Vozrozhdeniye: The missing anthrax island6 min read

 In Blog, Central Asia, Culture

Once upon a time, there was the Aral Sea. This may seem like the beginning of a fairy tale, but in reality, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. The Aral Sea today, to all intents and purposes, no longer exists. Due to various vicissitudes, which also include the climate change currently affecting the whole world, the lake has dried up and become a desert, the so-called Aralkum, which covers a large part of the border between Kazakhstan and the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, located in the northern region of Uzbekistan. The name of the lake is of Turkish-Mongolian origin and literally means “sea of islands” — in fact the number of islands was once nearly 1,100. Among these was the island of rebirth — in Russian Ostrov Vozrozhdeniye (often transliterated into English as Vozrozhdeniya) — which over the years has served a very particular purpose, becoming the basis of an experimental centre for the creation of biological weapons.

The location of Vozrozhdeniye (Author's illustration)
The island of the tsars

The discovery of the island took place during the mid-nineteenth century following a joint expedition of the imperial navy and the Russian geographical society led by lieutenant Alekseĭ Ivanovich Butakov, who discovered the island together with Karl Ernst von Baer in 1848. They immediately named it the island of Tsar Nicholas I, the name by which it remained known until 1917. The Ukrainian poet and writer Taras Shevchenko was also among those who took part in the expedition.

Here comes the revolution

With the October Revolution of 1917 and the rise to power of the Communist Party, the island’s name had to change as there was no place for the tsars in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: the island was renamed Vozrozhdeniye, which means rebirth in Russian. In 1926, the then OGPU (which was soon to be succeeded by the NKVD and then again by the KGB) identified the island as the perfect place to build a prison camp for the kulaks, i.e. peasant landowners. It is said that the name Vozrozhdeniye derives from what must have been the “rebirth” of the imprisoned kulaks, but it is likely that the name was simply chosen to celebrate the birth of the USSR.

The perfect place

During the 1920s, after the end of the civil war, the Soviet military was looking for a site to build a scientific and military complex to develop and test biological weapons. Thus, in 1936, the management of the island on which the prison camp was located was transferred to the Technical-Sanitary Institute, which was part of the 15th directorate of the Red Army of Workers and Peasants. Access to the island was limited to plant workers and their families only.

The first project, led by the director of the institute Ivan Velikanov, involved an open-air test of tularemia and was conducted in May 1937. The purpose of the experiment was to measure the efficiency of the Red Army’s equipment in the event of a bacteriological attack. The tests ended the following month when Velikanov was arrested by the NKVD along with his team on the orders of General Mikhail Tukhachevsky, during Stalin’s Great Purges. The next seventeen years of the island’s history seem to have been wiped out, as there is no record of what happened on that patch of land in the middle of the Aral Sea during those years.

After the Second World War and after seeing the progress of American and British biochemical weapons technologies, the government of the Soviet Union decided, in 1952, to make another attempt in the field of bacteriological weapons by returning to the island of Vozrozhdeniye and improving the existing structures. The new experimentation took place on animals and included bacteria such as anthrax, tularemia, plague, smallpox, and botulinum toxin.

The structure of the plant

The town of Kantubek was located on the island and, with the opening of Aralsk-7, it essentially became one of the many closed cities present on Soviet territory. Kantubek was the main administrative centre on the island of Vozrozhdeniye and, during the “experiment season”, it housed around 1,500 people, 600 of whom were Red Army soldiers. The town was equipped with a bar, canteen, stadium, parade ground, and a small power station. Furthermore, the inhabitants of Kantubek received free vaccines and medical care. Outside the city was the Barkhan airfield, which served the city with necessary supplies and was central to bacteriological tests by aircraft to verify the airborne dispersal of the laboratory-grown bacilli.

The Aralsk-7 site experienced several accidents during its existence: between July and August 1971, a field test carried out with 400 grams of smallpox triggered an epidemic in the city of Aralsk which resulted in about 20 infections, five of which were fatal. The following year, in 1972, two fishermen were found dead on a boat in the Aral Sea: autopsies revealed the cause of their death was a plague infection originating from the laboratories located on Vozrozhdeniye. The incident was publicly disclosed only in 2002.

The end of the Soviet Union. What to do with the island?

At the end of 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. On 31 August, one of the two republics in which Vozrozhdeniye was located, namely Uzbekistan under the leadership of Islam Karimov, declared independence; Kazakhstan followed on 16 December. The jurisdiction of the island was then transferred to two different countries. The Aralsk-7  research centre was officially closed in November 1992 by decree of the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin: the people remaining on the island were evacuated within one day, the inhabitants believing that this was only an evacuation drill.

As a result, Kantubek became a ghost town. The governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan agreed with the Russian one on a three-year plan for the decontamination and dismantling of the research centres, but the agreement was not followed through due to lack of interest and a lack of funds on the Russian side. The island of Vozrozhdeniye then became the largest anthrax dump on the planet, as containers of modified spores deteriorated to such an extent that the risk of potentially lethal epidemics increased exponentially. Due to these dangers, the Kazakh and Uzbek authorities approached the US government in 1995, with the decontamination taking place in the summer of 2002.

The disappearance of Vozrozhdeniye

Today Vozrozhdeniye has followed the fate of the Aral Sea, that is, it has disappeared. How could such a thing happen? The answer can mainly be found in two factors: the Soviet agricultural plans and, of course, climate change.

The drying up of the lake began in the 1960s, when Soviet authorities decided to withdraw water from the two main rivers that supplied the Aral Sea, namely the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. They intended to increase the intensive production of cotton in the Central Asian republics in the hope of meeting the quotas set by the Politburo for the five-year plans.

In recent years, the situation has been exacerbated by rising global temperatures, which has increased desertification in the region. Around the early 2000s, the island ceased to exist, becoming a peninsula and, in the following years, it was incorporated into the Aralkum desert.

This article was originally published in Italian on 30 June 2023 by our partner Meridiano 13

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