The Secret Folio.

How the nerve agent “Novichok” was created and tested on human beings

The Proekt team, September 12, 2018

 Русская версия

The Russian government has steadfastly insisted it had no involvement in the poisoning of fugitive spy Sergei Skripal last spring. In one instance, last April, the Russian ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Alexander Shulgin, denied Moscow had ever worked on developing the type of poison that British authorities said was used against Skripal.

Our investigative team at The Project has found extensive documentation that prove: “Novichok” is the name for several organophosphorus poisons created under the special government program “Folio”. One of these poisons was tested on a human being, a fact confirmed by a court decision obtained by The Project.

Breathe deeper

In 1982, chemical weapons were tested on Vladimir Petrenko, a Soviet serviceman. According to a former employee of the secret institute where the experiment was conducted, the substance used is one of the variants of the Novichok agent.

“A special protective cloth was tied around my head – the mask covered everything except the nose and mouth. I had to stick my face through the window of a transparent camera and breathe on command. Then the toxic substances were launched. Immediately, my breath was as if struck, or at the same time, all the air pumped out of my lungs. Instinctively, I tried to take small breaths, but I was told: ‘It’s okay, Volodya, breathe deeply.’ it lasted about 30 seconds.”

Vladimir Petrenko described the experiment this way to the Russian magazine Stolitsa, in 1993. in 1982, he was a 23-year-old lieutenant who worked at a secret facility in the Shikhany, Saratov region, where he served as a test subject for chemical weapons for eight days.

Petrenko told this story after Perestroika began. But back then, this was of little interest to anyone, recalls Ivan Blokov, director of programs for the Russian branch of Greenpeace, speaking to The Project. Now Shikhany, with a population of just over five and a half thousand, is known far beyond Russia. It was there, according to the British authorities, that a poisonous agent known as “Novichok” may have been produced. On March 4, 2018, it was used in the English city of Salisbury against former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Julia. This caused diplomatic conflict between Moscow and London, and led to new sanctions against Russia.

The kind of chemical tested on Petrenko remains a mystery. But at the time of the experiment, the Shikhany institute was working on “Novichok.” The scientist Vladimir Uglev, who worked in Shikhany for many years and managed to synthesize a substance of this class, confirmed to The Project that “Novichok” may have been tested on Petrenko. Most probably it was a sub-threshold dose, he said. Although visible lesions do not occur, the consequences of such tests cannot be predicted.

Vladimir Petrenko, 2010s

Petrenko’s case is unique; the facts of the experiment were confirmed in court. In the 1990s, the serviceman filed a claim for compensation for damage to his health. His case was examined several times by the Saratov Regional and Supreme Courts of Russia, which found that the experiment had not done any harm. Hearings passed behind closed doors, there is a “secret” label on all the court documents. Our team at The Project managed to obtain the most recent decision in this case.

“The court proceeded from the fact that the plaintiff had the disease before his arrival to service in the military unit, his arguments about injury to his health during the experiment in 1982, did not find confirmation … In connection with the above, the conclusions of the Saratov Regional Court that damage to the plaintiff’s health was not caused during the experiment in 1982, and after the experiment he did not need medical assistance and rehabilitation, should be fully recognized,” the Supreme Court’s ruling states.

Additional evidence that Petrenko, perhaps, was tested one of the varieties of “Novichok”, is that “changes in the activity of acetylcholinesterase” of Petrenko’s blood was detected shortly after the experiment. This was confirmed by a copy of the explanations made by Lieutenant Colonel Pospelov, on January 25, 1993. (This document, attached to the Petrenko’s case, was also obtained by The Project. Its authenticity was confirmed by the Greenpeace lawyer who represented Petrenko’s interests). Similar changes occur as a result of the use of organophosphorus poisoning substances: the poison “turns off” acetylcholinesterase, thereby blocking the transmission of nerve impulses. Novichok acts according to this principle, Uglev pointed out.

A group of test subjects

Vladimir Petrenko was not the only one subjected to tests with organophosphorus poisoning compounds. Court documents, obtained by The Project, state that the experiment was conducted on many servicemen.

