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- On the History of the Study of Far East Scarlet-like Fever (Epidemic Pseudotuberculosis)
- Confessions of a Former Plagueologist
- What Mr. Karimi Saw and Should Have Seen When Examining the Work of the Zooparasitology Brigade in the Territory of the Turkmen AP Station
Vartan Ter-Vartanov extended my assignment for one more month so I could finish writing
the draft report in Stavropol. The draft report was corrected and supplemented by R.I.
Kotlyarova, a distinguished specialist in microbiology. Final editing was done by state prize
laureate professor Ye.I. Korobkova and professor V.N. Lobanov, who later was awarded the
title of honored scientist of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The final report
was submitted to the USSR MOH. So ended the work of the state commission to approve Lev.
I. Leshkovich’s proposed vaccine strains.
When my assignment ended, the director of the Scientific AP Institute of the Caucasus and
Transcaucasus appointed me to the position of physician in the vaccine department, which
produced live plague vaccine using the EV strain. I was very satisfied with this new position,
because my half-year participation in the approval process for strains 100 R6 and 3413 R6 and
the opportunity to associate with leading specialists of the AP system had sparked my interest
in this problem. However, the literature, my personal observations about the difficulties
of obtaining new vaccine strains, my intuition, and the given circumstances suggested that
the most promising line of research would be to develop the theoretical foundations and
practical recommendations for stabilizing the EV strain and the plague EV vaccine by means
of lyophilization. It should be noted that the problem had already been fairly well investigated
at the military institute system, but the strict secrecy that existed in those years prevented any
access to these materials. Therefore, beginning in 1960, the USSR AP system had to start
this research all over again. This was done under the supervision of the present author at the
Scientific AP Institute of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.
Nearly 40 years of work have produced important successes in improving the biotechnology
of the EV plague vaccine, as described very briefly in the article “Letter to a Friend” (Interesting
Stories…, 1998, no. 9, p. 194).
Since I have the opportunity here, I consider it my duty to at least give the names of those
responsible for this success. I had enormous help in getting established in this field from my
candidate dissertation supervisors and doctoral dissertation advisors, Mikhail Lvovich Bekker
and Nikolay Ivanovich Nikolaev.
Mikhail Bekker, doctor of medical sciences and director of the biochemical laboratory at our
institute, is an energetic and very good-natured person, erudite in many scientific fields. He
helped me on a daily basis with his advice during the process of preparing and performing the
first experiments, discussing the results, and writing articles and the dissertations.
Professor Nikolay Nikolaev, director of Mikrob, gave me confidence in the path that I selected
and in my interpretation of the results. This person, who held high positions and titles
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Stories of the Soviet Anti-Plague System
(institute director and major general of the medical service, among others), was accessible and
straightforward in dealing with subordinates.
My work was helped by long collaboration with a number of leading specialists at Mikrob, but I
would especially like to express my gratitude to professors T.I. Anisimova and L.V. Samoylova
for their selfless help, advice, and continual interest in our work.
During my entire time of working at the institute, I experienced the friendly support of I.F.
Taran, a charming person who was first a staff scientist and then deputy scientific director,
professor, and honored scientist of the Russian Federation, and also the support of Yury
Grigorevich Suchkov, director (1970-83), professor, and now corresponding member of
the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Both of them are leading specialists of the AP
system and thoroughly decent and principled managers, who judge their coworkers based on
professional qualities rather than favoritism.
And of course, because of their diligence, enthusiasm, and love for their work, the personnel
of the experimental laboratory of plague vaccines and the production department of our
institute made great contributions to, among other things, improving the biotechnology of the
EV plague vaccine, improving the quality of the vaccine, and writing and revising the technical
standards. These people, in addition to their research, participated in producing hundreds of
millions of doses of plague vaccine. Their research and development topics were relevant and
directly related to the needs of production practice. The results of numerous research studies
provided the basis for one doctoral dissertation and 14 candidate dissertations (A.I. Tinker,
1964, 1971; I.V. Pechnikova, 1966; E.A. Chernova, 1967; N.M. Kharkova, 1973; T.N. Funtikova,
1978; D.A. Budyka, 1980; M.N. Goncharova, 1981; B.M. Asvarov, 1983; E.G. Shpilevaya, 1983;
Ye.L. Rakitina, 1988; G.F. Ivanova, 1991; N.Ye. Pechnikov, 1991; K.S. Gyulushanyan, 1996;
and A.I. Bondarenko, 1995). Two other candidate dissertations were prepared, but were not
defended for incidental reasons. D.A. Budyka will defend his doctoral dissertation “Ways of
improving EV plague vaccine” this year.
