In-depth Travel

Vozrozhdeniya (Rebirth) / Anthrax Island: the story of secret Soviet Biological Weapons site

Located in between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea is, nowadays, sadly very famous due to its shrunk and loss of 90 % of its original size. Since few months, scientists are warning that a similar disaster is currently happening at the Caspian Sea.

The Aral Sea once was home to a top-secret Soviet Biological Weapons testing facility. Located on the 200 square kilometres Vozrozhdeniya Island (meaning Rebirth Island in Russian)—which is no longer an island because the Aral Sea shrunk.

Please note that Anthrax Island, Vozrozhdeniya Island, Aralsk-7 and Rebirth Island are the same place.

(10-15 min read)

Table of contents

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The history of Anthrax Island

Vozrozhdeniya Island formed from the end of the 16th to the beginning of 17th centuries due to the decrease of the Aral Sea level.

Vozrozhdeniya Island was first discovered in 1848 during a Russian marine expedition of the Aral Sea commanded by naval officer and investigator Alexei Ivanovitch Butakov. One of the members who served as the expedition’s artist was Taras Shevchenko.

Taras Shevchenko. On the shore of the Aral Sea – 1849 (Image source)

In the 1920s, the USSR was searching for an appropriate place to build a science and military complex in order to invent, produce, and test bioweapons. Biological weapon is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents (viruses, bacteria, insects and fungi) in order to damage or kill humans, animals or plants. The Russian Civil War (1917 – 1923) and several unsuccessful attempts to build the complex from 1936-1941 led to a belief that such a complex must be built far from the Soviet Union’s borders with other nations. Criteria were also including a relatively isolated and large island 5–10 km from a coast. Few sites got selected for this complex, such as Lake Baikal, the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, Gorodomlya Island located on Lake Seliger and Vozrozhdeniya Island.

Vozrozhdeniya Island’s located in the middle of the Aral Sea was chosen for its characteristics: sparse vegetation, high temperature in summer, dry climate, and sandy soil which reduced the odds that pathogenic microorganisms would survive and spread. Additionally, this Island, approximately 125 kilometres from the coast, allowed scientists to believe that open-air testing on the island did not pose a threat to the rest of the country.

During the 1920s and 30s a small fishing village in the summer was cohabitating with a Soviet prison camp, built in 1926, where kulaks were imprisoned. Kulaks referred to former peasants in the Russian Empire who became wealthier during the Stolypin reform from 1906 to 1914 after allowing peasants to own land individually. During its Five-Year Plan, Stalin led a campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, or executions of millions of kulaks. To facilitate the expropriations of farmland, the Soviet government portrayed kulaks as class enemies of the USSR.

In 1936, the ownership of the island was 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). The access of the island and the surroundings was restricted to workers and families only, fishermen were not allowed anymore. The first project, led by STI’s director, Ivan Velikanov was to conduct an open-air testing of Francisella tularensis, a virulent-deadly bacterium which can be spread by aerosol. An especially cold 1936 winter delayed testing until May of 1937. Other pathogens tested in 1937 include those causing cholera, dysentery, leprosy, parathyphus, plague, tetanus, typhoid, and foot-and-mouth disease. At the end of the year, without explanation, biological testing on Rebirth Island ended and for the next seventeen years, island’s history goes unknown.

Rebirth of the island

Kantubek town 1979 – 1981. (Image source)

Seeing the advancements made by the U.S. and U.K.’s biological weapon programs during World War II, Soviet Union decided to start in 1952 a second attempt to establish testing facilities in order to create the deadliest bioweapon that the world ever seen. Authorities improved the old village’s infrastructure to create a more permanent settlement for the project called BioPreparat.

Genetically modified and weaponized pathogens (anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, plague, typhus, Q fever, smallpox, botulinum toxin, Venezuelan equine encephalitis) were tested on thousands of animals including mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, sheep, donkeys, horses, and monkeys.

In 1957 the United States got aware about a project on this island and got satellite images from the U-2 mission.

