Poisons Tested On Stalin’s Prisoners

Carey Scott,
Sunday Times, UK,
October 15, 1995

Stalin’s scientists tested poisons on prisoners who were under sentence of death in the 1940s, it has been revealed. They chronicled the men’s death throes in gruesome experiments devised to improve the assassination techniques of communist agents abroad.

Recently discovered official documents show that Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s feared security chief, set up a secret poisons laboratory in which deadly substances were administered to more than 100 prisoners who were awaiting execution. They included an American and several Germans and Japanese.

By 1945 the tests had enabled Soviet scientists under the direction of Grigory Mairanovsky, a biologist, to develop poisons which could be secreted in pens, walking sticks and other seemingly innocent items and could kill victims swiftly and without trace.

Conducted between 1938 and 1945 in central Moscow, they made possible some notorious murders including the assassination of Georgy Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, in London in 1978. He was killed with a poisoned pellet fired from an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge.

Beria had ordered the laboratory to be set up in 1938 after officers of the NKVD the forerunner of the KGB complained that they lacked effective poisons. Vladimir Bobrenyov, an investigator at the Russian general prosecutor’s office, has made a lengthy study of the case, unearthing Mairanovsky’s original reports.

“Mairanovsky apologised for the problems with the poisons, but said that unfortunately they could only practise on animals,” said Bobrenyov. “He explained that the exact results on humans were therefore hard to predict.”

A few days later the trembling Mairanovsky was called before Beria. When the scientist again explained why the reaction of humans to his poisons could not be predicted accurately, Beria smiled and asked him: “Who’s stopping you from experimenting on humans?”

The small laboratory on Varsonofevsky Lane, near the NKVD’s Lubyanka headquarters, sprang into action. The “patients,” said Bobrenyov, were prisoners who had been condemned to death by firing squad. They would have been better off being shot.

They were brought in groups to the small lab, isolated in cells, given “medicine” by “doctors” and then watched through small windows.

According to Bobrenyov, the poisons were at first administered in food. Mairanovsky’s reports describe how one of the first victims, a healthy, strong man, “rushed about the cell as his stomach pains worsened... it was clear he understood. He ran to the steel door, blood pouring from his eyes, beating the door with his fists and his feet. He shoved his hand into his slobbering mouth.”

The report describes how he visibly weakened, shrank “and grew quieter and quieter, until he was completely still.”

Sometimes poisons deadly to animals would not kill the prisoners and just produced pains and high fevers. But this was no reprieve. “If they didn’t die, then they’d nurse them back to health and try again,” said Bobrenyov. “They would sometimes make as many as three attempts to kill them until they finally succeeded.”

There were no survivors from the experiments.

The prisoners were almost all convicted on Statute 58: engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda. One was an unnamed American who had been accused of spying and who was in contact with the American embassy throughout his time in prison in the southern town of Penza.

Then he was taken to the Moscow laboratory where he was told he needed a “preventive” injection. The “vaccine” was curarine, an alkaloid drug which is lethal if given in sufficient quantities.

In 1945 Mairanovsky’s researchers made a breakthrough with tests on German prisoners. The men died much faster than previous subjects within 14 or 15 seconds of their injections. But the real test came when the bodies were sent to Moscow’s Sklifosovsky hospital for post-mortems. The verdicts: natural causes.

The scientists were jubilant. “Mairanovsky felt he was on the verge of success,” said Bobrenyov. “The results had exceeded all expectations.”

However, Mairanovsky had not simply worked out how to kill people quickly and without trace. He had also noticed that when he administered the chemical mix he called Injection C, victims displayed a tendency to talk and answer questions during the 24 hours before they died.

“This led me to think that perhaps the mix could be used on suspects during the course of an investigation, to obtain what we call greater openness from suspects during interrogations,” Mairanovsky wrote. “It could have been extremely useful... with those prisoners who too energetically refused to admit their guilt.”

Mairanovsky was denied the chance fully to test out these theories; Vsevolod Merkulov, Beria’s successor as head of the NKVD, closed down the laboratory in 1945.

When Beria fell from grace after Stalin’s death in 1953, his order to conduct experiments on people was one of the crimes for which he was executed. Mairanovsky was jailed and, according to Bobrenyov, not one of the people who worked in the poison laboratory died of natural causes.

“They hanged themselves, shot themselves, drank themselves to death, or ended up dying in mental institutions,” Bobrenyov said.