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Vozrozhdeniye Open-Air Test Site

  • Location
    Vozrozhdeniye Island, Aral Sea
  • Type
  • Facility Status

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Vozrozhdeniye Island is located in the middle of the Aral Sea, which straddles a section of the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although a major part of the island-including the former Soviet biological weapons (BW) facilities-falls under the Uzbek jurisdiction, both the Uzbekistani and Kazakhstani governments have been actively involved in the measures of eliminating negative consequences of BW activities at the island since the break up of the Soviet Union.

From 1936 to 1992, Vozrozhdeniye Island was the major proving ground in the Soviet Union for the open-air testing of BW agents developed at different Soviet BW facilities. A variety of BW agents were tested on the island, including the microbial pathogens that cause plague, anthrax, Q-fever, smallpox, tularemia, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, as well as botulinum toxin. According to CNS Occasional Paper by Tucker and Zilinskas, The 1971 Smallpox Epidemic in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program, some of the pathogens tested in aerosol form were genetically modified strains that produce atypical disease processes and are resistant to existing medications, potentially complicating diagnosis and treatment. In addition to common pathogenic strains, special strains developed for military purposes were tested at the island. Bacterial simulants were also used to study the dissemination of aerosol particles in the atmosphere. BW agents tested at the Vozrozhdeniye site had been basically developed at the MOD facilities in Kirov, Sverdlovsk, Zagorsk, and Biopreparat Center in Stepnogorsk.

Vozrozhdenie Island was apparently chosen for open-air testing of biological weapons because of its geographic location and climatic conditions. The shores of the Aral Sea are predominantly large, sparsely populated deserts and semi-deserts, which hindered unauthorized access to the secret site. The island’s sparse vegetation, hot, dry climate, and sandy soil-which reaches temperatures of 60° C (140° F) in summer-all reduced the possibility that pathogenic microorganisms would survive and spread.

The first BW facility on Vozrozhdenie Island was established in 1936, after the island was transferred to the authority of the Soviet MOD for use by the Red Army’s Scientific Medical Institute. The first experiments reportedly included the spread of tularemia and related microorganisms. In 1937, all personnel were evacuated from the site due to security problems. The Soviet government resumed BW testing in 1954 after building a biological weapons test site on the island, officially referred to as “Aralsk-7.” The MOD’s Field Scientific Research Laboratory (PNIL) was stationed on the site to conduct experiments. Military Unit 25484, comprising several hundred people, was also based on the island and reported to a larger unit based in the city of Aralsk.

In fact, the test site on Vozrozhdeniye Island remained in operation until the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Evacuation of Russian military personnel from the island began in 1991, after the PNIL specialists left and the laboratories were closed. On 18 January 1992, the Supreme Soviet of newly independent Kazakhstan issued the edict “On Urgent Measures for Radically Improving the Living Conditions of Aral Area Residents,” under which the Vozrozhdeniye military site was officially closed. On 11 April 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued edict No. 390 “On Ensuring the Implementation of International Obligations Regarding Biological Weapons,” which ordered all offensive BW programs shut down. Following the decree, the Russian government declared that the Vozrozhdeniye site was closed, the special structures would be dismantled, and within two or three years the island would be decontaminated and transferred to Kazakhstani control. In August 1995, specialists from the U.S. Department of Defense visited Vozrozhdeniye Island and confirmed that the experimental field lab had been dismantled, the site’s infrastructure destroyed, and military settlement abandoned. However, the contamination of the island still presents a growing threat to the nearby population and the environment because of the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Since the 1960’s the Aral Sea has lost over half its surface area and continues to shrink, resulting in increased human and animal access to the formerly isolated islands. Although the island initially was 200 square kilometers in size, it had “expanded” to 2,000 kilometers by 1990. There is already a shallow zone between the island and the settlement of Muynak on the Uzbekistani cost; Kazakhstani scientists believe that by 2010 the island will be connected to mainland, which increases the risk of pathogens spreading via rodents and insects.

In 1998, information was revealed regarding viable anthrax spores on the Vozrozhdeniye Island, which caused a new wave of concern regarding the environmental condition of the island. It’s also notable that during the late 1980s, large quantities of anthrax spores that had been mass-produced and stockpiled in Russia were transported to the island for decontamination and burial.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the US government recognized the urgency of decontaminating the anthrax burial sites to eliminate the threat of terrorist access. Moreover, because oil companies are interested in drilling on the island for petroleum and natural gas, these activities could stir up contaminated dust that could blow across to the mainland. In October 2001, the US Department of Defense and the Uzbek Ministry of Defense signed an agreement allowing the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program to spend up to $6 million to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons materials and technology from Uzbekistan. Because the CTR program is prohibited by law from engaging in economic conversion or environmental remediation, the goals of the Vozrozhdeniye project are to destroy the residual viable anthrax spores in the burial pits and to dismantle the BW laboratory complex on the island.

