Authors: David Wise
Tags: #History, #Military, #Biological & Chemical Warfare, #True Crime, #Espionage, #Fiction
Without Joe Cassidy, of course,
would never have surfaced.
was an almost invisible man, an unremarkable man who would never be noticed in a crowd, who had escaped the Nazis, and whose mission in life was to climb up on a rock in Central Park and, if that dreadful day ever came, signal the start of World War III.
The GRU had all but dropped him, but the FBI had one more mission in mind for
C H A P T E R: 20
MOSCOW: A DEADLY SECRET
They came for
Vil Mirzayanov early on the morning of October 22, 1992.
, the agents from the successor to the KGB’s internalsecurity arm closed in on his fourth-floor apartment at 14 Ulitsa Stalevarov in Moscow. The two-room flat was not far from the nerve-gas laboratory where he had worked, at the State Scientific Research Institute on the Shosse Entuziastov.
Mirzayanov let the men in only after they threatened to break down the door. His sons, Iskandar, twelve, and Sultan, four, were too young really to understand, but his wife, Nuria, a thin, dark-haired poetess, understood all too well. The Soviet Union had collapsed almost ten months before, but some things, including the dreaded knock on the door by the secret police, did not appear to have changed.
They arrested Mirzayanov and took him to Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison, where the interrogations began. A short, bespectacled man, whose mild exterior masked a tough, inner strength, Mirzayanov was a fifty-seven-year-old physical chemist who had worked in the top-secret Soviet nerve-gas program for almost three decades. As a senior researcher, he had been involved directly in the development in Moscow of the nerve gases that were tested and produced in the plants and military sites along the Volga basin. His specialty was mass spectrometry.
In October 1993, Mirzayanov, although no longer in prison, was awaiting trial on charges of having revealed state secrets. If convicted, he faced a sentence of up to eight years. He was taking an additional risk by agreeing to a series of interviews with the author, in which he talked in detail about Russia’s chemical weapons and the history of its nerve-gas program.
In the late 1970s, Mirzayanov said, he began to have pangs of conscience. “It occurred to me I was engaged in a criminal enterprise. I had participated in the development of weapons of mass destruction. When I came to this conclusion, my work in the research institute became a struggle with myself.” Although he had harbored these misgivings for years, it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and relaxed some of the authoritarian controls of the Soviet state that he felt he could speak out.
“It was only during perestroika that I could share my views with other people. My wife knew, of course, but if I spoke to anyone else, the KGB might hear. So it was inside myself. I felt I was a member of a criminal gang and I didn’t want to do this.” Then in October 1991, Mirzayanov boldly went public in
a Moscow daily.
In his brief but extraordinary article, Mirzayanov said not much had really changed; the KGB still controlled people in defense installations, telephones were bugged, dissenters destroyed or fired. “My own secret research institute in the center of Moscow has been poisoning people for decades by its harmful emissions,” he wrote.
Even as the nations of the world were completing work on a treaty banning chemical weapons, the article continued, Viktor Petronin, the institute’s chief, told his staff that “capitalism did not change, we have the same potential enemy, and that our civic duty is to consolidate the country’s defense power.”
Then, obliquely, and with no details, Mirzayanov dropped his bombshell: “The development of a novel chemical weapon was in full swing, the agent was tested on an open range in the most environmentally dangerous area.” He added, “So the question is, why are they trying to deceive the West?”
Amazingly, there was no public reaction by the Soviet government. But in January 1992, only days after the collapse of the Communist state, Mirzayanov was fired by the research institute. His older son, not understanding, taunted him. Why didn’t he go to work like other people? Their income cut off, the family was barely able to scrape by. Mirzayanov had a small pension, and his wife earned a little from writing. A Norwegian humanitarian organization contributed forty dollars a month, and the Carvallo Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave him a modest grant in recognition of his moral courage.
Perhaps his background explains Mirzayanov’s willingness to take on the establishment at the cost of his career. He was a Tatar, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority that historically has had troubled relations with Russia. In the thirteenth century, the Tatars mixed with the Mongol forces of Genghis Khan, and their very name became synonymous with the invading hordes. Mirzayanov grew up on the European side of the Ural Mountains and moved to Moscow as a young man. He studied chemistry and began work in the nerve gas program when he was thirty.