“The influence of the same concentrations at the same time periods of contact with the substance, was also experienced by persons who are currently continuing to serve and do not make any complaints about their health,” said Dr. Pospelov, a lieutenant colonel in the medical service, answering questions of the prosecutor. In this experiment, a control group also participated: its members were actually given a breathing placebo – they were not exposed to the substance, and they didn’t know about it.

Pospelov’s testimony is the only documentary evidence that there were other subjects. All court’s decisions on Petrenko case relied on Pospelov’s testimony. Presumably, Pospelov was one of the experts who examined the officers who inhaled the poisonous agent.

The State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology near Saratov (or GosNIIOKhT), where the experiment was conducted

Pospelov himself called the tests a scientific study to determine the “dose of organophosphorus substance that causes the primary response of the organism in the form of changes in certain biochemical indicators in the blood system.” For Petrenko, the studies place without consequences, Pospelov confidently stated. At worst, there might only be minor changes in the activity of some blood enzymes.

Changes in Petrenko’s body were, however, undeniable. Later he was diagnosed with a total of about 30 diseases of the stomach, respiratory tract, and skin. But the courts ruled that all of his illnesses arose, either before the tests, or after, in 1986, when he participated in the clean-up of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.

State secrets

Although Russian authorities insist that “Novichok” does not exist, the scientist who first went public about this chemical was criminally prosecuted. The Russian general military command claimed he had disclosed secret information.

“We’re from the Ministry of Security, open the door!”

“Get out immediately, I’m calling the police!” scientist Vil Mirzayanov, in his own words, was resolute. On an autumn morning in 1992, he yelled at the KGB officers that he had an ax and intended to use it. After some time, he was forced to open the door of his one-room apartment in Moscow.

More than a quarter century has passed . In the spring of 2018, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated several times that “Novichok” didn’t exist, and presidential envoy Mikhail Babich claimed that in Shikhany they never stored chemical weapons by that name. But back in 1993, Mirzayanov was tried for violating state secrets, accused of disclosing information about this poison. Authorities alleged that he damaged the country’s defense capability, “before the time was due to publish information about chemical weapons development facilities and the nature of their activities,” (according to a letter from the head of the General Staff, Mikhail Kolesnikov, to the Chief of the Investigations Department of the Ministry of Security, Major General Balashov, dated April 29, 1993, obtained by The Project).

“A new poison was created at the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT, whose branch is located in Shikhany). by its insidiousness (“combat characteristics”), it significantly surpassed the well-known VX. Its effects are almost incurable. In any case, people who were exposed to this substance only once remained disabled,” Mirzayanov wrote in the newspaper Moskovskye Novosti, in September, 1992. This text became the basis for the case.

The article in the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti by scientist Vil Mirzayanov. The article was a basis for charges against Mirzayanov of divulging state secrets. In 1994, the case was closed under public pressure.

Mirzayanov himself did not take part in the research – he controlled the composition of air that went into the atmosphere after the tests. (It sounds like he took part) The name “Novichok” was first said by Mirzayanov in an interview with the Baltimore Sun in 1992.

Later, he explained in his testimony why he decided to publish the article in Moskovskye Novosti. “I came to the conclusion that concealing facts about the development of new poisons is detrimental to the state interests of Russia, and is beneficial to the leaders of the military chemical complex, in order to satisfy their narrow interests.” (according to a copy of the interrogation protocol of Vil Mirzayanov from October 22, 1992, made available to The Project).

“Mirzayanov’s publications have damaged the country’s defensive capacity through unilateral disclosure of the results of our chemical weapons research and development, to the extent of giving details that are not provided to other countries, in future declarations, since joining the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other international agreements in this field,” said Mikhail Kolesnikov, chief of the General Staff in his letter to the chief of the Investigations Department of the Ministry of Security.

The investigation continued until the spring of 1994, when the case was stopped under pressure from the public.

The program “Folio”

During the secret program “Folio” hundreds of substances were synthesized, but only four turned out to be successful – they are now called “Novichoks”. One of them, codenamed A-234, may have been used for the poisoning in Salisbury.

