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.”
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.