United States Air Force. First aerial view of Vozrozhdeniya Island – 1957 (Image source)

Colonel in the Soviet Armed Forces, Ken Alibek was in charge of the biological weapon’s project in Stepnogorsk and got transferred to Anthrax Island where he declared: “My job in Stepnogorsk was, in effect, to create the world’s most efficient assembly line for the mass production of weaponized anthrax”. He is now the author of books about bioweapons’ projects of the USSR.

During test season the town of Kantubek, the administrative centre and living place, was home to 1,500 (600 of which were soldiers) and about 200 inhabitants during the off-season. 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. Also, free immunizations, medical care, and hardship benefits helped offset working conditions for those assigned to Aralsk-7.

The Barkhan Airport was built to bring food supplies, for emergency and to proceed to air-testing. It was the only airport in the Red Army with four runways, in an intersecting starburst pattern. On the island, the weather changed very frequently; thus, planes landed on one of the four runways depending on climate conditions. About 1.5 miles (2.5 km) south of Kantubek is a laboratory complex and further south 7 test sites where all the experiments were taking place. Further north was the sea access via the port of Udobnaya Bay.

Map of the different infrastructures of the project (Image source)

High risks incidents

On July 1971, a field testing of 400 grams of smallpox caused an outbreak and was described by Pyotr Burgasov, Soviet General and Vice-Minister of Health, Chief Sanitary Physician involved in biological weapon’s programs: “On Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested. Suddenly I was informed that there were mysterious cases of mortalities in Aralsk (Aral). A research ship [the Lev Berg] of the Aral fleet came to within 15 km of the island (it was forbidden to come any closer than 40 km). The lab technician of this ship took samples of plankton twice a day from the top deck. The smallpox formulation—400 gr. of which was exploded on the island—”got her” and she became infected. After returning home to Aralsk, she infected several people including children. All of them died. I suspected the reason for this and called the Chief of General Staff of Ministry of Defense and requested to forbid the stop of the Alma-Ata-Moscow train in Aralsk. As a result, the epidemic around the country was prevented. I called [future Soviet General Secretary Yuri] Andropov, who at that time was Chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrazhdenie Island.

Ten people contracted smallpox whose three unvaccinated (a woman and two children) died from the haemorrhagic form of the disease. One crew member of the Lev Berg contracted smallpox as the ship passed within 15 km (9 miles) of the island. This crew member became ill on 6 August with fever, headache, and myalgia. The ship then landed in the port city of Aral on 11 August. The ill crew member returned to her home, and she developed a cough and temperature exceeding 38.9 °C (102 °F). Her physician prescribed antibiotics and aspirin. Although the 24-year-old woman was previously vaccinated for smallpox, a rash subsequently appeared on her back, face, and scalp; her fever subsided; and she recovered by 15 August. On 27 August this patient’s 9-year-old brother developed a rash and fever, his paediatrician prescribed tetracycline and aspirin, and he recovered. Eight additional people got symptoms, during the following three weeks.

Five adults ranging in age from 23 to 60, and three children (4 and 9 months old, and a 5-year-old) were diagnosed with smallpox both clinically and by laboratory testing. These children and the 23-year-old were previously unvaccinated. The two youngest children and the 23-year-old subsequently developed the haemorrhagic form of smallpox and died. The remaining individuals had previously been vaccinated, and all recovered after having an attenuated form of the disease. After those incidents and the testimony of General P.Burgasov, the World’s community understood that an enhanced weaponized strain of smallpox virus was released from Aralsk-7.

The USSR response was quick. In less than two weeks, 50,000 residents of Aral were vaccinated and similar rules as during the Covid-19 pandemic were applied: household quarantine of potentially exposed individuals, hundreds of people on isolation outside of the city. All traffic in and out of the city was stopped, and approximately 5.000 sq. meter (54.000 sq. ft.) of living space and 18 metric tons of household goods were incinerated by health officials.

