book reviews

Repost: Ken Alibek’s Biohazard… a book that scared the hell out of me.

Here’s another reposted book review. This one was originally posted on Epinions.com April 30, 2010, then reposted on June 16, 2014. I’m sharing it again as/is, because I think it’s an important and fascinating read. But it’s also very scary, especially during the COVID-19 crisis!

Comments from 2014 (I was very sick with a nasty virus when I wrote it):

Since Bill and I are now sick, I was reminded of a book I read a few years ago.  Biohazard was written by a former Soviet military officer and physician named Ken Alibek.  Having grown up during the height of the Cold War, I remember very well how scared many people were that the Soviet Union would one day invade the United States or launch a nuke that would wipe us out.  I’m sure most of us were blissfully unaware that besides nukes, the Soviets were working on a very sinister warfare program that was designed to make people sick.  While I don’t think this illness we have was intended as a bioweapon, I do take note that I got it at an Army party.  Anyway, I found Ken Alibek’s book fascinating, so I’m sharing my reposted review here for your reading pleasure…

Review from 2010

I vividly remember back in the fall of 2001, when post offices in the Washington, DC area were getting letters and packages laced with anthrax. For several weeks, Americans were terrified of the mail, worried that any white, powdery substance might be anthrax spores that would cause unpleasant and untimely deaths. If you’re like me, you might have wondered where bioterrorists got the idea to send anthrax in the mail. Now that I’ve read Ken Alibek’s 1999 book, Biohazard, I have a better concept of how biological weapons are produced and how, back in the 1970s and 80s, the former Soviet Union was leading the way in turning viruses and bacteria into deadly weapons of mass destruction against mankind.

Who is Ken Alibek?

Ken Alibek (Kanatjan Alibekov), who originally hails from Kazakhstan, was once one of the Soviet Union’s highest ranking military officers and scientists. A physician by training, Alibek ran a program called Biopreparat, where germs that cause incurable and horrifying diseases were being developed into powerful biological weapons. Alibek worked with the organisms that cause smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, Ebola, and Marburg on a regular basis. With ghostwriter Stephen Handelman’s help, Alibek explains how in the interest of the Soviet Motherland, he and his colleagues used animals to test these weapons and make them available should any country dare to attack the former Soviet Union.

Why I was interested in this book

I first became aware of Biohazard when I read the excellent Epinions reviews by texas-swede and bonnieleigh. I was interested in this book for several reasons. First of all, I used to live in the former Soviet Union. I moved there in 1995, not long after it fell apart, so I have somewhat of a concept of what life was like there. I was particularly interested in reading Alibek’s account of what happened after the Soviet Union dissolved. Secondly, I have a background in public health, so I’m interested in epidemiology and how diseases spread. Biohazard satisfied that aspect of my curiosity. And finally, I’m now the wife of an Army officer who was living in the DC area and working in the Pentagon when the anthrax attacks and 9/11 occurred.

Chilling aspects of this book

I found Biohazard to be a real page turner. For one thing, Alibek, who according to this book now lives in the United States and works for the U.S. government, really knows a lot about the old Soviet biological weapons program. And he’s unflinching when he relates the horrifying tale of a colleague who was working with the Marburg virus. The well-liked scientist was working under extreme pressure and failed to follow protocol. He accidentally stabbed himself with a needle that had been exposed to the deadly virus. It took him three weeks to die, with his fellow Biopreparat colleagues watching helplessly. Ever the stoic, the scientist meticulously kept track of his symptoms and experiences so that his death could be useful to the biological weapons cause.

Alibek’s involvement with Biopreparat came at a significant personal cost. For instance, he has lost all sense of smell and there’s a long list of foods he can no longer eat. He’s allergic to a broad range of things and, every day, must apply ointment to his face, neck, and hands because his body no longer manufactures its own natural lubricants. Because of his job at Biopreparat and the furious pace demanded by his superiors, Alibek missed out on a lot of family time. His children grew up not knowing him as well as they might have. Alibek had to struggle with the moral dilemma of having taken a physician’s oath to preserve life, yet still working in a field designed to destroy it. And though the Soviet Union no longer exists, Alibek is still considered a traitor by some powerful people who wouldn’t mind seeing him dead.

Overall

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in biological weapons, the former Soviet Union, or people who just like a good story, particularly those that involve cloak and dagger stuff. I will warn, however, that while this book is thrilling and very well-written, it’s also a bit terrifying and potentially depressing. If you’d rather not think about how easily microbes can be used to end your life as well as those of your loved ones, you might want to pass on reading Biohazard. As fascinating as Alibek’s story is, it’s also a stark reminder that there are some truly evil people in the world. On the other hand, as Alibek points out, during the Soviet era, Soviets believed that the Americans were evil too.

Thanks again to texas-swede and bonnieleigh for reviewing Biohazard and inspiring me to read it. As scary and depressing as this book is, it’s also educational. I’ve passed it along to my dear husband, who is also finding it an incredible read. Hopefully, he’ll review it too!

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