During the Soviet period, all work conducted on the island was strictly classified and its existence well-concealed by special services coordinated from Moscow. Therefore, today Kazakhstan does not possess complete information about the character and range of activities at the site. There is still no official information in this regard, only unofficial open foreign and local publications. Multiple appeals from the Kazakhstani government to Russia to release the needed information have been unsuccessful.


Biological weapon (BW)
Biological weapons use microorganisms and natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals, or plants.  Biological weapons can be derived from: bacteria (anthrax, plague, tularemia); viruses (smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers); rickettsia (Q fever and epidemic typhus); biological toxins (botulinum toxin, staphylococcus enterotoxin B); and fungi (San Joaquin Valley fever, mycotoxins). These agents can be deployed as biological weapons when paired with a delivery system, such as a missile or aerosol device.
Pathogen: A microorganism capable of causing disease.
Plague: The disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. There are three forms of plague: bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, and septicemic plague. Bubonic plague refers to infection of the lymph nodes by Y. pestis, causing black sores or “buboes,” pneumonic plague refers to infection of the lungs, and septicemic plague refers to infection of the bloodstream. Although no longer a serious public health hazard in the developed world, the bacterium can spread from person-to-person in aerosolized form, and has been investigated as a biological weapon by Japan and the Soviet Union.
The common name of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, as well as the name of the disease it produces.  A predominantly animal disease, anthrax can also infect humans and cause death within days.  B. anthracis bacteria can form hardy spores, making them relatively easy to disseminate.  Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR/Russia have all investigated anthrax as a biological weapon, as did the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.  Anthrax-laced letters were also used to attack the U.S. Senate and numerous news agencies in September 2001.  There is no vaccine available to the general public, and treatment requires aggressive administration of antibiotics.
Tularemia is a disease caused by Francisella tularensis, a bacterium that is native to rabbits and aquatic mammals, but is also one of the most infectious pathogens to humans. Tularemia can survive in harsh conditions, and just one organism can cause human infection. Tularemia aerosols can incapacitate a patient within one or two days. Tularemia infection causes fever and skin lesions, and can eventually develop into pneumonia. The Soviet Union and Japan investigated F. tularensis for bioweapons purposes during World War II, as did the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.
Botulinum Toxin
Botulism is caused by exposure to botulinum toxin (a neurotoxin).  Most often caused by eating contaminated foods, botulinum poisoning prevents the human nervous system from transmitting signals, resulting in paralysis, and eventually death by suffocation.  Botulinum toxin is the most toxic known substance. 15,000 times more toxic than VX nerve gas, mere nanograms of botulinum toxin will kill an adult human.  A significant bioweapons concern, botulinum toxin has been investigated as a weapon by Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, Iraq and unsuccessfully by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. 
Dismantlement: Taking apart a weapon, facility, or other item so that it is no longer functional.
Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) Program
A U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) program established in 1992 by the U.S. Congress, through legislation sponsored primarily by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. It is the largest and most diverse U.S. program addressing former Soviet Union weapons of mass destruction threats. The program has focused primarily on: (1) destroying vehicles for delivering nuclear weapons (e.g., missiles and aircraft), their launchers (such as silos and submarines), and their related facilities; (2) securing former Soviet nuclear weapons and their components; and (3) destroying Russian chemical weapons. The term is often used generically to refer to all U.S. nonproliferation programs in the former Soviet Union—and sometimes beyond— including those implemented by the U.S. Departments of Energy, Commerce, and State. The program’s scope has expanded to include threat reduction efforts in geographical areas outside the Former Soviet Union.


[1] Gulbarshyn Bozheyeva, Yerlan Kunakbayev, and Dastan Yeleukenov, “Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present and Future,” Occasional Paper, No. 1, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, June 1999.
[2] Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, “The 1971 Smallpox Epidemic in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program,” Occasional Paper No. 9, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, June 2002.
[3] Jonathan B. Tucker’s speech during the briefing on “Biological Decontamination of Vozrozhdeniye Island: The US-Uzbek Agreement”; BW Materials Security and Transparency, Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) webpage at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), www.dtra.mil.
[4] Gennadiy Lepeshkin, “Byvshiye obyekty po razrabotke BO v Tsentralnoy Azii,” Problemy Nerasprastraneniya, Special Edition, April 2001; Yevgeniy Troitskiy, “Fizicheskaya zashita, uchet i kontrol biomaterialov v NISKhI MON RK,” Problemy Nerasprastraneniya, Special Edition, April 2001.


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