When the 1979 Anthrax outbreak hit, the stoic population of Chkalovskiy made no public accusations. It’s officials and health care workers and its local residents seem to have weathered the storm and then retreated to routine. No activists protested. No physicians or epidemiologists used their expertise to raise public concern about risk possibilities [1]

0 2 2 – the international code for Anthrax

In 1979 I used to imagine how a nuclear explosion would sound. I knew what it would look like at least in black and white – our house didn’t have a colour television back then – and you could see the occasional mushroom cloud on the News or on a drama or documentary. True there was kind of crackling crescendo from the television report but the sound I struggled to properly imagine. It turns out most of these were doctored so that the explosion and sound of the explosion would be in sync. In reality a camera and recording equipment stationed a half mile away would pick up the audio of the blast well after the visuals of the explosion as light moves faster than sound. You can get a very sketchy idea of this from a grainy black and wide filming of the ANNIE nuclear test in 1953 in the USA. [2] Interestingly one of the commentators, Nevaros58, under the video claims that:

‘This particular test occurred three years before I entered the business as a young electronics tech, however I witnessed many more tests over the years, both done above and below ground.  All of my experiences were either from the primary science or data acquisition bunkers.  I can tell you that even with literally feet of borated concrete between me and the blast wave, I swear I could feel the light passing through my very soul and it made a sound inside my body like a ripping tearing scream.  Never got used to that feeling. Everybody I talked to seemed to experience it in a different way.  I can’t explain it any further than that.  So just chalk it up to the ramblings of an old mad man not long for this world.’  [3]

We can all picture the apocalypse but it isn’t as easy to imagine what it sounds like or smells like (maybe like sulphur – Catholic upbringing!) so it perhaps makes sense that people would experience it differently. I’d heard explosions locally throughout my first decade, a dull iron thud followed by a break in conversation or a pause in whatever a person was doing or sharper and clearer if nearer and a sense of fear and momentarily panic. I think I imagined it as a kind of all-encompassing tearing of the fabric of time and space (hey, I was an imaginative kid and a Doctor Who fan) and something so grandly unnatural and wrong that the universe retched in response.

Of course this curiosity towards a nuclear apocalypse could have been a natural response to the Northern Ireland (and the world) at the end of the 1970s. Everything then seemed to be all or nothing. The Troubles saw a fight for a United Ireland or an equally mythic United Kingdom and any compromises failed completely. Even in the micro world of the personal, children were forced to sit an exam where their entire future was potentially shaped in a few hours. I failed the 11-Plus and developed a healthy suspicion of the ‘all or nothing’ attitude. It did however shape my tastes in art and music.

Part of the rationale behind the Abridged is for it to be a kind of overwhelming amalgam of text, art and design in the way that a great concert (at least from my perspective) is a mix of loud music, smoke, lights and sweaty bodies. If it’s possible to recreate that in magazine format I wanted to try. Of course it can’t be denied that shaping this amalgam is emotion, hopefully not similar to the current emotional responses that led to Brexit and the rise of Trump that uses self-harm as a means of articulating helplessness and anger but it is always essential to question yourself and not believe even your own propaganda emanating from even the world you’ve created.

Strangely what the Abridged did anticipate was the ability and rise of societal self-harm in which a new logic replaces reason when reason fails to be enough. That does sound slightly pompous and maybe a bit of a pretentious thing for a poetry/art magazine to claim. Looking back however over our editorials written by Susanna Galbraith, Maria Finch and on occasion myself from 2004 onwards it was clear that there was a distrust of the ‘crowd’. Abridged 0 – 3: Romance and Assassination’s Editorial claims (in a somewhat overwrought manner but still) that the issue was about ‘stupidity, pseudo-mythologies, unspeak and wilful cupidity’. This was in 2005/06. In Abridged 0 – 21: Magnolia the editorial discusses emotional numbness and the ‘reality that we are never ready to swallow’. Later the editorials in our Dante trilogy would be even more explicit in explore the crowd’s fear of the crowd. From our Floodland issue:

In the human narrative, the flood is the greatest transformation, the one eclipsing trauma. It is the climax of a total saturation in which we are overwhelmed, uprooted and undone. The great mindless muscle of the flood confirms that our glimmer is miniscule, our little light so easily engulfed. All floods are mindless, and fully charged with the violence of mindlessness. This is the essence of our terror.

