Vozrozhdeniye Open-Air Test Site

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Last Updated: June 10, 2014
Other Name: N/A
Location: Vozrozhdeniye Island, Aral Sea
Subordinate To: Soviet period: USSR Ministry of Defense
Size: The site was designed for open-air testing of BW agents developed at various Soviet facilities
Facility Status: Dismantled

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.

[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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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.