“The men and women of the [former Soviet] nuclear, chemical and biological institutes don’t carry automatic weapons in their hands, they possess the knowledge and the ability to develop weapons that could kill millions.”1
—Senator Richard Lugar, 1998
Through funding from the Virtual Biosecurity Center, we are creating a 20 minute documentary and accompanying website that explores the social and ethical context of the research and development of biological weapons by former Soviet scientists. This project is a collaborative effort between four individuals: (1) Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, an assistant professor at the George Mason University Biodefense Program; (2) Slawomir Grunberg, an Emmy Award winning filmmaker; (3) Slava Paperno, senior lecturer at Cornell, who directs Cornell’s Russian Language Program; and (4) Kathleen Vogel, associate professor at Cornell with a joint appointment in Cornell’s Department of Science and Technology Studies and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Through this documentary, we will show some of the ways in which the lives of the scientists were affected by their deadly work, and the complicated politics surrounding this work. So far, no one has videotaped interviews questioning those bioweapons scientists who are still living; we are interested in showing these scientists and their unique oral histories, ethical dilemmas, and complex identities. For example, many of the bioweapons scientists had been trained as doctors and had taken the Hippocratic Oath. How did they reconcile the outcome of their research with the humanistic ambitions of their science? Also, how did their work affect their family life? We will ask these, and related, questions to these scientists, using an artistic method that combines cinema vérité scenes with formal interviews and archival footage. We will allow our characters to carry the story: we do not want to impose our interpretation or judgment; we aim to portray their world the way they see it.
The events that we have filmed for this project include a conversation between Dr. Gennadiy Lepeshkin and Dr. David Franz, two retired colonels. Between 1984 and 1995, Dr. Lepeshkin worked at the anthrax mobilization plant in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where he served as department head (1984-85), deputy director (1985-87), director (1987-1995), and as general director of the National Centre on Biotechnology of Kazakhstan during which time he supervised the dismantlement of the anthrax facility (1995-2001). Dr. Lepeshkin is one former Soviet bioweapons scientists that the U.S. government has previously supported through Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction funding owing to his highly specialized knowledge in the area of biological weapons research, development, production, and testing.
Dr. Franz served in the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command for 23 years on active duty and retired as Colonel. He served as Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and as Deputy Commander of the Medical Research and Materiel Command. Dr. Franz served as a member of the first two U.S.–UK teams that visited Russia in support of the Trilateral Joint Statement on Biological Weapons and as a member of the Trilateral Experts’ Committee for biological weapons negotiations.
We include here a filmed conversation, consisting of four video clips, between these two retired colonels that took place in Washington, DC in the summer of 2011. By way of introduction to these clips, Drs. Lepeshkin and Franz briefly spoke about their background, and then shared a few memories related to their careers in weapons research and non-proliferation efforts. Despite differences, there are also similarities in their careers and views. Take a look at this video clip to hear their personal narratives and perspectives. What strikes you about these accounts?
We did not discuss ethical issues, but we did know about the Convention
Looking at photos from Stepnogorsk
David and Gennady: Personal beginnings
Trilateral agreement. “Figure it out, it’s only science.”
One of the goals of our documentary project is to compile materials that can be used by students and scholars who study the use of science for military purposes as well as related issues in history, international relations, ethics, and the like. Because of their bilingual nature, our materials can also be used in language and culture studies. This fall we introduced a group of students in Cornell’s advanced Russian language course to the larger set of filmed discussions with Lepeshkin and Franz. The students were asked to watch the video and write an essay to describe their reaction, impressions, and thoughts. Then each student was asked to read another student’s writing and respond by another essay. Assignments of this kind–often with the subject matter involving cross-cultural observations–are common in Cornell’s language courses. The theory is that a student who has something to say will be better motivated to learn the language for saying it. The assignment based on the Lepeshkin-Franz meeting proved to be quite effective: we received an interesting collection of opinions.
One student wrote that she expected Lepeshkin to be a repentant old man and was surprised to see “a kind and grandfatherly kind of person, at peace with his past.” Another student thought that the basic difference between the peace-loving Franz and the weapons builder Lepeshkin can be traced to the historical difference between the two countries: one was never invaded by enemies while the other experienced a horrendous invasion during WWII. A student recounted a telephone conversation about Lepeshkin with her grandmother: she was trying to explain to the old woman that doing research into biological weapons must be really exciting and that she would have enjoyed doing that kind of work. Another student who is taking courses in history and biology this semester found the video especially fascinating: she made connections between the two disciplines and said, to our considerable satisfaction, that history presented by its participants offers much better lessons than the “anonymous history of big events and places.” She wrote that neither of the two colonels appears to be an evil person, even though they dealt with evil forces all their lives: “how strange that they seem so normal.”
In addition to their educational benefit, the documentary and accompanying video clips will also help contribute to the current U.S. government debates about the potential for misuse of the life sciences for state, terrorist, or criminal purposes by biological researchers. By better understanding the motivation underlying scientists’ participation in bioweapons programs, the project will help identify social and organizational motivators that could still entice life scientists working within state, terrorist, or criminal programs into developing biological weapons.
1. Statement of Richard Lugar, Press Conference on His Trip to Russia (Washington, DC: Office of Senator Richard Lugar, November 24, 1998).