Of course we do deliberately generalise and emphasise the almost gothic aspect to all this. The 1979 project is in a sense to attempt to explain some of the thinking behind the Abridged project but focus instead on specific (and sometimes rather obscure) incidents that could potentially have changed how we experience and see the world. One such occurred in the Soviet Union…

Once upon a time in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk, now known as Ekaterinburg in a military establishment given the starkly functional name of Compound 19 someone didn’t make sure that the air filtration system was operating properly. A clogged air filter had not been replaced after being removed for repair. Now this probably wouldn’t have mattered that much except that Compound 19 was part of a biological weapons research facility that was supposed to be shut down as a result of the international Biological Weapons Convention. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction, came into force on 26 March 1975.[4]  Of course, whilst publicly adhering to it the USSR and very probably the USA and GB continued to experiment with modes of biological warfare. An indication of this is that in 1997 with the introduction of the Chemical Weapons Convention the US declared that it had over 27,000 metric tonnes of chemical weapons which they promised to destroy by 2012. They haven’t. They and Russia were given an extension. Both countries are suspicious of each other’s compliance with international treaties and accuse each other of breaching agreements. [5]

Even though they had just signed the BTWC, the Soviet Union established Biopreparat, a gigantic biowarfare project that, at its height, employed more than 50,000 people in various research and production centres and so it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Compound 19 was engaged in illegal biological activities. [6]

So it was on 02nd April 1979 that something escaped from Compound 19 into the surrounding atmosphere. That something was a cloud of Anthrax spores of the strain of B. anthracis. [7]

Anthrax is a disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that forms spores. A bacterium is a very small organism made up of one cell. Many bacteria can cause disease. A spore is a cell that is dormant (asleep) but may come to life with the right conditions. Anthrax is not contagious. It can’t be passed from person to person. There are three types of anthrax: skin (cutaneous), lungs (inhalation) and digestive (gastrointestinal). Inhalation Anthrax has usually two stages: Stage one can last from hours to a few days. Symptoms may resemble a cold or the flu, and can include fever, chills, sweating, fatigue, malaise, headache, cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain; Stage two often develops suddenly. Symptoms include fever, severe shortness of breath, and shock.

The cloud drifted downwards of Compound 19 making people and animals ill and eventually killing at least 64 people. If it had drifted north towards the centre of town hundreds or even thousands could have been killed. Many people in the town actually had little or no idea that a deadly outbreak had occurred in the countryside to the south of them.

It was probably just plain luck (though obviously not from the victims’ perspective) that the wind was blowing the way it was. For example, a ‘1970 analysis by Whole Health Organization concluded that the release of aerosolized anthrax upwind to a population of 5,000,000 could lead to an estimated 250,000 casualties, of whom as many as 100,000 could be expected to die. A later analysis, by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress, estimated that 130,000 to 3 million death could occur following the release of 100 kilograms of aerosolized anthrax over Washington D.C., making such an attack as lethal as a hydrogen bomb.’ [8]

The Soviet government claimed that the outbreak had been cause by tainted meat:

‘In March – April 1979 in the area of Sverdlovsk there did in fact occur an ordinary outbreak of anthrax among animals, which arose from natural causes, and there were cases where people contracted an intestinal form of the infection as a result from eating meat from cattle which was sold against the regulations established by the veterinary inspectorate….However, this incident has no bearing on the question of compliance by the USSR with the Convention on the Prohibition of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons.‘ [9]

Sick animals, for example those suffering from the deadly Foot and Mouth disease as Moscow officials very probably knew can cause panic and would be a useful in covering up what had occurred or if not covering up sounding like a reasonable excuse to the outside world.  Of course this was still a number of years before Glasnost and the Soviets were still paranoid about revealing the truth of things.

