Book review: Stalin's Secret Weapon, by Anthony Rimmington

It's no surprise that Joseph Stalin's obsession with weapons of mass destruction included the promotion of biological weapons (BW), but the background to his regime's development of this type of warfare, with its triumphs and failures, makes for eye-opening and sometimes grim reading. Anthony Rimmington's book pulls together his 30 years of research and specialist articles, showing first how Russia's interest can be traced back to the late 19th century when a St Petersburg guards officer was bitten by a rabid horse. The officer's treatment led to the establishment of groups of physicians and veterinary surgeons studying ways to combat the likes of brucellosis, glanders and rabbit fever, as well as diseases that affected humans, such as smallpox and pneumonic plague. During the First World War the focus shifted to military uses of this knowledge: horses and mules deliberately infected with dangerous bacteria could disrupt entire campaigns, and many of these animal diseases could transfer to enemy troops.

St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower
St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower

The new Soviet government pursued these developments initially with Trotsky’s support and interest and then Stalin’s, who went on to set up new BW laboratories across the USSR. There was research into how populations could be protected against infectious diseases, and advances were made in the treatment of plague and cholera, but there were advances too in ways of delivering dangerous bacteria, particularly anthrax, into enemy territory. The work was top secret and with the USSR ignoring international treaties devised to control such research they even engaged in a project with the Germans. Soon, these links with the Germans, and with Trotsky, gave the opportunity for bogus evidence which Stalin then used in his Great Purge in the 1930s. As well as the military elite which was associated with BW, an entire stratum of the best scientists in the field was tried and shot, with records of their work obliterated, including, for example the understanding of and possible treatments for encephalitis lethargica, the sleeping sickness which affected more than five million people globally in the early 1920s.

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Rimmington has integrated recently declassified MI6 reports on Soviet BW from the 1920s and declassified CIA sources including German material from the Nazi period in his remarkable findings, but his painstaking analysis of the Russian archives is the real achievement. He has brought the names and contributions of these scientists to the Western world so that as well as posthumous rehabilitation, their studies and results have become part of scientific discourse once more. Stalin’s Secret Weapon has an index, but it should have a table of the abbreviations for Soviet directorates and institutes that the author mentions, and for the general reader a glossary of the range of animal diseases given here in the Latin form would be a great help. There are 34 pages of source notes, but some notes are confusingly shortened, and equally surprising is the absence of a bibliography. A map or maps of the research centre locations would have been useful too, showing how they were spread across the Soviet Empire.

Stalin’s Secret Weapon is a demanding book, particularly where one learns of the mistakes made when scientists infected themselves, and others, as they tried to find cures, and the tortures endured by those researchers who came up against Stalin’s prejudices, but it is an important book all the same. - Vin Arthey

Stalin’s Secret Weapon, by Anthony Rimmington, Hurst, 262pp, £30