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Vozrozhdeniya Island – The Soviet’s Cold War Super-Pathogen Lab

A faded cartoon mural overlooking an abandoned playground…

Rusty commercial fishing boats protruding from shimmering sand…

A mysterious unmanned radio station emitting staticky broadcasts to nonexistent listeners…   

Yellowish-brown anthrax laden clouds hovering over the lifeless waters of a vanishing inland sea…

Cracked portraits of Marx and Lenin hanging limply in tattered frames… 

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Vozrozhdeniya Island.

Surrounded by endless stretches of stark rock and scrub between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in what was once the southwest corner of the USSR, despite these dramatic images, Vozrozhdeniya Island isn’t an abandoned set from a dystopian thriller or an epic sci-fi trilogy.

Instead, it was once home to a super-pathogen lab of truly frightening proportions.

Previously noted for its quaint villages and idyllic lagoons located along the fish-rich and largely unpolluted Aral Sea coast, the island today bears little resemblance to its former self nearly seven decades ago, when 60,000 local people worked in a thriving fishing industry. 

Now however, what’s left is a surreal world of scorching temperatures, abandoned buildings, mysterious burial pits, and eerie remnants of once thriving forests that have been reduced to little more than stumps and leafless branches. 

A place where humans, birds, fish and insects are few and far between, and indifferent camels while away hazy afternoons in the shade of derelict tanks with missing tracks. 

Once relatively small at just 70 square miles (181 square km), Vozrozhdeniya Island has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks to a warming climate and the lake’s fresh water being diverted to distant farms. 

In fact, it’s about ten times larger than it was in its heyday, but now it’s technically a peninsula, and according to some historians, scientists and ex-intelligence folks, it may also be one of the most toxic, dangerous and deadliest places on earth. 

Enter the Cold War

Renaissance Island (Vozrozhdeniya Island), Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - November 1994
Renaissance Island (Vozrozhdeniya Island), Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – November 1994

Vozrozhdeniya’s drastic transformation began in 1954 when the Soviet Union constructed a biological weapons research and manufacturing facility on the island. 

Due to its isolation, the site was the perfect place to conceal a clandestine facility from the ever-prying electronic eyes of Western intelligence services like the CIA and MI6.

Even those who weren’t alive back then have likely seen grainy movies of American school children scrambling under their desks as ear-shattering nuclear warning sirens sounded in the background. 

Intercontinental nuclear missiles were particularly feared in those days, and rightly so, but new biological weapons were beginning to pose significant threats of their own.   

In a country full of little known and enigmatic installations, Vozrozhdeniya Island was where many new weapons were developed and produced, and as such, it was among the Soviet Union’s most secretive sites.  

A place where government chemists and geneticists cooked up monstrous batches of lethal super-pathogens to add to their Cold War arsenals of tanks, jets, ships and ICBMs. 

Thanks to rumor, good old fashioned misinformation, and its largely inaccessible location, the site’s mystique has grown steadily, and many of its secrets have remained just that. 

“Powers Wears Special Pressure Suit”. Francis Gary Powers wearing special pressure suit for stratospheric flying was an American spy whose Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile outside Sverdlovsk. By Chernov / Чернов, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though they probably knew about the facility even before Francis Gary Powers’ high flying U2 spy plane was shot down in early May of 1960, the CIA officially took aerial photographs of the island for the first time in 1962.

The remarkably clear pictures revealed that unlike other islands in the area that had boat docks and fish processing facilities, Vozrozhdeniya Island had barracks, labs, guard posts and a rifle range. 

There were also official looking – think communist architecture – research buildings, animal pens and an open-air testing site, all of which led analysts to conclude that the island had been transformed into a bioweapons facility.

Though the verdict was clearly in and pretty much everyone knew it, the Soviets quietly removed the site from official state maps altogether, which for many was the proverbial smoking gun. 

But despite this shamefully ham handed coverup, word leaked out through intelligence moles that the bioweapons facility did actually exist, and that it was referred to in official circles as Aralsk-7 – supposedly a place where anthrax, smallpox and even the plague, were cultured, manipulated, manufactured, and stockpiled by the ton. 

The Breakup of the Soviet Union

For decades foreign intelligence analysts knew that the site existed, but there was little they could do other than view images of it taken from miles above the earth by spy planes and satellites. 

Then everything changed when the island was abandoned shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ‘90s.

Nearly overnight, the once mighty superpower’s defense budget dried up, which meant that thousands of workers who’d once been paid regularly, suddenly found themselves out of jobs and money.  

Unsurprisingly, dozens of formerly top-secret bases fell on hard times. 

Some diehard patriots stood by their posts, but eventually even the most dedicated packed up and headed home. 

In many cases, what they left behind were dilapidated nuclear subs, intercontinental ballistic missiles in rain flooded silos, and scary facilities like Vozrozhdeniya Island, which may be as deadly as the rest of them put together.  

At its height, it’s estimated that thousands of scientists, technicians, soldiers and political officers worked at Aralsk-7, but things didn’t always go smoothly. 

Rumor had it that in 1988 an anthrax leak killed more than 100 workers, which prompted Soviet leadership to order the cache destroyed. 

The question is, did their underlings actually get around to doing it before the collapse? 

And if so, did they do a thorough job?  

Insiders claimed that huge vats containing hundreds of tons of bleach and anthrax spores were buried onsite, but that it was done hastily. 

Whatever the case, anthrax and many other lethal pathogens can survive in states of dormancy for decades, or perhaps even centuries.  

In one instance in the not too distant past, nearly 75 nomadic herders in the region were hospitalized after coming into contact with the disease when an infected 70+ year-old deer carcass was inadvertently unearthed. 

The incident was officially classified as a natural outbreak, but some suspect that it was decidedly unnatural. 