“Novichok” is an additional designation of the substance, and the name itself appeared only after the studies were carried out, said the poisonous agent developers, Vladimir Uglev and Leonid Rink. Why did the chemicals require several names at the same time? This is due to the complex system of ciphers that existed at GosNIIOKhT. Different ciphers were used in workbooks, reports and letters. “Tear agents, known worldwide as CS and CR, were mentioned in workbooks as substance 65 and substance 74. But they also had to be indicated in letters as substance K-410 and K-444,” Mirzayanov wrote in his book “Challenge” (this is one of two books by the scientist, in which he reveals the details of the institute’s work). “The names changed every year, although under different names the same work was hiding,” explains Uglev. According to him, the logic in this system should not be looked for: “An official in a secret department sits and picks names out of nowhere. But the program was for us, for synthetics scientists, it was called ‘Folio.’”

The program “Folio” was approved by several directives from the Communist Party Central Committee and the Council of Ministers of the USSR, according to documents The Project discovered in the materials of the Mirzayanov case.

The developers of organophosphorus toxic agents (from left to right) are Nelly Tarasova, Senior Researcher of the State Scientific and Research Institute of Nuclear Problems, future figure of the criminal case on the murder with the use of Novichok Leonid Rink, the head of the analytical laboratory Tarasenko, the director of GosNIIOKhT Viktor Petrunin, the head of the technology department of GosNIIOKhT Evgeny Smirnov, and the inventor of the agents A-230 and A-242 Petr Kirpichev.

Work on chemical weapons in the framework of the “Folio” was conducted for the Ministry of Defense. The poisoning substance was intended for use in ammunition. For this reason, employees of a Basalt plant participated in the research, it appears, from a copy of the technical assignment dated April 27, 1990, and approved by the director of GosNIIOKhT, Viktor Petrunin (this document is available to The Project). The Basalt plant still produces air bombs and artillery shells. In addition, the substance could have been used as a warhead in medium- and long-range missiles, according to Mirzayanov.

Most of the chemicals in the Soviet Union were copied from Western samples. This was the case with VX and its domestic version, substance “33.” But the agents that were created under the “Folio” program have no analogues in the world: they are compounds of phosphorus and nitrogen, and they differ from their precursors (the reagents involved in the production of the target substance), in methods of preparation and methods of use as chemical warfare agents. Uglev explained that he knows that several hundred modifications were synthesized, but only four were successful. The OPCW press service could not explain to The Project why these agents were not included on the list of prohibited substances, citing the fact that this information is confidential (Russia ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 1997 and has since pledged not to develop new types of poisons, and official Moscow has repeatedly stated that these studies ceased in the late 1980s).

Successful modifications of poisons in the “Folio” program

А-230  A-1972*

Received by Petr Kirpichev

After the winter tests of 1975, studies were discontinued because the substance did not meet freezing point requirements.

А-234  B-1976*

Received by Vladimir Uglev

it was this poison that proved to be the most successful and stable, including at low temperatures (the freezing point is below -20 ° C). The toxicity of the substance is ten times higher than that of VX. According to Uglev, A-234 was used in the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter.

А-232  C-1976*

Received by Vladimir Uglev

Further work on this chemical was not approved, since the solidification temperature was only about -5 ° C.

А-242  D-1980*

Received by Petr Kirpichev

Unlike the previous three chemicals that existed in liquid form, A-242 was a crystalline substance. This affects the shelf life: the first three compounds can retain their properties for about 50 years, and the A-242 remains deadly “for any length of time”

* The figure indicates the year of development

Binary variant

Lenin prizes were even awarded for the manufacture of binary poisons under the “Folio” program. Produced non-binary poisons would be enough to kill over 285 million people.

To synthesize substances A-230-A-242, special equipment and minimum professional knowledge are required. “Anyone who is a literate enough chemist and even a graduate student of a chemical faculty, if equipped, could do it. I synthesized A-234, having worked in the laboratory for only three months,” says Uglev.

