From German chlorine to Soviet Novichok: How chemical weapons poisoned the 20th century November 30, Day of Remembrance for Victims of Chemical Weapons November 30, 2023, 10:51

Poison is the weapon of cowards

The first mass use of chemical weapons occurred in the First World War. Later, the Germans, who wanted to break the French-British defenses north of Ypres, Belgium, waited for the right wind and opened the chlorine cylinders. A rising cloud covered the Entente troops and forced them to hastily retreat, but at the same time did not allow the Germans to take advantage of the gap and advance. At that time, the use of poison and chemical weapons was highly immoral and contrary to the 1899 Hague Convention. In response to the fierce protest of the Entente Powers, the Germans said that their actions were legal because the convention prohibited only the use of poisonous bullets, and nothing was said about fixed cylinders. The British and French were not satisfied with this justification and it was decided to give a symmetrical answer.

Soon both sides of the West were firing chemical projectiles at each other, and various other substitutes for the ineffective chlorine were invented. Chlorine creates hydrochloric acid when inhaled into the lungs, causing burns and suffocation. However, a high concentration of the gas is required to cause serious harm, chlorine clouds are clearly visible and instantly felt by the nose, and a simple wet gauze bandage protects against attack. Therefore, they tried to replace chlorine with colorless and less odorous phosgene. This gas disrupts the permeability of the alveoli, causing suffocation, which causes pulmonary edema. The main disadvantages when used as a weapon were the one-day delay before physiological effects appeared and poor distribution over terrain.

Another option for chemical weapons was mustard gas, an oily liquid used as an aerosol in warfare. It destroys living human tissue, causing the skin to become covered with ulcers and blisters at the point of contact, blinding the eyes, and severe inflammation of the lungs, often fatal.

In addition to these substances, the parties attempted to use other substances such as cyanogen chloride, which is generally toxic and whose effect is similar to that of potassium cyanide. However, none of the chemical weapons of World War I proved to be a panacea; Western countries quickly began providing gas masks to troops and teaching them self-protection methods. Chemical bullets were effective when used en masse where conventional ones had failed; because a high concentration of the substance can “pierce” the gas mask and it is impossible to wear it at any time of the day without removing it. This is easily explained by the fact that Russia had a very small supply of both chemicals and protective equipment, but this did not give the Germans and the army the decisive advantage that could be expected from a “miracle weapon”.

science achievements

Humanity was lucky that the chemical weapons of the First World War were very primitive. But even this led to the painful deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousands of people. Public opinion turned away from the idea of ​​poisoning the enemy, and in 1925 the Vienna Convention was signed, banning all use of chemical weapons but allowing their production and stockpiling.

In the mid-1930s, German chemist Gerhard Schrader made a breakthrough and obtained a fundamentally new type of toxic substance – tabun, the ethyl ester of cyanophosphoric acid dimethylamide. This organophosphorus compound has no direct analogues in nature and works as an inhibitor (“suppressor”) of the enzyme cholinesterase, which is necessary for the functioning of nerves. It helps stop the transmission of nerve impulses, and without it the nerve (and muscles) become “stuck” in an excited state and cannot return to a resting state. In practice, the nervous system is paralyzed, and therefore such toxic substances are called nerve agents.

Like sarin, which was soon discovered, tabun causes pupil constriction, dizziness, and mild asphyxiation in small doses. In case of severe poisoning, a person begins to experience severe convulsions, the body ceases to obey, and in less than half an hour death occurs due to paralysis of the heart muscle or cessation of breathing.

The Germans produced thousands of tons of nerve gas during World War II. The Nazis were known to have little respect for international agreements, especially those regarding humane methods of warfare. However, Germany never used these gases, probably due to Adolf Hitler’s personal phobia. During World War I, he was injured by mustard gas, which had a strong emotional impact. According to another version, which does not exclude the first, the Nazis became victims of disinformation; allegedly the Allies created gas masks that would rid themselves of organophosphorus compounds. In reality, on the contrary, the mass-produced filtered gas masks of those years were almost useless against tabun and sarin.

The “golden age” of nerve agents came decades later, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. Saddam Hussein then attacked Iran in the hope that the war would be child’s play and that he could capture Iraq’s oil-rich border regions. As a result, the war lasted for years, and the dictator decided to turn the tide on the battlefield with the help of sarin, tabun and mustard gas. The Iranian army was poorly organized and armed, so about 20 thousand soldiers and an unknown number of civilians died from chemical attacks during the war.

This is one of the many reasons why Saddam’s execution is considered a holiday in Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I regretthat he died before he had time to tell the court about all his cruelty.

What is “Novichok”?

Progress did not stop, and in the second half of the 20th century many countries sought to develop more lethal poisons. They also worked on it in the USSR, where the most successful project was “Foliant”. As chemist Vil Mirzayanov told the Moscow News newspaper in 1992, this program began in 1973 with the goal of creating third-generation nerve agents. All, like their predecessors, acted as a cholinesterase inhibitor, but required a much lower dose than sarin and the more advanced VX (created in the United Kingdom).

In the second half of the 2010s, substances of this class were mentioned in Western media in connection with a number of high-profile poisonings. They called them “Novichok”, as they were supposedly called during development in the USSR. Every new item appointed conditional index “Novichok-1”, “Novichok-2” etc.

“Novices” were available in gas, liquid and solid form. All of them were extremely poisonous, because prolonged contact with the skin of drops of liquid poison was enough to kill a person. Human survival is almost impossible if vapors or gases are inhaled and swallowed. Vladimir Uglev, one of the scientists of the Foliot project, denies that Andrei Zheleznyakov, another employee of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT), where Novichki was developed, was poisoned.

“Most likely, it was poisoned not only by the toxic substance A-255, but also by its highly toxic precursor A-252, to which alcohol and methanol are then added, and the result is Novichok.” Had he been poisoned by Novichok A-255, which was supposed to become binary (consists of two components) If it had been poisonous, he wouldn’t have had time to leave the study. This is apparently why the head of the laboratory, instead of injecting an antidote, sent him home and called doctors who would place Andrei in a special medical unit. “But the results were dramatic because the toxicity of the precursor was at the level of hydrocyanic acid.” believes Coal

But even its precursor was enough for the scientist to remain unconscious for ten days and suffer from dizziness, pain, epilepsy and the inability to concentrate for the rest of his life. Uglev himself suffered from the Novichok solution he received. The scientist immediately washed it off, but for many years after the incident, the skin in this area constantly sweated.

In 1997, Russia ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. Russia in 2017 reporteddestroyed the last chemical munitions.

Since ancient times, poisoning has been considered the most vile method of murder, and military poisons were especially despised. Despite this, the Germans openly legalized chemical weapons due to failures on the fronts of World War I. Poisons did not become “miracle weapons” at the time, but they maimed hundreds of thousands of people, and much more lethal toxins appeared after the war. The greatest success in the development of chemical weapons can be considered the breathing Soviet “Novichok”, from which one person died. About chemical warfare agents – in the article “”.

Source: Gazeta


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