book reviews

State Secrets
An insider's chronicle of the Russian chemical weapons program by Vil S. Mirzayanov
Outskirts, 2009, 604 pages


V il Sultanovich Mirzayanov is not a Russian, but a Tatar who worked in the Soviet Union at GOSNIIOKhT, a research laboratory in Moscow, where substance 33 (O-isobutyl-S-2-diethylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate), a thiolester-based nerve agent known in the West as R-VX, was studied and developed. Mirzayanov was an analytical chemist who developed gas chromatographic methods for analyzing trace concentrations of chemical nerve agents.

The USSR continued to produce tons of these deadly chemicals for years after America abandoned its chemical weapons program. Their attempts to design a binary weapon similar to those invented years earlier by the Americans eventually led to the creation in the early 1970s of a series of compounds known generically as Novichok, which are phosphonofluoridate-type organophosphorus compounds that are supposedly ten times more toxic than VX. According to Mirzayanov, plans for large-scale production of one variant of Novichok, A-230, continued until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Another variant, an organophosphate code-named A-232, was developed into a binary agent named Khoryok. Weaponization of Khoryok was moved forward by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, shortly after he signed the Wyoming Memorandum on chemical disarmament with the United States. Gorbachev awarded the Lenin Prize to Victor Petrunin, whose subordinates invented the Substance 33 binary nerve agent, in 1991. Production and testing of chemical weapons, says Mirzayanov, continued after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Federation signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and ratified it in 1997.

Mirzayanov's description of the corruption and infighting in the GOSNIIOKhT laboratory, with incompetent administrators, territorial lab directors, fraud, and browbeating and stealing the work of junior scientists, will be familiar to any American scientist in today's academia or industry. Corruption and willful incompetence are SOP for any human endeavor in the process of being run into the ground. But the incompetence was compounded by the totalitarian culture in Russia, their legendary fondness for alcohol, and the backward conditions in the laboratories, where some of the scientists and other workers developing these compounds tragically died. He calls the lab a sharashka (science prison), but it's not clear from his description that it really was one.

Mirzayanov doesn't reveal any particular bombshells in this book, nor does he express any strong political opinions or emotions. He reveals (p.130) that the KGB tried to assassinate Aleksander Solzhenitsyn with ricin and speculates that Iraq may have been producing Substance 33 that could have escaped detection by the Americans, who were looking for sarin and VX. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Mirzayanov began to reveal details of its chemical weapons program to the press, and in 1992 he was prosecuted for revealing state secrets. He writes contemptuously of his co-author Lev Fedorov, saying that Fedorov was not a specialist in chemical weapons. Thanks to Mirzayanov, the existence of binary nerve agents and Novichok, and the continued production of nerve gas by the Soviet Union, became widely known in the West. This book is essentially the autobiography of a research chemist working in an ordinary institute where career survival and office politics trump science, and whose mission statement just happens to include the phrase "finding new ways to slaughter vast numbers of people."

 feb 21, 2010

Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism
by Ion Mihai Pacepa and Ronald Rychlak


V ladimir Lenin once said that morality for the Bolsheviks was whatever furthered their interests. So when it was in their interest to spread false stories about someone, they had no compunctions against doing so.

For some reason, these false stories are often naïvely accepted as true in the West. Despite wishful thinking in some quarters, Romania was firmly in the Soviet camp. This became even more clear after Ion Mihai Pacepa, a two-star general in Romania's espionage service, the Securitate, defected to the West. His book Red Horizons played a major role in bringing down Ceauşescu.

This book makes the following claims:

This book is generally well written and well researched, and parts of it read like a spy novel. However, the title is misleading. This book does not reveal any secret strategies, and it's also not a history of Cold War disinformation. Its focus is almost exclusively on the slandering of Pope Pius XII by the KGB. As terrible as that may be to Catholics, it was only a footnote in the colossal struggle between superpowers. These charges never gained much traction except among those already predisposed to animosity toward the Church.

The authors' case is weakened by their lack of access to KGB archives. Most of the citations are to Western newspaper articles, web pages, and magazine articles. There's a world of difference between quoting something from the Weekly Standard, Wikipedia, or the New York Times, which may have been compromised by the very disinformation the authors discuss, and using information from the KGB itself to prove that the KGB was behind it.

Contrast this with The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive, by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which was based on reams of documents smuggled out of the Soviet Union. This is the type of information we need to make the claims in this book stick. They're important enough to have been worth the effort. Too bad the authors didn't try.

 feb 08, 2014