The Soviet Anti-Plague System

April 11, 2006
Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Alexander Melikishvili, Raymond A. Zilinskas

The Anti-plague System in the Newly Independent States, 1992 and Onwards

Soviet anti-plague scientists wearing special suits for protection against the plague bacilli (archival photo).

Soviet anti-plague scientists wearing special suits for protection against the plague bacilli (archival photo).

Prior to 1992, the Soviet Union operated a large and unique network of facilities, called the “anti-plague system,” whose main mission was to control deadly endemic diseases and to prevent the importation of exotic pathogens from other countries. The word “plague” in the system’s official name was used broadly to indicate not only the disease caused by Yersinia pestis, but also other dangerous endemic and exotic diseases caused by bacteria or viruses. Throughout the Soviet era, the anti-plague (AP) system appears to have worked effectively, preventing major epidemics from claiming the lives of Soviet citizens in regions where diseases such as anthrax, brucellosis, bubonic plague, Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF), and tularemia are endemic. In the 1960s, however, the AP system was directed to undertake tasks under the Soviet biological warfare (BW) program. Initially, the AP system was a component of only the defensive Soviet BW program, code-named Problem 5, which aimed to defend the nation against both imported exotic diseases and possible biological attacks. Later, in the 1970s, the AP system began contributing to the offensive BW program, known as Ferment, and did so until the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991. The study being reported here was performed by a team of CNS researchers during 20022004 and this is the first of two sets of publications that are and will be its products. As such, it is focused on the history of the AP system, covering the period from the late 19th century to 1992, including its accomplishments, organization, work programs, and responsibilities. A second report, to be published later in 2006, will concentrate on the situation of the AP system after 1992, and provide an analysis of the proliferation threat stemming from the AP system in 11 republics of the former Soviet Union.

The first report was originally published as five separate but connected articles in the journal Critical Reviews of Microbiology, vol. 32, no. 1 (2006), which may be viewed at In addition to these five articles, is an Annex compiled by Alexander Melikishvili that provides brief biographies of scientists and other public figures who played important roles in the evolution of tsarist Russia’s anti-plague system.

View the Reports

19th Century to 1992

The Soviet Anti-Plague System: An Introduction
by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Alexander Melikishvili, and Raymond A. Zilinskas

Genesis of the Anti-Plague System: The Tsarist Period
by Alexander Melikishvili

Growth of the Anti-Plague System during the Soviet Period
by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley

The Anti-Plague System and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program
by Raymond A. Zilinskas

What Non-Proliferation Policy for the Soviet Anti-Plague System?
by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Alexander Melikishvili, and Raymond A. Zilinskas

Annex – Biographies of Important Figures
by Alexander Melikishvili

1992 and Onwards

Introduction – Also includes Executive Summary, Acknowledgements, and Table of Contents.
Chapter 1 – Armenia
Chapter 2 – Azerbaijan
Chapter 3 – Belarus
Chapter 4 – Georgia
Chapter 5 – Kazakhstan
Chapter 6 – Kyrgyzstan
Chapter 7 – Moldova and its sucessor establishment
Chapter 8 – Tajikistan
Chapter 9 – Ukraine
Chapter 10 – Uzbekistan
Annex 1: Arms Control Today Article
Endnotes, Including References


The following acknowledgment for the series of five articles addressing the anti-plague system of the Soviet Union was inadvertently omitted from the article “The Soviet Anti-Plague System: An Introduction” by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Alexander Melikishvili, and Raymond A. Zilinskas, which appeared in Volume 32, Number 1 of Critical Reviews in Microbiology.

Many individuals greatly contributed to the success of this project, so we take the opportunity here to identify and thank them. First, we thank Dr. Bakyt B. Atshabar, the director of the M. Aikimbayev Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases (KSCQZD) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for his invaluable assistance that included introducing us to many institute directors, laboratory heads, and scientists whom we interviewed and gaining entry to 46 anti-plague institutes and stations. We also owe an immense debt of gratitude to Dr. Seidim Aubakirov, the head of the department of scientific information at KSCQZD, whose knowledge of the history of the anti-plague system is unsurpassed and guidance throughout the course of this study was inestimable. We are also indebted to the numerous anti-plague scientists, facility managers, and local experts who provided crucial information during interviews, in commissioned studies, during informal discussions, at meetings and social gatherings, and in response to queries we posed by email and letters. In spite of our desire to recognize these individuals for their contributions to this work, they would prefer to remain anonymous. We will forever be thankful to them. One Russian scientist who we are able to identify and convey our profound appreciation is Dr. Igor Domaradskij.

This work would not have been possible without the invaluable in-country assistance provided by Dr. Alevtina Izvekova, a former research associate at the CNS branch office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, who visited some of the most isolated facilities, and reported about the work done there by anti-plague scientists, technicians, and support personnel. We would also like to recognize current and former staff members of the CNS Almaty office – Mr. Dauren Aben, Dr. Dastan Eleukenov, Mr. Tanat Kozhmanov, Ms. Marina Voronova, Ms. Aigerim Aitkhozhina – as well as summer interns Ms. Assel Roustemova and Mr. Daniyar Smagulov – who worked hard to make sure that our field research was able to proceed in an efficient manner.

We are deeply grateful to Dr. Gregory Gleason, Ms. Rosa Kavenoki, Dr. Victor Koscheyev, Dr. Michael Kosoy, and Mr. Andrew Weber, for the assistance and helpful comments that they provided to us throughout the project and, particularly, after reading the draft of this report. We would like to thank also our colleagues inside and outside the CNS for their support and assistance in many aspects of the production of this report. In particular, we are thankful to Dr. Jonathan Tucker and Mr. Kenley Butler, who carefully edited the manuscript, Mr. Sundara Vadlamudi for formatting the document, and Mr. James Toppin for translating many Russian language documents into English. In the end, however, the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors.

The study of the AP system that is reported on here and in the forthcoming report was made possible through the generous funding provided by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). In particular, the authors would like to thank Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Dr. Karl Wittnebel, Dr. Asha George, Dr. Mark Smolinski, Dr. Stephanie Loranger, and Ms. Kirsten Houghton for their assistance and support of this project.

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