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Welcome to Fort Plague

Falling Rock is your source for up-to-the-minute information on the Black Death, or bubonic plague. What follows is an article from New Scientist. “Fort Plague,” a Russian fort constructed on an artificial island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, housed scientists who studied deadly infectious diseases.

Be wary, dear readers. The plague abounds.

During a field trip to the Russian steppes in 1912, biologist Ippolit Deminsky finally found what he had been looking for: a rodent called a suslik that had died of plague. Perhaps now he could persuade the Russian authorities that the disease was not carried into the country by foreigners but had always been there in the indigenous fauna. Before he could report back, however, he realised he had been infected. Carefully, he composed a last telegram: “When you arrive take the cultures that I had isolated. All the laboratory records are in order. The rest you will be able to find out from the laboratory. My body should be examined as an experimental case of a human contracting the plague from suslik. Goodbye.”

FOR much of the cold war, western intelligence agencies suspected that the Soviet Union’s capacity to wage biological warfare was superior to the west’s. Their suspicions were only confirmed in 1989, when a Russian visitor to Paris turned up at the British embassy and requested asylum. Vladimir Pasechnik was a brilliant microbiologist who worked on the bubonic plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis. He was flown to England and taken to a safe house, where he revealed details of what was then the world’s largest biowarfare programme, codenamed Ferment.

Its full extent remains a mystery to Russia’s cold war foes, but one thing is certain: its foundations were laid long before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, in a lonely, windswept fortress in the Gulf of Finland. There, Pasechnik’s predecessors lived – and sometimes died – as they tried to find a way to end the epidemics that ravaged Russia.

The story of how Fort Alexander I came to be Russia’s “plague” laboratory begins more than 600 years ago. In 1346, Mongol forces were laying siege to the Black Sea port of Kaffa (now Feodosia in Ukraine) when they realised they had been infected with plague. In an early example of biowarfare, they hurled their dead over the city walls. Plague ripped through the city and those few who escaped fled west, carrying the bacterium that would set off the world’s second pandemic of bubonic plague – the Black Death.

For most of the centuries that followed, outbreaks of plague were frequent in Russia, often devastating whole cities or provinces. Convinced the disease came from outside the country, the imperial authorities looked to its borders, gathering intelligence on outbreaks in neighbouring countries and introducing strict quarantine measures at its ports and frontier crossings. The epidemics continued. Russia’s belief in the polluting influence of foreigners remained unshaken even when, in 1894, French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin identified Y. pestis as the agent responsible for plague. But the discovery did prompt the authorities to set up an organisation dedicated to the study of the disease, says Alexander Melikishvili at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington DC, an authority on the pre-Soviet anti-plague system.

The Special Commission for the Prevention of and Fight against Plague was presided over by Prince Alexander Oldenburgsky, a member of the ruling Romanov family, decorated war veteran and the driving force behind the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine (IIEM), Russia’s first scientific research institute.

According to records kept at the modern IEM (it lost its imperial “I” after the revolution), Oldenburgsky’s interest in infectious diseases may have been sparked by an incident in 1885, when an officer in his regiment was bitten by a rabid dog. The prince paid for the soldier to be treated by Louis Pasteur in Paris, and when he returned cured, Oldenburgsky was inspired to build a Russian version of the Pasteur Institute, a centre for research into infectious diseases.

Oldenburgsky understood that the IIEM needed an isolated laboratory where its scientists could work on highly contagious diseases such as cholera and anthrax – and plague. Fort Alexander I was ideal. It had been built on an artificial island in the shallow Gulf of Finland about 60 years earlier to defend the southern sea approach to St Petersburg. Advances in military technology rendered it obsolete and in 1896, it was struck off the register of fortresses and Oldenburgsky was given permission to use it. And so a fort built to defend the imperial city from outside threats was put to work on a disease the Russians had for so long seen in the same light, with such disastrous consequences.

Once up and running, the lab was subject to stringent security. All visitors were ferried to the fort on the steamship Mikrob, and had to leave before sunset. Safety regulations were strictly enforced. Medical staff working with infectious samples and sera had to wear galoshes and rubber-lined capes. Any member of staff who developed symptoms was incarcerated in an isolation unit cut off from the rest of the facility by an elaborate system of hermetically sealed doors.Thanks to such precautions, there were never any major outbreaks of disease – although two of its scientists died after accidentally contaminating themselves with plague.

Medical staff had to wear galoshes and rubber-lined capes

Despite the country’s xenophobic attitude to plague, one researcher, Ippolit Deminsky, realised that not all the questions about the disease could be answered within the confines of the fort. A physician and epidemiologist, he rubbished the idea that the source of plague lay outside Russia and encouraged his fellow biologists to look for its hosts in nature. He practised what he preached and paid dearly for it when, during a field trip to the steppes, he isolated the plague agent from a dead rodent called a suslik, contracted the disease and died. He didn’t die in vain: his discovery confirmed that far from being a foreign import, plague was endemic in Russia.

Oldenburgsky compensated the employees at the fort for their devotion to duty in perhaps the only way he could: by making their lives comfortable. The fort had a well stocked library and a billiards room, and staff each had their own private room. He also ensured they had everything they needed for their research, including a collection of organs from diseased animals and another of preserved parasites, suspected of being plague carriers. A menagerie housed monkeys, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs and deer – but the most important animals at the fort were horses, which were large enough to provide the quantities of blood needed to make anti-plague serum. The horses were well catered for too: there were 20 stables, a riding ring and a lift capable of raising one horse at a time into the laboratory above.

IEM records show that the lab produced huge quantities of sera and vaccines – in the case of plague, enough to prevent or contain outbreaks in the Volga and Transcaucasian regions, Odessa and the far east of Russia, with some left over to export.

The lab’s output dried up after the revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war. Blue-blooded Oldenburgsky was forced to resign and fled to France. In 1918, a new dangerous-pathogen laboratory was established at Saratov University on the Volga, south-east of Moscow, and from then on the country’s anti-plague system underwent a massive expansion. According to Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley of the Monterey Institute, the Soviet-era network consisted of more than 100 facilities scattered across the 11 Soviet republics. Her colleague Raymond Zilinskas reckons that within a decade of the Saratov lab opening, staff were working on an offensive biowarfare programme alongside their public health research.

Today, the fort has fallen into disrepair. Nothing remains of the horse lift, the huge vats for brewing lethal microbial soups or the furnaces in which legions of animals and the bodies of two unfortunate scientists were incinerated. According to Melikishvili, thieves have stripped the place, scavenging every last piece of metal. “Even the doors are gone,” he says. Last year, the very foundations were threatened by plans to widen the channel feeding the St Petersburg sea port, until the city’s heritage committee stepped in and ordered the works to be moved a safe distance.

For one night in July, the fort briefly comes to life – though not in a way Oldenburgsky could have foreseen. Temporarily renamed Fortdance, it throbs to an electronic beat. Hundreds of party-goers dance beneath its thick walls while laser beams swirl over the empty cannon emplacements. In the early hours of the following morning, motorboats ferry exhausted revellers back to the mainland, retracing the route of the old ship Mikrob, and Fort Alexander I reverts to its habitual state: a desolate ruin inhabited only by seagulls. It’s unlikely that many of the departing guests know they have just spent the night in what was once Russia’s official plague laboratory, and the birthplace of its biological warfare programme.

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