak in a terse note which identified the reasons: tainted food sold in a local market illegally, without veterinarian approval, and, of course, taxing. Criminally amoral dealers had fed people meat from illegally butchered animals – most likely sheep, the press added – that were infected with anthrax, or possibly had even died of it.

"Сибирская язва!", warned the posters and placards posted all over the city. Сибирская язва, Siberian sore, was the commonly used name for anthrax. The malady had been christened so over the lesions that broke out on the skin of the infected, and the region once believed to be its origin.

A quarantine was announced and a swift campaign of eliminating the danger began: road blocks manned by the Red Army were put around the city, the food market was closed, dealers in unlicensed meat were arrested – and hundreds of dogs were rounded up and shot. For safety, the party papers explained, praising the effectiveness of the government’s prompt response.

A harsh, ambitious local Party apparatchik issued his own orders. He had begun his career in Sverdlovsk as a construction worker and eventually took control of the city’s Communist Party, thus effectively becoming its ruler. He now ordered firemen and workers to spray building roofs with firehoses, to clean them of the contamination. Before the watery mist settled down, it floated through the air, carrying the spores further and further throughout the city like weaponized aerosol, spreading the disease beyond its initial boundaries. Hectolitres of water trickled down the walls and seeped into the sewers, taking the anthrax spores down with them.

There, the spores would remain dormant and active for decades to come, surviving even the fall of Communism and the ambitious apparatchik’s rise to the new throne of the new Russia, as President Boris Yeltsin.

In the end, after over 100 deaths, the situation was put under control. The infections slowed down and then came to a halt. The outbreak caused by tainted food was finally contained.

Only there never was any tainted food. Everything was a lie – except for the anthrax itself.

On the last night of March 1979, a technician working in a drab, grey building in the suburbs of Sverdlovsk removed one of the large industrial filters that separated the inside of the building from the world. The filter stopped working and needed replacement, so he left a note for his supervisor to do so. As April rolled in, the supervisor reached the grey building, known as Compound 19, soon afterwards. He took off his military uniform of a lieutenant colonel, put on a protective suit, and got on with his daily work. He was in a hurry that day, and in spite of his high military rank, he was, in fact, a somewhat woolgathering scientist at heart, rather than a stiff and fastidious army man.

After a few hours, he left, without informing the next shift’s manager of the need to install a new filter, or leaving his own note about the lack of the old filter. When the manager arrived, the log book looked as it did every day, so he did what he would do every day – he turned on the plant machinery.

And thus, throughout the night, Compound 19, the largest production plant of the KGB’s 15th Directorate and its Biological Weapon Program, pumped out air filled with active anthrax spores through an open and unprotected steel duct into the night outside. Compound 19 had manufactured tons of weaponized anthrax powder, working with a strain codenamed “Anthrax 836”. The strain had been isolated in 1956, after another bio-weapon factory in the city of Kirov had accidentally leaked its own anthrax cultures into the drain. The event was contained, but much later, rats captured in the sewers underneath Kirov were found to carry a new, much more acute and virulent mutation of anthrax. The new strain was isolated, cultivated in laboratories, and mass-manufactured in Sverdlovsk, to be used in biological bombs, missiles, and aerosol-based attacks.

The Soviet Union’s ever-permeating state secrecy was instrumental in keeping the incident under wraps not only internally, but abroad as well. No punishments were dealt out as such, either. The lieutenant colonel, deemed the one most responsible for the incident, was transferred to another biological warfare facility, where he continued working with lethal pathogens. Those who met him described him as a shadow of his former self, a man barely able or willing to engage in conversations, prematurely aged, and constantly consumed and tormented by his feeling of guilt.

Nevertheless, information did begin leaking out, as it tends to wherever multiple people are involved. In the US, the CIA and the DIA, well-aware of the existence of a military installation in Sverdlovsk – but not of its true purpose – began analyzing the available information, and quickly concluded that all evidence pointed to an accident involving biological weapons, and a major violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which had banned their production, and which had been signed by Russia. The Russians responded by accusing the US of lying to perpetuate the arms race, demonize Russia in the eyes of the world, and increase the tension between the countries.

In 1986, nine years after the event, a Western mission led by a renowned Harvard University biologist, who happened to harbor strong doubts about the CIA’s explanations and the agency’s candor, was invited to Moscow to examine the evidence, cut through the persistent rumors, and find out the truth. The evidence, provided by Russian officials freely and openly, was meticulous and transparent: medical documentation on each individual patient, histories of treatment, laboratory analyses, thick envelopes full of detailed photographs, and government reports. So convincing it was that upon his return to the West, the professor unhesitatingly opined: the official Russian explanation was factual, the outbreak was indeed caused by contaminated meat.

Yet word of the CIA analyses made the round, and people in the West began looking into the matter without using the official channels. As the 1990s rolled in and the Iron Empire began collapsing, the party apparatchik-cum-President of Russia finally made a small, passing admission in his autobiography: a footnote made a reference to an outbreak caused by a “leak from a secret factory.”

Whether Yeltsin had knowingly decided to expose the truth, or whether a ghost writer slipped up and pulled the curtain open a little too far, even such a small revelation was noticed. The Moscow correspondent for the “Wall Street Journal” quietly traveled to Sverdlovsk and its environs. He failed to find a meat-processing plant which the Harvard biologist’s investigation had named as the key source of the outbreak. He did manage to find locals, who told him of the illnesses, of their proximity to a rumored military compound, of secret burials and disinfectants, of heavy KGB presence in the city, following the outbreak – and of the fact that the “meat plant” had never existed. The famed Harvard biologist, who by now had published articles on his visit and had made testimonies in which he praised the Russian government’s openness, honesty and cooperation, reacted by traveling to Russia once again. This time, his conclusion was different: the outbreak was indeed caused by an accident at a secret facility, he announced. At roughly the same time, President Yeltsin addressed the Sverdlovsk event further in an interview with a Russian newspaper, briefly describing it as a result of military developments at a bacteriological facility.

The truth, it seemed, was finally out – and confirmed… at least for a while. A few years later, when Yeltsin’s rule ended and a new man entered the Kremlin, several newspapers in Russia made references to the 1979 anthrax outbreak. Its reason, the papers explained, had been the local black market, which had traded contaminated meat.

Satellite view of modern Sverdlovsk - now Yekaterinburg - from Google Earth, with an overlay of the approximate spread of the lethal cloud of anthrax.


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