CHEMICAL WEAPONS SHADOW MOSCOW Russia prosecutes whistle-blowers of secret research


MOSCOW -- The ambitious chemical weapons program of the Soviet Union -- now in the hands of the Russian government and no longer a closely held secret in any sense -- seems to have become an issue that won't go away.

It is troubling in several ways, touching on the legal rights of Russian citizens, environmental concerns, even the future of the economy. But most of all, it raises the question of just what responsibility Russia has for its often-lethal Soviet inheritance.

Since becoming a sovereign nation, Russia has held talks with the United States on mutual destruction of chemical weapons. In January, Russia signed an international treaty that will completely ban such weapons early in the next century.

But at the same time, legal authorities here are preparing proceedings in three separate cases involving public disclosures about secret weapons research.

One of those cases is just now being launched.

But even as police and prosecutors move against researchers who have chosen to describe their work, which was once among the nation's most closely guarded secrets, more and more scientists are stepping forward.

Since September, when the first revelations were published, a ,, week doesn't go by without a national newspaper tackling the issue of chemical weapons research. How much went on? What were the goals? What was the cost? And what happens next?

Backlash to hide program?

The scientists say they developed extraordinarily effective nerve gases, working at a time when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his associates were insisting that they had halted all chemical weapons production.

Some critics here wonder why officials have reacted so sternly to the disclosures, at a time when chemical weapons are being ushered off the world stage, when Russia has no intrinsic interest in covering up the Soviet legacy, and when plenty of other former secrets are being revealed.

A few suggest that the security police -- successors to the former Soviet KGB -- have fastened onto this issue as a way of testing their clout.

Lev Fyodorov, a chemist and environmental activist, has another interpretation. The official reaction, he believes, reflects the magnitude of a program which is still largely unknown.

"The prosecution going on now is a consequence of the scale of the works," he said recently. "If it all became known, we would find out that the state -- and some people -- are deeply involved in a very dirty affair."

Scientist awaits trial

Dr. Fyodorov was the man who was primarily responsible for the first reports on continuing chemical weapons research here. He persuaded Vil Mirzayanov, a former researcher at a top-secret Moscow lab, to go public last September in an interview with The Sun and in an article they wrote for Moscow News.

In October Dr. Mirzayanov was arrested and charged with divulging a state secret, under a secret subsection of the law that neither he nor his lawyer has yet been allowed to review.

After spending 11 days in the Lubyanka prison, he is now home awaiting trial.

A special commission is to be established to advise the court whether Dr. Mirzayanov actually disclosed state secrets and what harm that may have caused. But all of those proposed by Dr. Mirzayanov's lawyer to be members of this commission -- including several active-duty army officers -- have been rejected by the prosecution.

The case against Dr. Mirzayanov has become a cause celebre in Moscow, but he is far from alone in discussing the years of research into better, deadlier poison gases.

Human guinea pig

One of those who believes he paid a particularly heavy price for his work is Vladimir Petrenko, who lives in the formerly closed city of Volsk, near the Volga River.

A decade ago, when Mr. Petrenko was a 22-year-old lieutenant in a special army unit, he was summoned by his commanding officer and told to volunteer for an important assignment.

The young chemical researcher submitted himself as a human guinea pig for a top-secret test at a Soviet poison gas laboratory in the town of Shikhani.

Lieutenant Petrenko, 22, was told he would be exposed to an unnamed poison gas so as to test the reliability of a new protective suit. But over the next decade, the despairing and sickly Mr. Petrenko slowly came to the conclusion that it had all been a sham -- that in fact the purpose of the test had been to expose him directly to a minute amount of a new, experimental gas, in order to gauge its effectiveness.

Mr. Petrenko has been plagued by skin ailments and respiratory problems since the 1982 test. He was, he says, drummed out of the army for complaining about his ruined health and the complete lack of information about what had happened to him.

His ambition to have a scientific career was cast aside -- he became a politician instead.

Guinea pig turned politician

Today, Mr. Petrenko is a member of the Volsk city council. And, like Dr. Mirzayanov and others, he has come forward to describe his experience and denounce the chemical weapon program that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union.

In speeches to his constituents, Mr. Petrenko has described his case. He has told them how he is still trying to find out what he was exposed to back in 1982, and how he has lost most of the pigment in his skin and has been plagued by more and more difficulties in breathing.

Having attained the rank of major (and having spent a month at the Chernobyl cleanup in 1986), Mr. Petrenko was discharged from the army without a pension in 1991. In 1990 he had quit the Communist Party, and soon became head of the environmental committee of the Volsk city council.

He has been unable, at the age of 33, to find another job because of his poor health, he says.

He went public with his story, despite having agreed to a strict secrecy demand, because of his frustrations in dealing with the chemical forces branch of the army -- and because of his worries over environmental contamination at the lab site in nearby Shikhani.

So far, no charges have been brought against Mr. Petrenko. He has immunity as an elected official.

But prosecutors have notified Sergei Mikhailov, a reporter for the Saratov newspaper, that he faces faces charges under Article 75 of the criminal code, which forbids the disclosure of state secrets -- because he wrote about Mr. Petrenko's public discussions with his constituents.

Poison gases synthesized

Another member of the Volsk city council was a considerably more important researcher than Lieutenant Petrenko. He is Vladimir Uglev, and he was the primary researcher at Shikhani on a project to synthesize a new series of binary nerve gases.

Dr. Uglev, 50, decided last month to describe that research, in interviews with Russian publications and with The Sun. The new gases -- nicknamed "Novichok," or newcomer -- were 5 to 10 times more powerful than the standard U.S. nerve gas, called VX, he said.

Dr. Uglev said he had decided to go public with details of his former work as a way of supporting Dr. Mirzayanov.

Over 15 years, he said, his team synthesized hundreds of phosphorus-based substances in the search for deadlier poisons, and eventually tested five that were of "battle interest."

Dr. Uglev said he was particularly concerned because these substances are not covered by the international treaty signed this past January.

Moreover, he said, they are very easily produced once the technology is known.

He warned that the former leaders of the Soviet chemical weapons program now may try to sell Novichok gases to such nations as Iraq, Libya or North Korea.

Another poison gas, produced in the city of Novocheboksarsk, is similar but not identical to the U.S. weapon VX, he said.

Large amounts of this chemical, he told Russian periodical New Times, are secretly stored in the Bryansk region of western Russia.

Dr. Uglev, like Mr. Petrenko, enjoys legislative immunity. However, he has been barred from the pharmaceutical laboratory where he now works, and a commission set up by the Shikhani lab has delivered a report to the security police declaring that Dr. Uglev divulged state secrets.

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