From the Farside –“It’s Got Me” –The Short Tragic Legacy of Novichok, the Spy-Killer Chemical Weapon

 

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Andrei Zheleznyakov was working on chemical weapons in the 1980s when a hood malfunction exposed him to the deadly nerve agent. Before former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia collapsed on a park bench in Salisbury on 4 March, the only other person confirmed to suffer the effects of novichok was a young Soviet chemical weapons scientist.


“Circles appeared before my eyes: red and orange. A ringing in my ears, I caught my breath. And a sense of fear: like something was about to happen,” Andrei Zheleznyakov told the now-defunct newspaper Novoye Vremya, describing the 1987 weapons lab incident that exposed him to a nerve agent that would eventually kill him. “I sat down on a chair and told the guys: ‘It’s got me.’”

 

By 1992, when the interview was published, writes Andrew Roth and Tom McCarthy in today's Guardian, the nerve agent had gutted Zheleznyakov’s central nervous system. Less than a year later he was dead, after battling cirrhosis, toxic hepatitis, nerve damage and epilepsy.

But by deciding to go public, he joined those blowing the whistle on a chemical weapons programme that was still charging forward years after George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the 1990 US–Soviet Chemical Weapons Accord in which each pledged to halt the production of chemical weapons.

Despite Zheleznyakov’s role in creating a binary of a nerve agent believed to be more potent than the deadly VX nerve agent, he remains a hero to some.

“He gave all the information – I couldn’t do that at the time,” said Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical weapons scientist put on trial in Russia for first revealing the existence of the novichok program, speaking to the Guardian at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. “He was not afraid because he knew his days were numbered.”

Zheleznyakov was never prosecuted, but he could not outrun the poison. He lost the ability to concentrate, Mirzayanov said, and eventually isolated himself. He died in 1993 of a brain seizure while eating dinner, divorced and childless, largely disgruntled at the perceived indifference shown him by his superiors and journalists.

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