April 2, 1979 — Anthrax began to spread through the town of Sverdlovsk (now called Yekaterinburg) in the Ural Mountains, beginning an epidemic that some would call the “biological Chernobyl.” By April 4, one died from exposure to anthrax and it was initially claimed as pneumonia — in reality, spores were beginning to wreak havoc throughout the local population. In the ensuing months, the Soviets would claim the deaths of 64 people, though later journalists and other reports would indicate a number closer to 100. The last recorded death was on June 12, and several different stories regarding the cause of the outbreak began to emerge.
Anthrax can occur naturally. It shows up in poorer areas, and though rare, if it does occur naturally it generally comes from working closely with animals, from spores in the ground that have been unearthed, or from contaminated meat that has not been adequately cooked. The last on that list is what the Soviets initially told the world. They said that contaminated meat from infected cattle had been circulated among the townspeople of Sverdlovsk, causing the outbreak.
In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the anthrax outbreak was caused by mismanagement of the substance in a military facility that was trying to develop biological weapons. 13 years had passed, and during that time the world had criticized the Soviets, accusing them of covering something up — the unusual admission sprung forth an investigation from a team of western scientists led by Dr. Matthew Meselson (a geneticist and molecular biologist from Harvard), who would visit Russia to find the root of the outbreak. It would take them over ten years to conclude their findings.
Mapping out the locations of those who fell sick, they were able to discern a pattern and confirm President Yeltsin’s statement: the casualties were all downwind from the military biological weapons facility, including livestock casualties. The wind actually blew away from the main population of Sverdlovsk, and would have caused significantly more damage had it blown in the opposite direction — some estimates say up to hundreds of thousands of people could have perished.
To prevent the anthrax spores from leaking to the outside world, filters were installed in the military facility to block their escape. However, due to some mismanagement and confusion, a filter was removed and not reinstalled. This is what is generally accepted as the cause of the outbreak.
Some people have some theories of their own — Pyotr Burgasov, Soviet immunologist, epidemiologist, professor and chief state sanitary doctor of the USSR, said that “When in a secret laboratory the corpses were examined, four strains of anthrax were identified. Two of which are found only in Canada, the other two are only in South Africa … somebody brought these pathogens to Sverdlovsk and sprayed them there for a month and a half .” Others throughout the Soviet Union, and Russia later, would say that it was an act of terrorism by American intelligence personnel.
However, to everyone else, the investigation was concluded and the world was reminded of the sheer, daunting power of biological weapons — and how simple mismanagement can easily cost many lives.
This article was written by Luke Ryan, a former Team Leader from the 3rd Ranger Battalion with four combat deployments to Afghanistan, and originally published in 2018.