Important contributions to the success of the research were made by highly professional
practitioners in the department. They are physicians G.N. Verkhovtseva, V.F. Ivanova, A.D.
Nekrasov, G.S. Novitskaya, N.A. Sarkisyan, A.V. Grebenyuk, V.V. Semenov, and V.D. Mayskaya,
and engineer A.G. Khoroshenky.
January 23, 1959. First row (left to right): physician A.I. Yepifanov, commission members L.M.
Osadchaya, V.Ya. Mikhaleva, V.N. Ter-Vartanov, V.N. Lobanov, physician T.V. Fedorova. Second
row: physician A.I. Tinker, laboratory assistant T.I. Volkova, physician N.I. Kolesnikova, laboratory
technicians M.M. Gerasimova, K.M. Romanova, V.I. Bulyatkina, A.I. Novikova, physician P.A.
Pavlova, commission members O.O. Slynko and O.R. Kuznetsova. Third row: laboratory technician
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P.G. Trofimova, laboratory assistants O. Lebedeva, M.A. Gerasimova, K.A. Larionova, Z. Ramkulova,
laboratory technicians M.A. Nazarova, K.A. Toropchipova, laboratory assistants T.S. Kondratyeva,
A.Ye. Murina, L. Nizhegorodtseva, … (?).
Akimovich, V.V., N.I. Nikolaev, L.F. Zykin, N.G. Ponomarev, and A.A. Popov, “In vitro selection of
virulent P. pestis strain variants with vaccine properties” (in Russian), ZhMEI, 1965, no. 6, pp. 64-68.
Asvarov, B.M., Experimental basis for increasing the immunogenicity of live plague vaccine (in Russian), candidate
of medical sciences dissertation, Makhachkala, 1983.
Bondarenko, A.I., Development of an electron microscopic method for quantitative determination of damaged cells of
EV plague vaccine (in Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1995.
Budyka, D.A., Use of medicines to prevent post-vaccine reactions in people after subcutaneous injection of EV live
plague vaccine (in Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1980.
Chernova, E.A., Possibility of evaluating the quality of dry live EV plague vaccine during storage based on the
amount of live microbes contained in it (in Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol,
Chernova, E.A., V.F. Ivanova, and V.D. Mayskaya, “Cell composition of dry live EV plague vaccine
with different storage times” (in Russian), Abstracts of reports to the scientific conference, October
1972, Stavropol, MOIP, 1972, pp. 56-57.
Funtikova, T.N., Comparative study of dry live EV plague vaccine prepared from agar and broth cultures (in
Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1978.
Goncharova, M.N. Several aspects of comparative study of plague vaccines (in Russian, candidate of medical
sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1981.
Gyulushanyan, K.S., Use of culture medium based on maize extract in the production of EV plague vaccine (in
Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1980.
Ivanova, G.F., Improvement of culture inoculum and culture inoculation conditions in the plague vaccine production
process (in Russian, candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1991.
Kharkova, N.M., Influence of iron ions on the growth and several biological properties of the EV vaccine strain of
the plague microbe (in Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1973.
Korobkova, Ye.I., Live Plague Vaccine (in Russian), Moscow, Medgiz, 1956.
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Stories of the Soviet Anti-Plague System
Pechnikov, N.Ye., Optimization of lyophilization conditions for live EV plague vaccine (in Russian), candidate
of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1991.
Pechnikova, I.V., Influence of drying medium composition on the thermal stability of dry live EV plague vaccine
during prolonged storage (in Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1966.
Ponomarev, N.G., and S.K. Gizzatullina, “Determination of the magnitude of ‘residual’ virulence of
plague microbe strains proposed as vaccine strains” (in Russian), in: Genetika, biokhimiya i immunologiya
osobo opasnykh infektsiy (Genetics, Biochemistry and Immunology of High-Risk Infections), Rostov-on-Don,
1967, no. 1, pp. 365-72.
Rakitina, Ye.L., Optimization of EV plague vaccine doses based on number of live microbial cells (in
Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1988.
Shpilevaya, E.G., Culturing of plague microbe by apparatus method on agar made of dry nutritional
yeast (in Russian), candidate of biological sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1983.
Shpilevaya, E.G., M.N. Goncharova, A.I. Tinker, and O.N. Lopatkin, “On spontaneous mutations
in dry live plague vaccine consisting of strains EV and K-1” (in Russian), High-risk infections in
the Caucasus. Abstracts of reports to the Scientific-Practical Conference on Natural Focality,
Epidemiology, and Prevention of High-Risk Infectious Diseases, December 20-22, 1978, Stavropol,
1978, pp. 342-44.