Another incident in 1979 gives a (very gloomy) indication of this. In May of that year the River Ob flooded its riverbanks in the town of Kolpashevo in Siberia. A mass of human bones and beneath them bodies were revealed. Many of them were still recognisable, the cold having preserved them. Local people knew many of them, dressed as they were when they disappeared decades before. They were all victims of Stalin’s secret police, accused of something spurious and murdered. As more and more bodies appeared the KGB moved in. The New York Times reported that: ‘the K.G.B. quickly fenced off the site. Special crews worked in relays for some two weeks to destroy all traces of the grave itself. The authorities at first vaguely claimed that these might be cattle bones. Then, fooling nobody, they announced that these were the bones of World War II deserters.’ [10]

If Post-Truth had a precursor in this tragedy it could be the Russian concept of ‘vranyo’ which has been explained as ‘You know that I’m lying, and I know that you know that I know you know, but I go ahead with a straight face and you nod seriously and take notes.’ [11] Vranyo is essentially the verbal presentation of non-facts (or alternative facts) as truth. Soviet bureaucrats were particularly adept at this. As one Russian author, Elena Gorokhova put it: “In Russia we played the vranyo game on a daily basis. The government lied to us, we knew they were lying, they knew we knew they were lying, but they kept lying anyway and we pretended to believe them.  There was a joke: “They pretend they pay us and we pretend we work.” It was ingrained in the system.” [12]

The local communities (and the world) were told that it was infected meat that was responsible for the outbreak of disease yet local people wonder how this was so when they often ate their own healthy stock. One widow of a worker that had died was ridiculed for feeding her husband ‘bad meat’.

It has been suggested that ‘vranyo’ was a way of enlivening the drabness of totalitarianism which would accord with our ‘Post-Truth’ era that lies and conspiracy theories brighten up the harshness of the daily grind. Everything evolves.[13]  A game of fibs eventually grows up to be a game of lies which eventually leads to the concept of truth being eaten away as no-one believes anything and chooses the lie that fits their world-view.

It has also been posited that ‘tactical deception’ is a way of ensuring cooperation rather than a lie for purely self-interest. In fact tactical deception grew as human cooperation developed.  [14] It is true that a world where we face up to absolute ‘truth’ without even a hint of self-deception would probably mean a permanent morning-after hangover that would see not able to make it out of bed.

At any rate perhaps ‘the truth’ gets worn out much in the same way Plato suggested that democracies that have an ‘excessive zeal for freedom’ eventually succumb to a negative populism or the smack of hard or even totalitarian government. Plato though living in an Athenian society ‘where’ only around twenty percent (and not women) of the population were eligible to vote had a distrust of a ‘people power’ which would make ‘democratic’ decisions without due thought or process which ended up with the innocent being executed. For example: ‘During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after another until only one remained. It was only after nine men were dead, that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.’ [15]

Plato considered that a charismatic person without any skills other than their eloquence could convince a crowd of the ‘truth’ of a subject better than an expert. We can see that still today in the US elections and the Brexit referendum. Of course it has to be noted that the perfect ‘state’ would be one ruled by a philosopher that cared for the soul of the individual/nation i.e. essentially someone like him ruling as a kind of wise benevolent dictator.