In 1972, two fishermen were found dead on their boat. Doctors revealed that they died from the plague

Both human-beings and animals were participating to experiments (Image source)

In 1979, a breakdown air filter at Compound-19 a complex located in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg in Russia) hasn’t been replaced. By the time anyone had noticed, a cloud of anthrax had leaked into the wild. The wind spread spores in the countryside many people had anthrax and it’s estimated that between 68 and 105 people died. It could have been way worst if the wind did bring it in the city centre where thousands of people were living.

When the news spread, the Soviet officially blamed infected meat sold on the black market. Then, in the spring of 1988 all the anthrax used in Compound-19 has been moved and dumped on Vozrozhdeniya Island, which represent 200 tons of weaponized anthrax.

“Russian Biological Scientists located 850 miles east of Moscow were ordered by the Kremlin to undertake their most critical mission to date. Working with unparalleled speed and absolute secrecy, the scientists in the city of Sverdlovsk transferred hundreds of tons of weapons grade anthrax bacteria — enough to destroy the world many times over — into giant stainless-steel transport canisters. They haphazardly poured a makeshift bleach compound into the containers in a futile effort to decontaminate the deadly pink powder. They packed the canisters onto a military transport train two dozen cars long and sent the illicit cargo almost a thousand miles across Russia and Kazakhstan and then by air to a remote island in the heart of the inland Aral Sea. Here, Russian soldiers dug cavernous pits and poured the toxic sludge into the ground, attempting to bury the germs and eliminate illicit evidence of any violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.” according to Mr Brian Hayes, who led the 2002 decontamination by the USA. (Source)

In May 1988, 50 000 saigas died within 60 minutes without any explanation.

The collapse of the USSR and its consequences

The dissolution of the Soviet Union took place in August 1991. Islam Karimov declared, on the 31st of August 1991, the independence of Uzbekistan and became the first president of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

The USSR ceased to exist on the 26th of December 1991. Eventhough, Aralsk-7 wasn’t closed before November 1992 when Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree on the closure of the site. Then, people who were remaining on the island were evacuated within one single day. They were just able to take few belongings and let everything else on site. When authorities sailed to the island to warn inhabitants to leave the place since the Red Army collapsed, residents didn’t believe them and thought it was an exercise. However, the BioPreparat project didn’t end up and continue in Lakhta, a small town near St. Petersburg.

Once the Island abandoned and Kantubek became a ghost town, locals, from both new independent countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, sailed to steal equipment and materials of value that were left on site to sell it.

From the Rebirth to the Abandoned Island

Shortly after, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan asked Russia, who agreed, to dismantle and decontaminate the site within three years but its disinterest in the endeavour coincided with a sudden lack of project financing led to no action. Shavkat Khamrakulov, ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States, revealed that Uzbekistan did not know that Vozrozhdeniya Island was a biological testing site and disposal area until informed of it by the U.S. sometime in the 1990s.

Therefore, in 1995, authorities from the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan asked Washington D.C. for help, and on June 6th specialists from the United States secretly visited the abandoned island.

A potential worldwide threat

Due to the shrink of the Aral Sea, by 2001 Rebirth Island had united with the mainland to the south. Health experts feared that weaponized organisms such as anthrax survived and could escape to the mainland via fleas on infected rodents, which are numerous on the dried lands, or that terrorists might gain access to the organisms.

After the tragic 9/11 attacks in the USA, the government created the USA Patriot Act to fight terrorism. On October 2nd 2001, 63-year-old photojournalist Bob Stevens was hospitalized in Florida and was diagnosed with suffering from anthrax, he died three days later. Investigations revealed that mailed letters with anthrax’s spores have been sent to the main American medias and to some politicians. In total, 17 people got infected and five dead. Bruce Edwards Ivins, a doctor working for 20 years on an anthrax vaccination, which got pulled off the market, was suspected for this incident. Federal investigators have suggested that he infected the mail with anthrax spores so the public would realise they need the anthrax vaccination. He later killed himself with a Tylenol overdose before charges could be brought against him. Government decided to chase places where anthrax can be easily found and it brought them to Aralsk-7.