Suchkov, Yu.G., “Isolation of induced auxotrophic mutants of EV vaccine strain of the plague microbe
and characterization of amino acid requirements” (in Russian), Problemy osobo opasnykh infektsiy, Saratov,
1970, no. 6(16), pp. 61-65.
Tinker, A.I., On the question of optimum conditions for lyophilization of live plague vaccine consisting of EV strain
cultured on solid culture media (in Russian), candidate of medical sciences dissertation, Stavropol, 1964.
Tinker, A.I., I.V. Pechnikova, M.N. Goncharova, and N.M. Kharkova, “Magnitudes of ‘residual’ and
‘latent’ virulence as indicators of immunogenicity of plague vaccine strains” (in Russian), in: Abstracts
of reports to the All-Union Conference on Immunology and Immunoprophylaxis of Plague and
Cholera, Saratov, 1980, pp. 8-11.
Zyuzin, A.S., “On the reactogenicity of dry live 1, 17 plague vaccine” (in Russian), Abstracts of reports
to the scientific conference on natural focality and epidemiology of high-risk infectious diseases,
January 25-February 2, 1957, Saratov, 1957, pp. 129-30.
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On the History of the Study of Far East Scarlet-like Fever
Ivan Semenovich Khudyakov (pp. 88-132). Five photographs, two figures, 29 references.
This chapter describes the author’s work with Far East scarlet-like fever. A major part of the chapter is dedicated
to a description of Vladimir Alekseevich Znamensky (1928-97), a naval microbiologist who led highly important
investigations of epidemic pseudotuberculosis. Author I.S. Khudyakov won the contest for writing the best article of
As chief of the 180th High-risk Infection Sanitary-epidemiological Laboratory at the Strelok Naval
Base of the Pacific Ocean Fleet, author Khudyakov was assigned to investigate serious outbreaks of
an unknown disease among Soviet naval personnel in the Far East in 1959. He describes the disease
and the details of the investigation of this epidemic.
Khudyakov, a classmate of V.A. Znamensky, provides a brief biography of Znamensky and
reminiscences of their student days, including thoughts on several classmates who suffered political
persecution. He notes that Znamensky did his most important work in the Far East. Although an
echovirus was first suspected, Znamensky eventually found that the outbreaks had been caused a
previously unknown form of epidemic pseudotuberculosis.
He conclusively proved his finding by
infecting himself with the pathogen. On June 16, 1967, the day before he defended his dissertation
on the subject, Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper published an article describing his self-infection.
As a result, a large audience including television crews arrived at the Naval Medical Academy for
the dissertation defense. Such unprecedented commotion annoyed the dissertation committee, but
Znamensky was nevertheless awarded the doctoral degree. After Znamensky returned to Vladivostok,
a film crew arrived to make a documentary film about him.
Znamensky retired from the military in 1970 and returned to his native Kiev, where he continued
working as director of the Microbiology Department at Kiev Institute of Physician Continuing
Confessions of a Former Plagueologist
Yu.A. Shtelman (pp. 133-40)
This chapter describes the author’s career at the Astrakhan AP Station and provides sketches of the author’s colleagues
in the AP system.
See Interesting Stories... 9 (1999), p. 218.
This form of pseudotuberculosis is caused by the bacterial pathogen Yersinia pseudotuberculosis.
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Stories of the Soviet Anti-Plague System
On one occasion, Shtelman was exposed to infectious material when an alcohol burner sputtered, but
contrary to regulations, he did not report the incident.
No infection resulted. In another case that he
failed to report that a plague-infected animal escaped in his laboratory although he was able to capture
the animal. He eventually complete his dissertation work successfully without repercussions.
What Mr. Karimi Saw and Should Have Seen When Examining
the Work of the Zooparasitology Brigade in the Territory of
the Turkmen AP Station
Gertruda Stepanovna Starozhitskaya (pp. 141-50)
This chapter includes a narrative essay about the visit of an Iranian dignitary to an AP research camp in Turkmenistan.
G.S. Starozhitskaya worked at Mikrob from 1962 to 1996.
Starozhitskaya describes typical field conditions and the daily routine of epidemic control work. She
especially remembers a visit by an Iranian dignitary to their research camp in Turkmenistan. This
particular camp was selected for the visit because it exemplified the difficult conditions in which
workers conducted field research in an open environment. The primitive conditions, lack of amenities,
and the presence of female staff members without their husbands surprised the visitor. The Iranian
informally talked with Starozhitskaya, which made her fear that her offhand remarks would violate the
secrecy restrictions imposed by the KGB.