This ‘wearing out of truth’ is evident in a society where truth or expert opinion ceases to matter. Lies are used to muddy the water, to confirm prejudice and an us v them dynamic. Where once an untruth (in some countries at least) that was caught out as not being factual would result in perhaps a demotion or resignation the landscape has now changed so that lies are now essentially like self-deception. We identify emotionally with a particular position and even if that position is shown to be false or inaccurate we convince ourselves otherwise.  Of course it is a good thing that the once official grand narrative voice of the government and press has now been for the most part dismantled and the excluded given a voice. The trouble is that ‘the fragmentation of news sources has created an atomised world in which lies, rumour and gossip spread with alarming speed. Lies that are widely shared online within a network, whose members trust each other more than they trust any mainstream-media source, can quickly take on the appearance of truth. Presented with evidence that contradicts a belief that is dearly held, people have a tendency to ditch the facts first.’ [16] Perhaps part of Plato’s ‘excessive zeal for freedom’ means that theories that have been long discredited or disproved are now given equal validation. For example the legitimising of creationist thought (by even mentioning it!) at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland gave the perception that biblical interpretation of geology etc. are as legitimate as scientific fact: ‘Creationists believe the stones, which emerged from the sea-bed following intense volcanic and geological activity 60 million years ago, were in fact formed around 4,500 years ago as a result of Noah’s Flood’ which was after considerable outcry was amended to ‘however, not everyone agrees with the scientific view. There are some people who believe – often for religious reasons – that the earth was formed more recently: thousands of years ago rather than billions.’ [17] This attempt at ‘fairness’ often skews the picture and can have disastrous consequences. For example whilst over 95 percent of scientists accept that Global Warming occurs politicians who for religious or commercial interests don’t believe in it use the small percentage that deny it for their own purposes and as a result these are given on occasion equal media airtime. This muddies the water so that people see competing theories instead very much minority ones which can potentially have devastating consequences for the environment.

It all plays into our fear. As Anthony Giddens, a sociologist argued that whilst the quality of life has been improved and technology has prolonged our lives with more efficient sanitation, manufacturing and transportation our sense of fear and paranoia has not been decreased but has pitched to a new level – away from loneliness, isolation and starvation to pollution, fear of immigration and over consumption. [18] Persons and societies are swayed by key events and actions but how are these measured in a world where truth is so mistrusted and what is the outcome of this uncertainty?  (Ibid. P88)

Anyways back to 1979. It is highly likely that some infected animals were eaten – the animals being infected by the airborne cloud – and a broadsheet was distributed to the local community on 18th April 1979 warning against contact with animals and describing the symptoms of the disease.

The first victims were taken to Hospitals 20 and 24 but after a few days Hospital 40 was devoted to the epidemic. Disease is no respecter of authoritarianism and indeed can be a sign of weakness in the State apparatus. It’s no surprise that Moscow tried to ensure that it had the outbreak under control through firstly lying about the cause and then trying to control the local medical and official response to it. Sepsis is written on many of the victims’ death certificates. It isn’t surprising that some locals, even in the medical professions were convinced there was something nefarious (even more so than anthrax based chemical weapon production) going on including a suggestion that a lethal bacterial agent that struck down certain types of people, for example, those of a military age has been released. [19]

Local people no longer believed (if they ever did) in the Soviet ‘realism’ which arguably stretched beyond the artistic sphere emphasizing “the sight of a healthy body, intelligent face or friendly smile was essentially life-enhancing.” [20] Though this ‘Socialist Realism’ was foremost concerned with artistic endeavours it was tied up in the creation of the perfect Soviet Man (and Woman) and people dying of an unknown (or very probably completely known by those in Moscow) bacterial agent released even by accident punctured the Soviet mythos.

Soviet involvement in Afghanistan had been a recurrent (if openly covert) feature throughout the 1970s and it would come to a head in 1979. The previous year saw coup and counter-coup took place until Moscow decided it had to intervene and on Christmas Day 1979 it invaded and named a Soviet sympathiser as President in Kabul. This perhaps could be seen as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and the start of the (contemporary at least) disasters that would befall Afghanistan that lasts until today as the USSR and USA fought a proxy war in it.

If reality killed the Sixties dream at Altamont in 1969 the decade that followed was a dark sobriety, a hangover that made the world angrier and sore. Perhaps suitably Afghanistan had been part of the hippie grand tour where people would go (along with the likes of India) to find themselves.

