Book Review, Ken Alibek’s Biohazard (Avoiding

Here is an explanation of why I’m posting a class paper here. Basically, I’m circumventing ethically. Enjoy!

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This work is in the Public Domain.

Jessica Dickinson Goodman
Dr Barth
5 April 2010
We Are Threatened
Ken Alibek wants you to know that the United States is in danger of biological attack from the progeny of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons program. As the former deputy administrator of that Biopreparat, a covert biological weapons organization within the Soviet Union, he was privy to near two decades of biological weapons research and development. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World—Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It is equal parts portrait of Soviet bureaucracy at the end of the 20th century, introduction to the science of biological warfare, and personal-branding exercise. Full of anecdotes designed to shock American readers, the author traces his rise to the top of Russia’s secret military bioweapons program, his reflections along the way, and what it means for America today.

Alibek bookends his career with an ethical quandary: how can a doctor oath-bound to protect life research weapons of mass destruction? In the 17 years he worked for Biopreparat, a covert biological weapons group in the Soviet government, this question rarely bothered him. But as a young infectious disease researcher deciding on a career-path and as a mature administrator considering defection to the Unites States, he found it troubling. It is his journey to this last phase of his life, during the time from 1988 to 1992 that he served as the first deputy chief of Biopreparat, that he focuses his memoir.

Alibek draws liberally from the political thriller genre in his attempt to convince his audience of the danger of Biopreparat’s legacy. In a particularly harrowing chapter, he describes the agonizing death of a colleague who accidentally injected himself with a lethal, rare filovirus related to Ebola[1]. The man, a scientist named Dmritry Ustinov researching at Biopreparat’s base in Siberia, stuck himself with a needle as he tried to inject a guinea pig with Marburg. After three horrific weeks in a military hospital bed where his organs slowly liquefied, Ustinov dies.

Before his funeral, [s]amples of Marburg taken from Ustinov’s organs after his autopsy differed slightly from the original strain. Further testing showed that they new variation was much more powerful and stable.

No one needed to debate the next step. Orders went out immediately to replace the old strain with the new, which was called, in a move that the wry Ustinov might have appreciated, “Variant U.”[2]

The coldness of this passage is striking. Seemingly implicit in Alibek’s sterile description of the use of a colleagues dead tissue to fabricate more effective biological agents is a criticism of the system which he served. Though providing his American readers with an adventurous exploration of off-limits Soviet industries is his primary narrative goal, a secondary one is to caution those states seeking biological weapons about their potential domestic devastation.

Alibek argues that the Soviet system stifled scientific inquiry, funded wrong-headed projects, and ruined scientists by holding them to unattainable standards of production in hazardous working environments through his descriptions of Soviet political intrigue. His titillating descriptions also keep readers engaged. After Ustinov’s death Alibek writes that he remembers hearing from some witnesses that Ustinov complained of overwork on his deathbed. Alibek supposes those rumors were created by colleagues in Siberia protesting their dangerous work-loads to Moscow in the only way they could safely. This anecdote and his larger portrayal of the Soviet bureaucrat Kalinin[3] as his antagonist support his broader condemnation of the Soviet scientific system. By highlighting industrial accidents, individual deaths and institutional killings, he hammers on his central thesis: the Soviet bioweapons program, pieces of which may still be functioning, is dangerous to the world at large.

Between office intrigue and personal aggrandizement, Alibek provides a lucid description of the foundations of biological weaponry for a lay reader. In his prologue, he says increasing public understanding of bioweaponry is one of his primary objectives[4], because he fears U.S. politicians undervalue the danger of Biopreparat’s progeny. He describes the Soviet Union’s primary biological agents, Ebola, Marburg, Anthrax, smallpox, and their smallpox-Anthrax hybrid[5]. He also describes their effects on individuals and how states might react best to them if attacked. He also includes stories like Ustinov’s as warnings for future researchers. While all of his descriptions are designed to shock and edify American readers, this reviewer has been unable to find any that are factually incorrect.

A major argument of Alibek’s piece is that Alibek was a honorable, competent and trustable man in a dysfunctional organization and society. He is constantly distancing himself from the choices he and his colleagues made[6], and highlighting moments when he went against the grain of his organization[7]. Whether in bid for more influence in the United States, as a narrative device to give the readers a clear protagonist, or for vanity’s sake alone, Alibek writes a simple, triumphant narrative for his life. Perhaps Alibek’s intended audience is more interested in James Bond or Indiana Joneses than Jean-Luc Picard or Dr Who. Perhaps Stephen Handelman, Alibek’s coauthor and probable ghost-writer, thought an aggressively-simple portrait of Alibek’s mental journey would help engage the reader in the minutiae of biological weaponry and Soviet internal politics. Perhaps it is also an exercise in personal branding—by making his competence the highlight of the piece with a narrow interest in any failures, Alibek may be writing for the admiration of his peers. Or perhaps it is for the vanity of an old man.

Alibek’s evidence that Biopreparat’s legacy is a threat to the United States appears strong. He spends his first 20 chapters building up the destructive potential of Biopreparat’s products but drops the real bomb, so to speak, in the final chapter. His opinion when the book was published in 1999 was that the United States would be unable to withstand an attack from any of the Soviet biological weapons or weapons designed by their now-unemployed scientists[8]. The U.S. cannot treat the diseases of more than 30% of weaponizable biological agents[9], the emergency responses of its most prepared cities are woefully inadequate[10], and its national stockpile of smallpox vaccinations could barely cover the 7 million people of New York City[11]. It is also not clear that covert biological weapons development has ceased in either modern Russia or the former Soviet republics. When Alibek was moving his family to Kazakhstan after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he was aggressively recruited to help manage Stepnogorsk[12], a formerly Soviet bioweapons equipment facility now within the borders of Kazakhstan[13]. That former Soviet republics were seeking biological weapons using the same facilities the Soviets concealed for decades is justification enough for Alibek’s stern warning to the world to beware their destructive potential. However, Alibek’s policy prescription—increased funding of nonspecific immunity research[14]—seems oddly out of place for a man who appears to have stopped daily lab-work in the late 1970s.

Alibek’s stark anecdotes, cliff-hanger conclusions, and obviously edited dialogue hold a lay reader’s interest while he makes the case that the United States is still threatened by the work, past or even present, of Biopreparat. But this memoir is more than a framework for a policy prescription—it is also Alibek’s attempt at self-exoneration. Again and again, to justify grotesque scenes like Ustinov’s death, Alibek tells the reader his driving motivation was a sincere desire to see the Soviet Union in the best military position possible globally. While this reviewer has not uncovered any evidence that Biohazard is less than the truth as Alibek understands it, his aggressively simple narrative style and dramatic prose leech credibility as his constant reminders of his past power boost it. Even with these structural weaknesses, his argument appears well-supported and deserves attention.


[1] Ibid, 126-132
[2] Ibid, 132.
[3] Ibid, 121.
[4] Ibid, XI.
[5] Ibid, 167.
[6] Ibid, 121.
[7] Ibid, 151.
[8] Ibid, 277.
[9] Ibid, 281.
[10] Ibid, 283.
[11] Ibid, 288.
[12] Ibid, 249.
[13] Ibid, 82-83.
[14] Ibid, 290.

Inspirational Quote:

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.
–Emily Dickinson

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