During the 1970s, as a parasitologist in the parasitology laboratory at Mikrob, I collaborated
with specialists at the Turkmen AP Station on research, which involved digging up entire great
gerbil colonies and collecting fleas from different parts of the burrow (entrance, passageways
at depths of 0-60 cm, 60-120 cm, and 120-180 cm, as well as feeding chambers and nests).
We trapped all the rodents from these colonies and then collected fleas from them. The
ultimate goal of the work was to be able determine the flea population in colonies based on
the percentage of fleas on the gerbils, thus avoiding the considerable work of digging out the
Because this was a multiyear endeavor covering all seasons, the administration of the Turkmen
AP Station proposed that the work be done at the permanent zooparasitology outpost where
the staff zoologists made regular observations about the condition and habitation frequency
of marked colonies. This outpost was located at Energache Oasis, 40-50 kilometers north of
Ashkhabad. This site was particularly attractive because it had a dugout 2 meters deep with
An alcohol burner produces a hot, sootless, non-luminous flame that microbiologists use to sterilize the looped end of
an inoculating needle. If there is too much material in the loop, it can sputter and thus the unsterilized material can splash
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about 15 m² of floor space that was well equipped for living quarters, and also had a shallow
dugout laboratory with good lighting. In addition to these two dugouts, there were two small
tents. One was a well-equipped kitchen with a large table, two pantries, decent cookware, etc.
The other was a sleeping tent with cots and beds for the seasonal workers. There was a large
metal barrel filled with water, which could be heated up in an hour, but which made the water
somewhat rusty. We had to conserve this water. These details will be of significance later in
In addition to the laboratory technician Olya from Mikrob and myself, the expedition team
included Zamira Laktimirovna Kusova, a zoologist from the Turkmen AP Station. She was
from the mountainous region of Ossetia and proud of it, which was obvious from all her
mannerisms and behavior, which sometimes caused difficulties in our daily affairs. But she was
an excellent zoologist; serious and thoughtful, with outstanding scientific intuition and ability
to analyze materials. The fourth woman was the middle-aged cook: it is very difficult to find a
cook for fieldwork in Central Asia, but we were fortunate because our project did not involve
traveling from place to place. The male portion of the team consisted of one truck driver, two
experienced rodent extermination technicians from the station staff, and five seasonal workers.
We worked earnestly and enthusiastically, all the while enduring the everyday hardships and the
One day, a car arrived from the station. We were told that a special guest would be coming
– Mr. Karimi, from the Baltazard’s laboratory in Iran. He had come to Ashkhabad to learn
about how the USSR anti-plague service operated. They showed him and told him about many
things, and apparently he had been received at the Turkmen SSR MOH. However, Karimi
was really interested in seeing primary field surveillance work by a zooparasitology field team.
Apparently, his insistent requests raised some concerns among the administrators of the
Turkmen AP Station, but something had to be done. It was decided that our scientific group
would be the “showcase” team. The messenger gave me a number of instructions, the gist
of which, among other things, was that no “science” was being done here. The situation was
explained to the workers, who were told to do nothing more than greet the visitors and not get
into any conversations whatsoever with them, and fortunately, no such occasions arose.
The next day, we waited for the visitors, but lunchtime came, and they still had not arrived.
Finally, we could see the car approaching. Karimi had the appearance of an interesting, strong
(well-built) middle-aged man. He was dressed simply and elegantly, although clearly he was
dressed for the field, not the city. He was accompanied by Aziz Kurbanovich Akiev, who was
from the Scientific AP Institute of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus and was head of the WHO
Plague Collaborating Center in the USSR. There also was an interpreter, although Akiev knew
the Farsi language very well (it was said that he belonged to a high-mountain Turkmen clan).
Senior zoologist I.V. Zhernovov, an excellent specialist and a worthy subject for a separate
memoir, represented the Turkmen AP Station.
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Stories of the Soviet Anti-Plague System
We introduced ourselves, and they inspected the camp, the laboratory, and our dugout living
quarters. We talked a bit about general topics. By then, it was already time for lunch so everyone
was invited to the table. We had practically no way of preparing a celebratory feast, but our
cook somehow managed to do it. The guests from Ashkhabad had brought brandy, green
vegetables, and some dessert, so everything turned out rather well. During lunch, there were
the traditional toasts and conversations. Everyone got to know each other better and loosened
up somewhat. Karimi began making general conversation. But this was what I feared the most.
We were so frightened by ending up at the Lubyanka Prison, the “gray” building (in Saratov the
KGB offices were in a beautiful gray stone building), because of the various secrecy pledges we
had signed that I was afraid not only to speak, but to even open my mouth.