It started in the 1950/60s. Young people from Europe and America hit the region:

some sought spiritual enlightenment, some were escaping from a rigid conventional lifestyle, some saw opportunities for profit, and some just wanted to see the world. They all had a sense of adventure, but not all of them could be described as hippies – many were simply keen to explore the overland route to the east, first blazed by Marco Polo.

But from the late 1960s onwards the largest contingent, united by a common interest, were the young people with long hair who gave the hippie trail its name – and what defined the hippie trail was that it led to the major hashish-producing centres of the world.

Afghanistan, Chitral, Kashmir, Nepal – familiar names to the pot-smokers of the sixties and seventies, most of whom knew very little else about the countries where their herb of choice was cultivated. But for the next ten years or so they set off in their thousands to look for it. [21]

The come-down that was the 1970s saw the end of the hippie trail. The original or ‘classic’ hippie trail came to an end in 1979, when Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeneini in Iran (who would not be a fan of the hippie ideal it is probably fair to say) and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan closed the traditionally used route to western travellers. Lebanon had already fragmented and collapsed into civil war, Kashmir became very militarized and dangerous due to tensions in the area, and even Nepal eventually lost its peace and tranquillity.

Altamont and the descent of the hippie dream into violence at home in the USA seemed to kill the 1960s ‘peace and love’ mythos so it is perhaps appropriate that war and a real revolution in 1979 would end a (if it is even possible to use the phrase) naive colonialism based on drugs, sex and adventure that middle and upper-class rebellious youth had counted as a type of ‘real’ life experience.

Of course it is very possible that the citizens in Sverdlovsk were completely unaware of the hippie trail. Counter-culture, especially that of a Western pop/rock music nature was at best actively discouraged and at worse persecuted in the USSR. Abridged would explore this in its ‘Why is it always December?’ exhibition and magazine in 2016 when it featured the X-Ray Audio project which documented the ‘bone vinyl’ phenomena in which music by the Beatles etc was smuggled into the Soviet Union and reproduced on old X-Ray photographs. All local people knew was that something had escaped from the military compound and people were dying because of it.

And they died. The Soviet Union got into a mess in Afghanistan and that war overshadowed much else. And it wasn’t until many years later that responsibility was unofficially admitted. There was talk of Boris Yelsin ordering that the victims’ families received a pension though it is doubtful if that happened.

It wasn’t until 2016 using ‘deep sequencing’ that what something (i.e. what strain of anthrax) had been released was figured out by Western scientists. ‘Deep sequencing refers to sequencing a genomic region multiple times, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of times. This next-generation sequencing (NGS) approach allows researchers to detect rare clonal types, cells, or microbes comprising as little as 1% of the original sample.’ [22] Presumably those in Compound 19 knew but they weren’t telling. The project used deep sequencing to discover if the Anthrax strain had been altered to make it for example more deadly or more difficult to detect:

Two autopsy specimens from the Sverdlovsk outbreak were deep sequenced by anthrax expert Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, USA and colleagues to produce draft B. anthracis genomes. This allowed the phylogenetic placement of the Sverdlovsk strain into a clade with two Asian live vaccine strains, including the Russian Tsiankovskii strain. The genome was examined for evidence of drug resistance manipulation or other genetic engineering, but none was found. It is of course none the less deadly for being a comparatively ordinary strain of the virus. [23]

The strain that the scientists found “is very closely related to other domesticated strains that have been used by the Soviets and Chinese as vaccine strains,” Keim says. [24] The value of identifying the particular strain that escaped from Compound 19, apart from scientific/historical curiosity, is that it will allow scientists to tell whether any future anthrax outbreak came from a leftover Soviet weapon or some other source. [25]

So why should an anthrax outbreak in an obscure part of the Soviet Union in 1979 matter almost forty years later? Why should it even be recalled? Well firstly both Russia and the USA still have large stockpiles of biological weaponry and though both claim to be destroying it have not make their internationally agreed deadlines to do so. Indeed both have accused each other of illegal biological-chemical experimentation. The Abridged Mercury Red issue took its title from a mythic explosive invented by either the Soviets or the American depending on which version of the myth you believe:

