On March 26, 1975, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) came into force. The 85 nations ratifying it, including both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, pledged never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain biological weapons or toxins for hostile purposes.
Yet at precisely the same time that the Soviet regime was openly committing the state to dismantling its biological-warfare programs, it was covertly expanding them. In the years following the BWC's implementation, the Soviets built the most extensive facilities for the weaponization of bacteria and viruses in history. We may never know their true extent, since the Russian ministry of defense maintains the laboratories that the Soviets developed, and current law makes discussing the program—or even the possibility that the U.S.S.R. possessed such a program—illegal.
Despite these limitations, Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland and Raymond Zilinskas, the director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, have written a comprehensive account of the Soviets' vast bioweapons program, which was staffed, as the authors tell us, "by tens of thousands of scientists and support personnel and guarded by hundreds of Ministry of Interior troops." They have left no stone unturned—although their meticulous pages are peppered with apologies for the shortcomings of certain sources and for the vital questions that remain unanswerable.
The Soviet regime used a multifaceted structure of civilian and military laboratories to undertake weapons research, with the lines between them blurred. The civilian sector was embodied after 1972 in the Biopreparat organization, whose research was purportedly focused toward the civilian applications of what we now term "biotechnology." But Biopreparat, Messrs. Leitenberg and Zilinskas show, fulfilled first and foremost the needs of the Soviet military. Factories producing influenza vaccines and crop-protection bacteria for civilian use had been designed to manufacture viruses and bacteria on a large scale, if and when the army demanded.
Unfortunately, the role of the various components of the military sector is much more obfuscated. Almost no defense sources are accessible to Western scholars, and, despite valiant efforts, the authors have unearthed as many questions as they have answered. They do, however, make clear that the Soviet military consistently interfered with any attempts by the political leadership to terminate the research. Most disturbingly, the Russian ministry of defense retains, in the authors' words, the "residual ability to protect and maintain, to an unknown extent, the offensive BW program."
The Soviet Biological Weapons Program
By Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas
(Harvard, 921 pages, $55)
What is hard to explain is the motivation behind the commitment to bioweapons. In late 1969, the U.S. government announced the end of such research and the destruction of the existing arsenal, citing a lack of military usefulness. The Soviets responded by ramping up their efforts. Biological weapons became a cornerstone of overall Soviet defense policy despite the risks the program posed to the country's own health and security—a threat that became clear in 1979 when an anthrax epidemic broke out in the city of Sverdlovsk. The Soviets tried to explain away the outbreak through an implausible story of contaminated meat. But the program persevered.
Messrs. Leitenberg and Zilinskas suggest a number of explanations for what might appear as perversity. They believe the Soviet obsession can be traced to the state's foundational experiences. The Red Army learned the power of disease to ravage a fighting force in the civil war of 1918-21, when more soldiers died from famine and illness than from fighting. Then a typhus epidemic swept the country, killing two to three million more. The authors quote Lenin despairing: "A scourge is assailing us, lice, and the typhus that is mowing down our troops. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice!" Fighting disease became a priority for the Red Army, and such efforts morphed easily into weapons research. (The first military facility devoted to bioweapons, the Kirov Institute, was founded in 1928.)
More directly, the authors show how Soviet politics, which had seen the triumph of pseudoscience over the fields of molecular biology and genetics, prompted biologists to push for weapons programs as a means of re-legitimizing their disciplines. By convincing those in power that a military biological-weapons program was essential to Soviet security, these scientists ensured funding and resources. They revived a field that was on the brink of extinction in Russia.
After 1969, the Soviets persistently claimed that the U.S. was still developing biological weapons—and also using them in places like Vietnam, Colombia and Cuba. Such allegations continued to surface even after the Cold War. In 1998-99, for example, Gen. Valentin Yevstigneev, head of the ministry-of-defense divisions responsible for bioweapons under both the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, accused the U.S. of introducing the scourges of Colorado beetles and locusts to Russia and charged "that AIDS was created in a military laboratory abroad." Messrs. Leitenberg and Zilinskas show that this decades-long campaign of accusations was not only fraudulent but fabricated at the highest levels. They debunk any notion that the Soviet research was defensive in motivation.
At 735 pages of text and appendices, "The Soviet Biological Weapons Program" is an immense work, and one whose very thoroughness—when conflicting narratives are available, both are offered—can be exhausting. But for those seeking to understand the Soviet Union's complicated relationship with biological weapons, perhaps with an eye toward discerning the Russian Federation's contemporary position, it is an invaluable book.
Ms. Siegel is a history professor at Ohio State University.
A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Inside Moscow's Secret Arsenal.