I was sitting next to Karimi at the table. After lunch, he asked permission to smoke and having
received it, graciously offered me a Winston cigarette (I remember the brand well, because
this was an exotic item at the time). I was in a quandary, not knowing what the best thing to
do was, and not wanting to sully the reputation of Soviet women. I gave Akiev a what-to-do
glance, and he replied with a discreet approving nod. I took a cigarette and stalled for time,
hoping to put off any further questions. Then Karimi asked how long we usually stayed here.
I was afraid to say how long because a real zoological team usually works three to five days.
I gave a vague reply of about seven to 10 days. Akiev got me out of a jam by saying that the
time varied, depending on the assignment. Seeing that Akiev was inclined to be “truthful,” I
calmed down somewhat. Karimi asked some very simple questions, but we suspected a covert
motive. For example,
“Where is your shower?”
“We don’t have one,” I answered.
“Where is the toilet?”
“To the right for women, to the left for men. We use the sand dunes and a shovel. We dig a hole
and fill it with sand,” I answered in an attempt at humor.“Do you have an electric generator?”
“Then how does the refrigerator run?”
This question threw me off, because at the time what I knew as a “refrizherator” was what they
used to transport frozen fish from Astrakhan. I did not realize that he only meant an ordinary
household appliance (kholodil’nik].
“We don’t have a refrigerator,” was my reply.
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“And where do you get fresh water?”
I apparently did not hear something about cold water, but as for fresh water, I pointed at the
barrel. With near-disgust he asked:
“Can you drink that?”
“We don’t drink it. We drink green tea, hot or tepid. Sometimes if we want something refreshing
to drink, we visit the nearest shepherd, about two or three kilometers away, and there our
whole team can drink either shubat (sour camel’s milk) or ayran (sour cow’s milk diluted with
water). These are quite tasty, especially when the temperature outside is 50°C.”
Karimi told us about how people live and work in his country. They live in proper prefabricated
buildings with all conveniences. Women never work on field assignments. Then he began
asking about the personal lives of women working in the desert. He asked if I was married
and who my husband was. He could not have come up with a better question, since at the
time, my husband worked for the KGB. I had to tell him that my husband was a physician in
the general healthcare system. When asked about what my husband thought about my long
absence, I answered that we respect each other’s work. Karimi asked the other women the same
question. We hardly noticed how quickly the time went by. Akiev, who seemed displeased with
the conversation, began to insist on leaving. Karimi did not respond positively to this proposal
and even stated his intention to spend the night here, which brought a heated negative reaction
from his companions who mentioned the events planned for the next day. But the inquisitive
guest, ignoring Akiev’s displeasure, expressed a desire to see the colonies we had dug up after
finding out that they were not far from the camp.
Forgetting about any conspiracies, we drove out to the object of our pride: a colony dug down
to the nest, about 2.8 meters deep. The picture was rather impressive; a deep pit and a pile of
excavated sand. Karimi was not so much delighted as surprised; why do this? Quickly getting
my bearings, I said that, of course, we usually do not dig out the whole colony, but that in
this case, we had a special assignment to gather fleas from the nest to see whether they were
Upon our return to camp, we began to say goodbye and the guest asked to be photographed
with the women. Again I threw a secret glance at Akiev, fearing that our faces would be on the
record “over there.” He secretly nodded his approval, and our encounter was recorded on film.
Later one of the people who accompanied Karimi that day told us another interesting thing
about the visit. It turns out that the guests were delayed in arriving at our camp for the following
reason. When Karimi expressed an insistent desire to see a zoological team at work, this caused
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Stories of the Soviet Anti-Plague System
a great panic among the leadership of the Turkmen AP Station because the route had to be
approved by the KGB offices (as in our popular song, “can’t go there, can’t go here”).
road into the desert north of Ashkhabad (the usual route and the shortest) crosses the Karakum
Canal, and it is probably considered a strategic target. On the eastern road, there is a large area
rimmed with barbed wire, also apparently a strategic target. To the west of Ashkhabad is the
Kartlinskoe freshwater reservoir, but not far from that is the municipal dump. And although
everything at the dump is properly handled, irresponsible garbage truck drivers just drop their
loads of household and construction trash a few kilometers short of the dump rather than
going all the way out there. Therefore, the visitors’ driver took the longest route, bypassing the
Kartlinskoe reservoir. This took a lot of time, especially because cars cannot drive very fast
over desert sands.
In recalling this encounter, I think that Karimi understood the entire “game” from the very
beginning. When the visitors got in their car to leave, I noticed Karimi looking sadly and
dejectedly at the three young women working under such conditions for the good of their
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