A month before his arrest, Mirzayanov and Lev Fedorov, a physical chemist, courageously coauthored a revealing article in
that elaborated on what Mirzayanov had hinted at a year earlier. As far back as 1987, the Soviet Union claimed to have halted all production of nerve gas, they wrote. But Soviet scientists, they continued, had developed in binary form the world’s most powerful nerve gas, which Mirzayanov later identified as Novichok, or “newcomer.”
Mirzayanov knew a great deal about the super nerve gas; his last job had been to measure air and soil samples around the research laboratory to see whether enough chemicals had escaped to enable the CIA or other foreign intelligence services to detect the presence of the new gas.
In the Moscow interviews with the author, Mirzayanov said that Novichok was“eight, may be ten times more toxic”than any nerve gas in the U.S. arsenal. Russia’s total stockpile of nerve gases, which the government had officially declared at forty thousand metric tons—the world’s largest—could cause devastation equal to that of a major nuclear attack. “Tens of millions could be killed by the entire inventory,”he said.
Although he estimated that “probably less than a thousand tons” of Novichok had been produced, “theoretically several hundred thousand people could be killed” by even that amount of the deadly new gas, “if people have no protection and are out in the open. Even if they only breathe fumes they may not die but there could be terrible consequences. Nerve gas can cause mutations in the next generation and in future generations after that.”
According to Mirzayanov, the super nerve gas was developed in 1973 by Pyotr Petrovich Kirpichev, a Soviet scientist at the research institute’s branch at Shikhany, near Volsk. “The binary form was developed in Moscow, the substance itself was done in Shikhany,” he said. Two years later, Kirpichev was joined in his research by Vladimir Uglev, who helped to perfect Novichok.
“Uglev claims the binary form of the gas can be produced in a garage,” Mirzayanov said. “He exaggerates a little, but it is basically true.”
Some of Novichok’s properties cannot be measured, Mirzayanov said, at least by anyone who wants to live to tell about it. “In pure form the binary gas is colorless, and since it is lethal you would not want to taste or smell it.” Was Novichok odorless? Mirzayanov was asked. “If you smell it you’re dead,” he replied, “so no one knows if it smells. It is basically invisible.”
The effect of Novichok on humans was described chillingly by one victim, Andrei Zheleznyakov, a Soviet scientist exposed to only a residue of the gas in an accident in the spring of 1987 in the same Moscow laboratory where Mirzayanov worked. The two scientists were friends.
Zheleznyakov was a member of a select and secret group that tested Novichok at the institute. His job was to blend two components of the nerve gas and measure the temperature of the end product. The higher the temperature during the blending process, the more toxic the nerve gas. The test equipment was housed inside a fume cabinet to protect the scientists working outside it.
One morning in May, Zheleznyakov switched on the fume cabinet as usual, and something went wrong. He later described what happened in an interview with
a Moscow magazine. “I saw rings before my eyes—red, orange. Bells were ringing inside my head, I choked.” Gripped by fear, “I sat down, and told the guys: I think it has got me.” His chief told him to go home and lie down, he would feel better. “They assigned me an escort, and we walked past a few bus stops. We were passing the church near Ilich Square when suddenly I saw the church lighting up and falling apart. I remember nothing else.”
Mirzayanov provided additional details. When the accident occurred, he said, Zheleznyakov’s chief “told him he was drunk and to go home and did not call an ambulance. They took him to the square and dropped him there. He fell on the street, a friend brought him back, and then they called an ambulance.”
Zheleznyakov was taken to the hospital by KGB agents, who told physicians that he had been poisoned by eating bad sausage. The KGB agents made the doctors sign a pledge never to talk about the case. Zheleznyakov was kept in strict isolation. His heart was barely beating, and the level of cholinesterase in his bloodstream was close to zero.
After he had spent eighteen days in intensive care, the doctors managed to save his life. But he was left totally disabled, diagnosed with, among other illnesses, cirrhosis of the liver, toxic hepatitis, and epilepsy. In July 1992, he died.
