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Russia still doing secret work on chemical arms Research goes on as government seeks U.N. ban

October 18, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

There, Dr. Yevgeny Vedernikov saved his life.

But the scientist was at the edge of death, unaware of his surroundings, for 10 days. He couldn't walk for six months. He was dogged by depression and an inability to concentrate. He found it difficult even to read. To this day his arms are still weak, and he has never been able to return to work.

Although he survived, the gas left him with permanent disabilities.

Dr. Vedernikov said that saving one man, though difficult, was not impossible. But if a nerve gas were used on a battlefield, he said, there would be thousands of casualties.

"I would be too late with everyone. If I were right there, I could

help one or two. After an hour, everyone else would be in an acute state. All I could do would be to forgive their sins."

Today's nerve gases are made of chemicals called organophosphorous compounds. They inhibit the action of a substance called acetylcholinesterase, which plays a vital role in the transmission of nerve impulses.

Death comes quietly

"Gas poisoning is very quiet," Dr. Vedernikov said. "There's no shouting. You just fall asleep. That's why military men like gas so much. That's the dreadful thing about it. And each death only costs a few kopecks."

Typically, arsenals are stocked with so-called binary nerve gases. This means simply that the components of the gas are kept separate until ready for use on the battlefield.

In fact, the components are easily enough made that large stockpiles are unnecessary.

"And the complication is that production of binary weapons is very difficult to detect," General Kuntsevich pointed out. "I don't know of any mechanism of control."

Going private

Research is even less detectable, but Russia's hard economic times seem likely to end the days of scientific glory at the lab.

Morale is at rock-bottom over cuts in financing, perceptions of mismanagement and a general belief that the work no longer makes any sense -- especially considering Russian support for the proposed treaty banning chemical weapons, which was drafted in Geneva Sept. 3.

"I believe the poor Russian state shouldn't throw away money on these things," Dr. Sarkisian said, although he argued that scientific research into the means of counteracting chemical weapons should continue.

"Such research should be open and all materials published," he said. "I think Russia has the right to conduct such research. It is also a superpower, and there's great creative potential here."

The managers of the lab, meanwhile, are trying to expand its civilian operations. They would like to turn to the manufacture of medicines, and have tried to find foreign partners for a joint venture. Already, the lab is working on chemical luminescence compounds, anti-freeze, rat poison and a handy spray-on antidote to mustard gas and other mundane battlefield poisons.

Dr. Sarkisian is leaving the secret lab to go into business with a relative as a trader in merchandise -- a new Russian, out for money. "I have no future career as a toxicologist," he said.

After an interview in which he had talked at length about the

highly sensitive military lab, he was asked what kind of trading he planned to do.

"Now that," he said, "that is a secret."

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