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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Russian chemistry not what it used to be

So have you thought of having your dioxin blood content checked after the word "tetrachlorodibenzoparadioxin" caught your eye in a newspaper article about the political impasse in Ukraine?

I don't blame you if you did - not after seeing what Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko looks after he had his now proverbial bowl of "fatty soup" with Gen. Ihor Smeshko, head of the Ukrainian security service. General Smeshko is reportedly chummy with the FSB, the Russian successor to the Soviet Union's infamous KGB.

Mr. Yushchenko has survived because of the skill of Austrian doctors, and he has even managed to function thanks to a catheter that pumps powerful painkillers into his spine.

Once a photogenic guy, he now looks like his grandfather and will likely remain that way. But he is lucky to be alive. For the rest of us, this incident makes more than just another argument for low-fat diets. (Fat being an ideal solvent for dioxins.) I hope this graphic incident may make U.S. moneybags think twice before sponsoring scientists in the dictatorships and quasi-dictatorships, notably in the former Soviet Union.

"The view inside our agency was that poison is just a weapon, like a pistol," a prominent ex-KGB defector, Alexander Litvinenko, who also served in the FSB, told The New York Times. "It's not seen that way in the West, but it was just viewed as an ordinary tool."

Apparently it is still viewed that way. The most recent cases in point include drugging and intimidation of a former Russian parliament speaker, after which he effectively quit the political scene, and poisoning of an independent journalist critical of President Vladimir Putin's methods of "fighting terrorism" in Chechnya, which sent her into a coma.

After Mr. Yushchenko's doctors conclusively established that he was poisoned, both Ukrainian and Russian authorities denied having a role in it.

"There is no evidence to support such claims," Yevgeny Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, told the New York Times.

Somehow, I am still convinced it wasn't the Red Cross who did it.

The good news is that science in Russia and its satellites, including chemistry and biology, has been on decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it looks like Western scientists will have to deal with finding effective countermeasures only for a more-or-less garden variety of chemical poisons and deadly biological agents in the near future, without having to worry about fundamentally new hazards.

As far as fundamental science and patience are concerned, the Putin regime is following the steps of those of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The former outlawed genetics and impeded nuclear research, and the latter refused to sponsor research that did not promise immediate military use, effectively preventing Nazi Germany from developing a nuclear weapon.

This has a lot to do with us still being here.

That's, of course, provided the rich countries of the West, including the United States, refrain from sponsoring researchers in the ex-Soviet states. One, of course, can make an exception, say for philologists, provided he doesn't believe in the Monty Python's "killer joke."



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