Unlike his doomed colleague, Vil Mirzayanov did not work on the final, binary form of Novichok, but he participated in the development of A-230, one of the precursor chemicals of the powerful new nerve gas. The initial tests of Novichok, he said, were carried out at Shikhany and in Nukus, Uzbekistan, eighty miles south of the Aral Sea. The final military tests were conducted between 1986 and 1989 in Nukus, he added.
Without access to the top-secret archives of the Soviet nerve-gas program, it is not possible to know whether the nerve-gas formulas passed to the Russians by Operation
led, directly or indirectly, to the development of Novichok. But there is evidence that information obtained by Soviet intelligence about the American nerve-gas program did influence Moscow’s own decisions and efforts.
Vil Mirzayanov said that both the Soviet version of VX, known as Agent 33, and binary weapons, such as Novichok, “were developed in response to American programs and Soviet intelligence. I sometimes saw intelligence information, sourced to American sources but not to individuals. No other country had nerve-gas research. We even knew what chemicals were developed in what laboratories.
“In 1965, when I started at the research institute, there was no talk of binary weapons. In the early seventies, work began here on binary. I think we saw some intelligence information.” Some of that information could have come from the Joint Chiefs via Operation
Data about GJ—the nerve gas pursued but never attained as a weapon by American scientists—was passed to the GRU between 1966 and 1969; the formula supposedly would have produced a result in binary form.
Mirzayanov said that in the early 1960s, the Soviets obtained VX from the United States through intelligence and had synthesized it in Volgograd by 1963. “The people who did it got the Lenin Prize. Leonid Zaharovich Soborovsky was one, and a woman named Ia Danilovna Shilakova. She was the first to synthesize Agent 33. We know the formula for VX, but the Americans don’t know our Agent 33 formula. Agent 33 is a binary weapon, a combination of two chemicals.”
One reason that Mirzayanov risked all by going public, he said, was that the Soviets had concealed Novichok from the world. In September 1992, negotiations were completed in Geneva on the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires participating countries to declare and then destroy all chemical-warfare stocks. The United States and Russia have signed and ratified the treaty. But as Mirzayanov noted, Novichok was not listed by Russia among the types of nerve gas it possessed.
Five years after signing the treaty, Moscow had still not acknowledged Novichok in its inventory of nerve gases. In 1998, however, a senior U.S. arms-control official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the existence of Novichok. Although both sides have pledged to dispose of their chemical weapons, and began to do so after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Russians still possess the unacknowledged super nerve gas—a weapon that, if ever produced in sufficient quantities, could be used to instantly kill millions of Americans.
Until Vil Mirzayanov spoke out, however, no one knew that the Soviets had developed Novichok. He was convinced that the reason the Russian government wanted to keep the existence of the powerful nerve gas secret was to avoid having to destroy it under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
On January 24, 1994, the closed trial of Mirzayanov began in Moscow City Court. He was charged with revealing state secrets. At the time that Mirzayanov went public, however, the laws dealing with chemical weapons were themselves secret. Mirzayanov and his lawyer argued that under Russia’s new constitution, a person could not be convicted on the basis of secret laws.
Mirzayanov told the author that he was charged with violating part 1, the state secrets section, of article 75 of Russia’s criminal code. “There is a top-secret list of what constitutes state secrets,” Mirzayanov related. “As soon as you are put in prison, you are told there is such a list. I was shown the list once, so was my lawyer, but we were only allowed to keep it for one day and not copy it.” It was, he said, “just like Kafka.”
The scientist refused to participate in or testify at a secret trial. Predictably, three days later, Mirzayanov was arrested again and held for almost a month, this time at Matrosskaya Tishina, a maximum-security prison in Moscow.
U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering issued a statement in support of Mirzayanov, protesting that “someone could be either prosecuted or persecuted for telling the truth about an activity which is contrary to a treaty obligation of a foreign government.”
Around the world, human-rights activists rallied to Mirzayanov’s cause. Their efforts were spurred in the United States by two determined women in Princeton, New Jersey, environmental activists Gale M. Colby and Irene Goldman, who bombarded opinion leaders, journalists, members of Congress and others with faxes and updates on the Mirzayanov case.