To understand how extremely dangerous a biological weapon can be, Gennadi Lepyoshkin, retired Soviet Army Colonel said “…Terrorism is more scary… biological weapons are cheap. We calculated that to achieve an effect on one square kilometre (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.

A few days later USA contacted Uzbekistan’s authorities and the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) committed $6 million for decontamination of the anthrax pits in Vozrozhdeniya Island. By April 2002, the defense expert’s company, Raytheon was establishing a decontamination team of 113 people in Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan. In June 2002, the Voz Island Pathogenic Destruction Operation (VIPDO) was completed 2 weeks ahead of schedule and authorities said that the unsecured anthrax had been totally eliminated. In result, they destructed almost 300 metric tons of live anthrax spores left over from the USSR with zero contamination to the work force or the surrounding environment. Moreover, they removed the largest unsecured proliferation threat in the world whereby ensuring that the material could not be used in a nefarious manner.

Experiments materials (Image source)

Anthrax spores have extreme survival skills and resist in the nature. They’ll shrug off pretty much anything you care to throw at them – from baths of noxious disinfectants to being roasted for up to two minutes at 180C (356F). Dr Brian Moffat, archaeological director who led an excavation operation at a Scottish hospital from medieval times found spores still living in the ruins.

For about 9 years before the US operation, from 1992 to 2001, the island was unprotected.

Interest of the media and authorities

Since then, very few people have been authorized by the government to visit the island. Nick Middleton was one of those fortunate. This British journalist and Dave Butler, an expert on contaminated sites, visited the island on 2008 for a British TV show called “Going To Extremes” and diffused on Channel 4.

Some scientists are explaining that even if some chemicals remained, the 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 neutralised naturally.

This exceptional and dangerous site got the interest of many scientists, authorities and investigators. Therefore, inspectors looked for the people who worked and live on the island but what they are doing right now or where they are a mystery.

In 2018 and 2019, respectively Kazakh and Uzbek government declare officially the place safe to visit.

Anthrax Island and video games

As you might have understood, you will not have the chance to visit the island. Well, it’s not entirely true, you can visit it virtually. The famous video game, Call of Duty recreated it in those 4 editions: Call of Duty: Black Ops, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Call of Duty: Warzone.

Call of Duty Warzone

I assume that the Call of Duty’s fans who read the article have recognized this place.

The story takes place during the Cold War where the Soviets are developing a German biochemical weapon called Nova 6, tested on animals and humans.

In March 2020, Call of Duty Warzone was released and it went big, especially because it coincided with the Covid-19’s lockdown in many countries. Few months later, Rebirth Island was added and allow players to explore it. When the weapon was almost ready, the Red Army began evacuating the island and killing all non-essential personnel. An operation of the CIA conducted by Grigori Weaver and Jason Hudson led to an attack and extraction, a former Nazi scientist Friedrich Steiner.

At the same time, Mason, the person you incarnate, had infiltrated the facility in an attempt to kill Steiner. To know the rest of the story, you will have to play Call of Duty.

Latest from Découvrir La Vie

Dark Tourism: what happened to the island

Dark tourism appeared at the end of the twentieth century and is now becoming very famous. The most known places are Chernobyl (Ukraine), Concentration camp of Auschwitz (Poland), Aokigahara forest (Japan). The potential for dark tourism in Aralsk-7 is undeniable, unfortunately nothing has been properly done to develop it.

Scientists, politicians and leaders do not agree on the safety of the Island. Therefore, you will not have the possibility to visit since it is surrounded by many army checkpoints.

When we were near the Aral Sea, we have heard rumours from local people, saying that the Uzbek government destroyed the remaining parts of the city early 2020. However, according to the latest Satellite Images from NASA and other local people, the city seems to still be there.

Article by: Nicolas Bergounioux

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By Nicolas Bergounioux

My journey started in Basque Country where I am born and grew up. It then continues in different cities in France, punctuated by explorations of some European countries. I decided then to live in Sri Lanka before moving to Paris. I quitted my job recently to pursue my journey in Central Asia where I am working with Saxon on a documentary on the Aral Sea.

Feel free to add me and contact me on Instagram @nicobergou

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