Anthrax

A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram stain technique…Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions or by measuring specific antibodies in the blood of persons with suspected cases.

Though it wasn’t the only pathogen produced on the island, Anthrax may be the deadliest because it’s so deadly and difficult to protect against. 

It can be ingested and simply carried on the skin, and it’s relatively common among herbivores like horses, sheep, cattle and goats, and it can be transmitted to humans from these hosts. 

Once infected, symptoms may or may not show up quickly, but when they do they typically include diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory issues, and both internal and external bleeding caused by horrific lesions. 

However, contracting anthrax by inhalation is even worse, because in the lungs and lymph nodes the spores grow and multiply more quickly, after which they enter the bloodstream.  

The whole process can take days, weeks or months, but in the end, nearly eight out of every 10 people who contract the disease die from it. 

That said, the man made strains produced at Aralsk-7 were far worse.

Soviet scientists used vast quantities of natural anthrax, which they modified to produce variants that were resistant to antibiotics and vaccines.

This included a particularly nasty strain known as STI that was so toxic that it was most well-known for rupturing red blood and rotting human and animal tissue from the inside out. 

In addition, the spores in this and other new super strains were up to 20 times smaller than naturally existing anthrax, which in many cases was large enough to get caught in the mucous of the nostrils preventing infection. 

By downsizing the spores, the incidence of infection via inhalation grew exponentially, making the weaponized disease far more deadly, and this also meant that small amounts of anthrax were now cheaper and easier to transport as well as being more potent. 

But in the ‘70s and ‘80s a number of international treaties were signed that banned the development, weaponization and production of pathogens like anthrax, and as all Side Projects viewers know, nations always adhere to the terms of treaties, so in other words – PROBLEM SOLVED!

Except that, the Soviets didn’t stop, and it’s almost a certainty that the other parties to the treaties didn’t either, which meant that the problem wasn’t going away any time soon. 

Expeditions

Though it has remained largely undisturbed over the years, Vozrozhdeniya Island has been stripped of nearly anything with scrap value, including steel, aluminum and copper. 

The locals know the risk, but as they say, times are tough, and everyone needs to eat.  

In addition to these unofficial visitors, the island has been visited officially at least twice since being abandoned. 

The first privately funded expedition got underway in 2005, when British geographer and journalist Nick Middleton put together a team from Oxford University to explore the site. 

A week before embarking everyone was put on antibiotics, then once at the outskirts of town, they donned their hi-tech gas masks, baggy hazmat suits and thick rubber boots and proceeded into the unknown on motorbikes.  

The excruciating heat and unwieldy suits made it particularly slow going, but though they weren’t sure of the exact locations of the anthrax caches, finding them wasn’t a problem. 

The hastily covered pits were abundantly evident, and the general state of the island was disturbing to say the least. 

In fact, it was trashed, like it’d been abandoned in a hurry. 

Inside compound buildings, floors were littered with shattered glass vials, beakers, test tubes, respirators and discarded bio-suits. 

However shortly after arriving, many of the crewmember’s breathing apparatus sensors began warning them that they were becoming clogged and contaminated. 

Some even began noticing noxious aromas leaking through their gear. 

Though they hadn’t seen much of what they’d hoped to, the team cut their losses and made a quick retreat. 

Once outside the danger zone after the lengthy decontamination processes had been completed, naval swabs revealed that the team was anthrax free, though if they’d stuck around any longer things could’ve turned out differently.  

The United States also sent a team of specialists, because in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, fears mounted that terrorist organizations flush with elicit cash would eventually be able to get their hands on weaponized pathogens like anthrax, thereby leveling the playing field against larger military powers like America and Britain. 

To make a long story short, scientists on the advance team discovered lots of viable anthrax on and around the island, and after a little political wrangling, the US federal government pledged the princely sum of  6 million USD (£4.6m) to clean the facility up once and for all. 

It wasn’t exactly a lot of money for such an undertaking, but it was exactly 6 million USD more than the Russians had pledged. 

Thankfully however, local labor and equipment were cheap, and despite the fact that the project would require unearthing the stockpiles, digging a number of new trenches, lining them with special plastic, dousing them with thousands of pounds of powdered bleach, then sealing and reburying them, the plan went ahead.  

So heavy equipment was rented and more than 100 local workers were hired, and after steeping in the disinfectant slurry for nearly a week, tests showed that no viable spores remained in any of the exposed pits. 

All told the project took nearly four months to wrap up, and at least for the time being, much of the island’s anthrax was relatively safe.

As they say, all’s well that ends well, but neither the story nor the danger end there, because the Soviets also carried out open air testing onsite for nearly a half a century, which means that deadly anthrax spores were distributed far and wide by both wind and water.  

Sadly, that portion is impossible to measure, collect or neutralize, and scientists theorize that all together it could measure in the tons. 

In addition, the mass burial pits used to dispose of the bodies of the poor animals exposed to anthrax and other agents were never treated or sealed properly. 

The carcasses themselves probably number in the hundreds, and it’s likely that their tissues have been preserved in mummy-like states buried in the hot and arid climate.

If, or perhaps when they’re inadvertently unearthed, by wind or a flood, the spores could once again become active, spread quickly, and kill anything they come in contact with. 

Thankfully, since the recyclables are long gone most locals steer well clear of Vozrozhdeniya Island, it’s out of the way location means that it’s not likely to be stumbled upon anytime soon. 

As for the plague, the Soviets were working on weaponizing it too, but since there aren’t any official records, nobody really knows how far they got, and what they did with the material they did produce. 

In the end, much is still up in the air, both figuratively and quite literally. 

Ironically, in English Vozrozhdeniya roughly translates into “rebirth,” which hopefully isn’t an ominous sign of things to come for what may be the largest stockpiles of anthrax in the world. 

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