Vladimir Artemovich Pasechnik: The hero amongst us
Updated: Mar 28, 2022
When Glyn and I recorded the last podcast we agreed it would not be right to discuss the catastrophic events unfolding in Eastern Europe. However, this is an old story, one that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. But first of all I needed to find something and today I finally did. Since this is very much something that is hidden in Wiltshire we felt it appropriate to share the story. The timing is purely coincidental.
In 1989 a Russian scientist, Vladimir Artemovich Pasechnik, defected to the United Kingdom. A native of Leningrad whose parents perished in the Nazi siege of that city in World War II, Pasechnik was an accomplished biologist. In 1974 at the age of just 37 he was invited by the Soviet Ministry of Defence to start a biotechnology institute in Leningrad. He was given an unlimited budget. The laboratory he created became part of the countrywide Biopreparat program and its function was to work on a strain of the plague, supposedly to develop a vaccine. It started work in 1981 but within two years Pasechnik realised that his laboratory had become part of a nationwide network of laboratories and factories dedicated to the production of biological weapons.
Pasechnik’s conscience eventually brought him to defect to the West. Never having been allowed to travel overseas before, as a reward for his services in the Summer of 1989 he was permitted to travel to France to sign a contract with the manufacturer of chemical laboratory equipment. This was his opportunity and he managed to get to the British embassy in Paris where he defected. He was able to tell the Western intelligence services that the Biopreparat program was actually ten times bigger than they suspected.
Pasechnik came to live in Wiltshire where he worked at the UK Department of Health's Centre for Applied Microbiology & Research (CAMR) at Porton Down before forming Regma Bio Technologies, which is involved in research into tuberculosis and other drug resistant infections. His family came to join him in stages through the 1990s. An unassuming man, he lived quietly in Shrewton just a minute’s walk from where I live. I don’t know anybody who remembers meeting him and I certainly had no knowledge of this brave man living amongst us.
Then, on 21 November 2001, Pasechnik died of a stroke at the age of 64. The doctors who treated him could not pinpoint a cause, but the stroke was more widespread than normal. There were many simultaneous clots and two-thirds of his brain was affected, which doctors described as highly unusual. However, his death was recorded as being from natural causes.
His son later said that his father voiced concerns about being targeted by the Soviet security services and had mentioned to him the poisoning of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978. The son’s suspicions were heightened following the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko from poisoning in London in 2006. Following the assassination attempt on the Skripals in Salisbury in March 2018 the British government vowed to re-examine 14 Russia-related deaths on UK soil following claims of possible Kremlin or mafia involvement. Vladimir Artemovich Pasechnik was not amongst them.
So what did I find today? At the time of the Skripal poisonings people in the village started to talk about the Russian who once lived and worked here, and who had died under suspicious circumstances. No one seemed to know much about him but I knew he was buried in a Shrewton graveyard somewhere. Then today, whilst walking past the graveyard of one of the village churches, I noticed the gate was missing. I went in to investigate, finding the gate broken and propped against a hedge. I glanced across at a gravestone that I had always been aware of but never really looked at despite its striking appearance. I went for a closer look and recalled that I had indeed studied it before and that the inscription was in Russian. I did an internet search of the name and realised that this was the man I had heard about. It was the grave of Vladimir Artemovich Pasechnik, a courageous and principled man.