The more difficult task was to solve the problem of binary, that is, a poison consisting of several harmless components that acquire toxic properties only after being mixed. The studies were unsuccessful: the A-234 based binary was not developed, because after obtaining the precursors, it turned out that one of them was too toxic, explains Uglev.

“There was an intermediate harmless variant of a binary bomb. We saw how the plane rose into the air. A little below his fuselage something popped, white smoke appeared, which then for clarity was painted in red. The control areas were deployed on the field, metal cuvettes were laid out on them, they had to catch chemical agent drops from the bomb. The analyses showed low efficiency. The yield of the target substance was only 7%. it was frustratingly small, ” Mirzayanov wrote in his book.

Although a binary agent may not have been created in this study, in 1991 the group of enterprise managers and generals was awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest industrial and scientific prize in the Soviet Union. Among the laureates were General Anatoly Kuntsevich and the Director GosNIIOKhT Viktor Petrunin. Officially, this was never reported, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the corresponding order, refused to answer questions. However, Uglev and Mirzayanov say that the prize was given for the development of chemical weapons.

“They simply deceived the leadership of the Soviet Union that allegedly created binary on the basis of substance “33” and A-234. This was what General Kuntsevich himself told me in 1995, “says Uglev.

The real results of the work in Shikhany under the program “Folio” were the two most successful substances – A-234 and A-242. Production was set up in the Volsk branch (one of the facilities near Shikhany), and tests were conducted in the territory of Uzbekistan – at the test site in Nukus, near the border with Turkmenistan, explained Mirzayanov.

It is not known how many poisonous substances of this class were released, somewhere from 200 kilos (Uglev’s approximation) up to 10 tons (according to Mirzayanov). Even if we take as a basis the mass of which Uglev speaks, then in the case of the poisons A-234 and A-242, the lethal concentration of which is 0.01 milligram per kilogram of weight, that would be enough to kill over 285 million people (with an average weight of an adult body at 70 kg).

However, we still don’t know everything about these poisons. For example, a former employee of the institute, in a conversation with The Project, pointed out that one of the ways for using the A-242 chemical was radically different from the methods used by the A-234, and was “not only tested at the test site”. The interlocutor flatly refused to answer any clarifying questions, saying that he was afraid for his safety.

Encrypted agents

Scientists in Shikhany not only developed organophosphorous poisonous substances, but also carried them out of laboratories illegally. Thus, in the 1990s, up to 14 ampoules of poison were stolen from the institute.

After the scandal around Mirzayanov, Shikhany disappeared from the headlines for awhile. But a few years later, talk about them resumed, again in connection with poisonous substances.

“It was a special regime enterprise whose employees subscribed to the non-disclosure of state secrets, it respected the regime of secrecy: the institution had previously worked on the development of chemical weapons,” Sergei Kazakov, deputy chief of the department for counterintelligence support of strategic objects of the Saratov FSB, said about Shikhany during his interrogation in 2001.

The agent’s testimony was given in connection with the investigation of the criminal case in the murder of the banker Ivan Kivelidi, in 1995. According to the prosecution, he was killed by a poisonous substance that was put on the phone’s handset. The chemical was made by Leonid Rink.

Exposed with Novochok

Soviet Union

Vladimir Petrenko

Summer of 1982, Shikhany. During the experiment. More than 30 chronic diseases. Until 2016 he lived in Ukraine.

“Immediately the breath caught, as if struck or at once pumped air out of the lungs”

Andrey Zheleznyakov

1987, GosNIIOKhT, while working in the laboratory. Died after 6 years.

“…a leak occurred, possibly due to a poor connection in the hose. Andrei got dark in his eyes, he understood everything, immediately left the cabinet and said: “Guys, I think I’m in trouble” “

United Kingdom

Sergey and Julia Skripal

March 4, 2018, Salisbury. The handle of the door was treated with poison. Discharged from hospital, treatment continues.

