Soviets Tried So, So Hard to Eliminate the Plague

“Literally tens of thousands of people were employed to just spoon poison into the burrows.”

Two women standing with shovel
In the 1930s, the Soviets employed local women to put poison in rodent burrows (N. D. Mitrofanov / Natural Nidality of Transmissible Diseases / University of Illinois Press)

The ancestral home of the plague, most infamous for causing Europe’s Black Death, has likely always been much farther east, in Central Asia. There, it lives in rodents, such as the marmots that make their burrows in the vast, open grasslands. For thousands of years, the fleas that bite those rodents have also been biting people. There are 5,000-year-old Bronze Age skeletons in the region that contain traces of the bacteria that cause the plague.

And yet, for a few brief decades in the 20th century, the Soviet Union thought it could eradicate the plague. In that era of Five-Year Plans, tens of thousands of people were mobilized to poison rodents, spray DDT, and burn any grass that surviving animals might try to eat. It was a literal scorched-earth campaign. Officially, it “worked.”

A 1931 field camp in what is now Turkmenistan. The structure is a sleeping platform designed to decrease exposure to biting insects. (Archive of the Military Medical Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)

The Soviet anti-plague system grew from a network of facilities that began in the czarist era, when the plague was causing many small but not catastrophic outbreaks. (Scientists are still figuring out why the Black Death bacteria were so exceptionally deadly.) Later, the system took on other endemic diseases such as anthrax, and eventually started working on bioweapons. In 2002, biodefense researchers with CNS (the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies) started visiting several outposts still operating as research institutes in the former Soviet republics. That’s when they learned about a series of unofficial books titled Interesting Stories of the Activities and People of the AP System of Russia and the Soviet Union.

“AP” is shorthand for “anti-plague,” and many of the photographs and details about these efforts are only preserved in these 12 volumes. They contain scientific manuscripts, as well as more unexpected historical material: biographies, poems, sketches, lists of scientists purged for political crimes, and a meditation on “Socialism or a Just Society.” The editor, Moisey Iosifovich Levi, was a former anti-plague scientist who began compiling the series after the fall of the Soviet Union. “The idea is to shine light on the activity and people of the AP system,” he wrote in the introduction to the fifth volume, “so that it does not suffer the same fate as legendary Atlantis, which is now known only from the tales of ancient Greek historians.”

The first volume of Interesting Stories (CNS)

Levi died before the last volume was published in 2002, but indeed, these stories have been saved. CNS researchers also translated excerpts into English and donated an original copy in Russian to the Hoover Institute at Stanford. Altogether, the volumes tell a very different tale about the plague in the Soviet Union than what the country was telling the rest of the world.

Eradication began in earnest in the 1930s, as part of Soviet efforts to change the economies of the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia. To eliminate the plague, they decided to eliminate the rodents that act as a natural reservoir for the bacteria. The weapon of choice was grain mixed with poison—zinc phosphide, black cyanide, and barium fluoracetate. “Literally tens of thousands of people were employed to just spoon poison into the burrows,” says Susan D. Jones, a historian of science at the University of Minnesota who recently published about the Soviet anti-plague system in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Many of these workers were locals: women, young boys, and the otherwise unemployed. Scientists in Interesting Stories occasionally groused about their unreliability.

In addition to eradicating rodents, the Soviets also tried to eradicate fleas that spread the plague. The workers mixed insecticide with the rodent poison they put in flea-infested burrows. In the years after World War II, says Jones, surplus military trucks and airplanes also sprayed DDT over vast tracts of land. Lastly, they would burn the vegetation (so that any surviving rodents would have no food) and plow the burrows (so they would have no shelter).

Workers putting poison in rodent burrows (Interesting Stories / CNS)
Many members of the staff in the Soviet anti-plague system were women (Interesting Stories / CNS)

In 1960, Soviet scientists boasted in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization that the U.S.S.R. had not seen a case of human plague since 1928. But that was only true on paper. In reality, scientists were still responding to outbreaks. Because mandates were passed down centrally and because the fear of admitting failure was intense and legitimate, no one wanted to report one.

“Local authorities would say, ‘It’s eradicated’ or ‘We don’t have an outbreak.’ Because they ignored the outbreak, it would spread to other republics of the Soviet Union,” says Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, a biodefense researcher now at George Mason University who also coauthored the CNS reports on the Soviet anti-plague system. When the plague broke out on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for example, Kazakh scientists would try to contact their colleagues across the border, who were kept from telling the truth. But, says Ben Ouagrham-Gormley,“if they were told the colleague was on vacation, most of the time that meant he was out in the field responding to the outbreak.”

In 1998, the Russian newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) published a list of “just a few” of the plague outbreaks that had in fact happened: “Moscow, 1939; the Southern Volga-Ural Region 1945, Central Asia 1945; Caspian Sea Region-Turkmenia 1946; Astrakhan Oblast in Kazakhstan, 1947-48; Turkmenia, 1949; Central Asia, 1953, 1955, and 1958; Mount Elbrus region, 1970; Kalmykiya, 1972; Dagestan, 1975; Kalmykiya, 1979; Caspian Sea Region, 1980; Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, 1981.” In Interesting Stories, scientists wrote about their experiences responding to several of these outbreaks. “We are only in the past 10 years recovering the data for how many human cases there really were,” says Jones.

The eradication efforts didn’t work because the area was simply too big, too vast to cover with humans or airplanes. The Soviet anti-plague system had more than 100 institutes spread over 11 republics, but it still wasn’t extensive enough. Jones points out that successfully eliminating all the plague-carrying rodents in the Soviet Union would have meant wholesale ecological collapse, as many species rely on rodents for food and their burrows for shelter. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Rodents would be temporarily eliminated in an area and then come back, along with the plague.

Tent hospital for plague patients in Mongolia People’s Republic in 1948 (Interesting Stories / CNS)

Beginning in the 1960s, as reality intruded, the Soviet anti-plague system shifted from total eradication to control. The scientists knew that plague outbreaks among humans tended to follow rodent outbreaks in any local area. So they would conduct plague surveillance by systematically testing animals. If the results came back positive in an area, they would focus their efforts there. People were taught to avoid sick rodents. Patients were treated with antibiotics and quarantined. Vaccines eventually became available for people at high risk. People had to learn to live with the threat of the plague, as they had done for millennia in Central Asia.

There are still occasional cases of the plague in Central Asia today, in and around the former USSR. In Mongolia, recently, a young couple died of the plague. The culprit: an infected marmot that they had eaten raw.