In April of 1979 the city of Sverdlovsk (now known by its original name of Yekaterinburg) in Russia's Urals Federal District was struck by a frightening anthrax epidemic. Official Soviet documents reported sixty-four human deaths resulting from the ingestion of tainted meat sold on the black market, but U.S. intelligence sources implied a different story, and the lack of documentation left unresolved questions. In her account of an investigation by a team of US scientists in 1992 - "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak" - Jeanne Guillemin addresses the mystery of what really happened during that tragic event in Sverdlovsk.
Anthrax is a virulent and deadly bacteria whose spores can remain in soil for as long as seventy years, killing grazing animals and putting humans in jeopardy of eating infected meat. Contemporary concern is more centred on anthrax as an airborne biological weapon whose inhaled spores can result in ninety percent mortality for those infected.
As part of a team of doctors and researchers, Jeanne Guillemin travelled to Russia in 1992 to determine the cause and extent of the epidemic. Her affecting narrative transforms a case of epidemiological investigation into a politically charged mystery. What helps here – and I must admit that I was worried that this hefty book might prove to be heavy going – is that Guillemin is an anthropologist, rather than a biologist. Her concern in the investigation is to talk to the survivors of the outbreak, to build up a picture of the movements of the victims and also their daily living in order to identify any patterns. Thus, through her interviews with residents of 1990s Yekaterinburg, we gain a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary people from before and after “Perestroika”.
She also creates a vivid sense of immediacy and drama with her insider's account of the team's investigative work—the analysis of pathology photos and slides, meetings with political and public health officials, the retrieval of essential medical data—and candidly reveals the subjective side of science as she conducts interviews with afflicted families, visits sites, and interacts with those suspected of clouding the truth.
And indeed, there are many of the ‘old guard’ of the Communist era here who toe the official line of tainted meat as the source of the outbreak – rather than the more controversial possibility of an accidental emission from a nearby military compound (Compound 19). This despite, the seeming contradiction of then President Boris Yeltsin - who was party official of Sverdlovsk during the outbreak - awarding pensions to relatives of the victims in the 1990s.
Guillemin however, is even-handed in her accounts of these former Soviet scientists and their motives. As she says of one: “Burgasov is completely of the old Soviet order, an anachronism, an old bear hiding in the woods. Whether or not he really knew what was going on at Compound 19, he did not break rank…. When he... presented the official Soviet explanation of the outbreak, he probably believed everything he said.” Guillemin displays none of the potential arrogance she may have shown as a Western scientist coming to examine a bacterial disaster in a former Cold War enemy. Indeed, she is equally open in acknowledging both the lack on concrete understanding of anthrax in the West, and also the Western nations’ own frequent flagrant disregard of international law regarding biological weaponry research.
It is this scientific impartiality, coupled with her anthropologist’s focus on the human element of this outbreak, that makes this such a fascinating account. Whilst expounding on the necessary scientific detail of the outbreak – crucially the difference in symptoms between gastrointestinal (i.e. through tainted meat) and inhalatory (i.e. through airborne spores) - Guillemin is always concerned about the human and the social context of the outbreak: both in the 1970s and in the 1990s of the investigation. It is here that we get a sense of what life like for ordinary people (many victims were factory workers or small holders) in this major Russian city – both in the Soviet-era 1970s and the early 1990s of “Perestroika”.
Often the tale is of people living simple but harsh lives, and whose emotional pain at the loss of loves is balanced by a sense of impotence in the face of the government machine. Guillemin and her translator are often reduced to tears during these accounts.
Perhaps one of the most poignant elements of this book is a series of photos, taken from the graves of outbreak victims (it is traditional in Russia to add photos to gravestones), The black and white images of these individuals stare out from the page, one by one, frozen in time yet actively reminding us that this is no dry academic investigation. This is an attempt to find out who or what is responsible of over 60 deaths of individuals by a deadly virus, leaving a generation of bereaved relatives without answers. Guillemin proves an excellent narrator to guide us through this process: “I think of the 1979 anthrax outbreak as an obscenity, the deaths themselves brutal and unnecessary, the handling of them a ritual of degradation for the families and friends of these victims”.
Ultimately - as Guillemin herself acknowledges – conclusions are reached, but there is no sense of victory here. From what pathological evidence remains from the KGB purge in the 1970s, and through triangulating the pattern of victims’ whereabouts with wind dispersal during the outbreak period, the evidence that an accidental outbreak of airborne anthrax virus from the military Compound 19 is the cause. Yet it is apparent that there is no official appetite to hold anyone to account for this – and it is notable that the one place that the scientists are unable to gain access to is Compound 19 itself. Even Yeltsin’s offer of pensions to victims’ families remain unpaid at the time of writing.
And so, a pyrrhic victory of sorts – although in publishing her account Guillemin at least gives voice to these victims. For the purposes of my journey, she also casts light on a little known, yet still contentious, part of the former Soviet Union.
Whilst normally I would describe my onward to journey to my next destination at this point, there is no need in this case; for I am already here, in Yekaterinburg. The next step of my trip is actually a journey across the vast expanses of Siberia, which will take me from the Western fringes of the Urals (commencing in Yekaterinburg) through to the Far Eastern outposts of Russia, courtesy of Colin Thubron’s acclaimed travelogue: “In Siberia”...