The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History

By Gordin, Michael D. | The Historian, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History


Gordin, Michael D., The Historian


The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History. By Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas with Jens H. Kuhn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 921. $55.00.)

This is a magisterial history of something that was not supposed to exist. The United States unilaterally began dismantling its own biological weapons (BW) program in 1969, and the use of bacteriological, viral, and other biological agents as weapons of warfare was prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972, which went into effect in 1975. The Soviet Union signed, ratified, and repeatedly voiced its wholehearted support of this treaty. Over the course of hundreds of pages, Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas document the cavernous gulf between those public statements and the scope of the Soviet BW program, which was easily "the largest and most sophisticated BW program the world has ever seen" (3). The early chapters of the book narrate what we know about BW during the first fifty years of the Soviet Union, including circumstantial evidence that smallpox (variola) had been weaponized before 1970, yet over three-quarters of the book chronicle with astonishing texture the erection of the massive Soviet program, which ironically mostly happened after the signing of the BWC.

There are two reasons for the backloaded quality of this excellent study. First, it is simply irrefutable that the greatest investment in personnel and resources in BW came in the 1970s, so there is just more to describe. (One of the many interesting arguments that populate this book attributes some of this mobilization to bottom-up pressure from molecular biologists who sought to prove the utility of their discipline in the wake of the hegemony of Trofim Lysenko from 1948 to 1965, when Soviet scientists were largely locked out of the revolution in genetics. …

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