Smugglers on the black-market claim that if Red Mercury is real, it will be attracted to gold but repelled by garlic, and that different colours of the same substance can even increase sexual potency. It is even claimed that old Soviet sewing machines contain tiny caches of the substance and you can harvest it from old workshops. [26]

Very probably a terrorist group (certain regimes inevitably are sadly already doing so – Syria for instance) will eventually at some stage use bio-chemical material in an attack on a major town or city and in an era in which facts are no longer necessarily the same as the ‘truth’ it is important that we recognise a responsibility to try and find a way out of conspiracy and innuendo and establish some authenticity. It’s easier said than done – what would we have said or down publicly after the Compound 19 outbreak? Very little probably as we would have feared for our own and our family’s safety. The internet and social media though helpful in quick reaction to a crisis is also a mire of subjectivity and bile. Who would have thought 140 characters could be filled with such anger? Most of us sadly probably. We’ve been writing lies and abuse for ever. The walls of ancient Italy were filled with friendly and often abusive (and sometimes funny) graffiti. There were even inspirational messages. Facebook and Twitter were probably hanging around for centuries waiting to be invented. Of course:

‘“Writing your name on a [physical] wall is both a way of getting noticed but it’s also somewhat transgressive,” said Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. But in order to get noticed online, where everyone can and is supposed to write on walls, you have to do more than mark down your own name and the date. The pressure, then, is to be more provocative, Donath told me. And an arms race for provocation in a world where there are more than 7,000 tweets published every second tends to debase civility pretty quickly. [27]

Everyone has a story and everyone wanted to be heard throughout history. Today there are so many stories (7000 tweets ever second!) that can’t possibly ever be heard – they build up like water exploding in anger over some incident or opinion. And whilst it is of course great that everyone has the means of expressing themselves the inaccuracy and downright lies when used by regimes or demagogues are used to muddy the water. Global Warming – an elitist conspiracy etc. etc. When it gets to the point where it doesn’t matter when those in power lie the consequences are dire for the rest of us and for the planet.


[1] Anthrax, The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, Jeanne Guillemin, University of California Press, 2001, P110.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_nLNcEbIC8&feature=youtu.be

[3] Ibid

[4] https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/bio/

[5] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/cbwprolif

[6] Alibek & Handelman, 1999 – quoted in https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1326439/

[7] https://www.asm.org/index.php/journal-press-releases/94593-researchers-sequence-genome-from-1979-russian-anthrax-outbreak

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3436101/

[9] Anthrax, The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, Jeanne Guillemin, University of California Press, 2001, P8.

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/28/magazine/the-secret-of-a-siberian-river-bank.html?pagewanted=all

[11] (ibid, P54)

[12] http://elenagorokhova.com/elena-4/a-conversation-with-elena-gorokhova/

[13] Hingley 1978

[14] Cooperation creates selection for tactical deception Luke McNally, Andrew L. Jackson, 2013, http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1762/20130699

[15] http://classicalwisdom.com/plato-and-the-disaster-of-democracy/

[16] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21706525-politicians-have-always-lied-does-it-matter-if-they-leave-truth-behind-entirely-art

[17] https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/the-national-trust-excises-creationism-at-the-giants-causeway-exhibit/

[18] Anthrax, The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, Jeanne Guillemin, University of California Press, 2001, P87.

[19] ibid P143

[20] Ellis, Andrew. Socialist Realisms: Soviet Painting 1920–1970. Skira Editore S.p.A., 2012, p. 21

[21] http://www.richardgregory.org.uk/history/hippie-trail.htm

[22] https://www.illumina.com/technology/next-generation-sequencing/deep-sequencing.html

[23] Ibid

[24] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/anthrax-genome-reveals-secrets-about-soviet-bioweapons-accident

[25] Ibid

[26] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/magazine/the-doomsday-scam.html?_r=0

[27] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/03/adrienne-was-here/475719/)