National Geographic : 2002 Nov
Rufov, only a few former employees have ever gone to work abroad. Chief among them was Stepnogorsk's onetime director, a Kazakh named Kanatjan Alibekov. A Soviet army physician and biologist, Alibekov fled to the United States in 1992 and filled the government's ear with chilling stories about the Soviet bioweapons program. His crowning achievement had been the perfection of Anthrax 836, the U.S.S.R.'s most power ful weapons-grade anthrax, four times more deadly than its predecessor. Made operational in 1987, it is an extremely fine, silky, grayish brown powder that can drift invisibly for miles. Today, his name Americanized to Ken Alibek, he is chief scientist at a biodefense company in northern Virginia, as well as a professor of microbiology at a local university. The day I visited Alibek in his office, he looked like most American academics, wearing a black turtleneck and skimming a research grant application. As eventually happens to some defectors, Ali bek has been chided by his former CIA handlers for exaggerating information in an attempt to enhance his value. Yet when I asked him about former Soviet bioweaponeers now working abroad, his reply was matter-of-fact. "Most are in Russia," he said in heavily accented English. "Some are here in the U.S.; a few are in Europe and Asia. There may be a couple in Iran, but if so, we're not talking big numbers. Very few." But, he added, "A few is all it takes." If, in fact, unemployed former Soviet spe cialists are giving in to temptation, Russians charge that Americans must accept a piece of the blame. "The Americans were in a great hurry to destroy," Rufov said bitterly as he showed Lynn and me Alibek's old facility back in Kazakhstan. "But now that it's time to rebuild, they're dragging their feet. Our people can't wait much longer." Rufov led us through the ruins of the for mer anthrax factory-ten sprawling, white, con crete buildings on the scale of a Detroit auto plant. First we pulled disposable white cover alls and respirators over our parkas, since there still could be faint traces of anthrax inside. "The construction is extraordinary," Rufov said, pride evident in his deep voice, as we climbed the stairs of Building 221, the main structure, a hundred feet high and two foot ball fields long. We stepped gingerly around shattered beakers, yellowed magazines and safety manuals, and drained vodka bottles. "No government could afford this today," said Rufov. "Of course, 90 percent of Soviet in dustry was connected with the military. That's what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union."