“We were very fortunate that we survived this assassination attempt. The process of recovery was slow and very painful “

Charlie Rowley and Don Sturges

June 30, 2018, Amesbury. Rowley found a bottle of perfume and gave it to his girlfriend. Rowley was discharged from hospital, Sturgess died on July 8.

“It was an oily substance. I sniffed it, but it smelled of perfume. The hands felt oily “

Officers of the GRU Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (names are fictitious)

March 2, 2018 flew to London Gatwick Airport, the next day went on a reconnaissance in Salisbury and on March 4, they presumably inflicted a poisonous substance on the door of the Skripal’s house. In the evening of the same day flew from Heathrow.

They managed to avoid exposure to a chemical, because in Salisbury that day it was cold – around +9‏° C. In addition, this two probably held their breath and covered their face and hands with clothing, the developer of the poison agent Vladimir Uglev said to The Project.

“In 1996, someone from the FSB department in the Saratov region informed me that there was information about a possible leakage from the institute of a potent organophosphorus poisonous substance. I determined the circle of persons who, due to their personal and business qualities, could have been involved in the possible illicit trafficking. Rink Leonid Igorevich, the head of the laboratory, was number one, “said Sergei Pastushenko, head of the Shikhany ity department of the FSB, in 2001 (according to a copy of the interrogation protocol of June 29, 2001, available to The Project ). Together with Kazakov, he entered Rink’s office and opened his safe. There, materials of the spectroscopy of an unknown potent poison were found.

Pastushenko said, “When Rink was interrogated, it turned out that he had indeed been subjected to spectroscopy of a poisonous substance and that he had allegedly destroyed this substance, but could not objectively confirm it. The management told me that under the current legislation, Rink cannot be held criminally liable, since this substance is not on the list of potent and poisonous substances. This substance is new, and therefore it could not be on the list. For violation of secrecy, Rink was deprived of access to information constituting state secrets, and was dismissed. We had no doubt that it was Rink who made such a substance.” Kazakov confirmed that Rink was not criminally charged, and he left the institute for Moscow in 1997.

To whom exactly Rink transferred that substance, remains a mystery. The materials of the case mention that the scientist, having synthesized the poisonous substance and packaged it in 8-9 ampoules, sold the chemical to “Chechens.” But this happened after the murder of Kivelidi. Because of that fact, the case of the 8-9 ampoules was isolated from the murder case. In April 1999, the investigation on trafficking was terminated. The reason is not known.

Rink himself answered the questions of the investigators at least four times: in fact, they are four different stories that almost do not coincide. The scientist noted that in preparing the attempt on the banker, up to five ampoules had been synthesized: Rink’s poison was bottled in four ampoules of 0.25 grams each; in the fifth ampoule, the “probe” was about 0.02 grams.

Thus, if we trust the investigation materials of the FSB and the prosecutor’s office, the scientist sold from nine to fourteen ampoules, or 2.25-3.27 grams of organophosphate poisoning compound.

Mirzayanov studied the formula, which was listed in the case materials, and told Novaya Gazeta that it was ”Novichok”. Uglev in conversation with The Project noted that probably it is A-234. And there is another opinion: a chemist from the University of California in San Diego, Zoran Radic, told the publication N + 1 that this substance, apparently, “significantly, leads to an acute toxic effect more slowly” than other poisons, whose formulas Mirzayanov had previously disclosed.

* * *

Soon, Novichok’s birthplace will change forever. In 2018, Shikhany lost its status as a closed administrative entity. “The liquidation of the former chemical weapons development facility” has begun there, according to the state tenders website. And contractors are at risk of encountering chemicals of “unknown composition,” it says. Otherwise, the Shikhany research is still a state secret: 129 employees of the Institute and their friends refused to answer questions about the work of this institution and related structures; and GosNIIOKhT and the FSB did not respond to requests for interviews.

Vladimir Petrenko long ago left Russia. Until 2016, he lived in Lviv, Ukraine, one of his friends told The Project. Then he moved to his native Izmail, Ukraine. The administration of Izmail could not find him upon The Project’s request. Whether Petrenko is still alive is unknown: he stopped using social media networks four years ago, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea.