Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Death and Horses in Ukraine


Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Death and Horses in Ukraine

Yutaka NagataYutaka Nagata

Khrushchev Remembers, an autobiographical overview of the USSR supremo’s life, although a ripping good read that also offers a timely insider’s view of the consolidation of Stalinist rule in Ukraine is, rather surprisingly, out of print.

Well, maybe not so surprisingly.

According to Victor Marchetti, the ex- Special Assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA who penned the bombshell The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence back in 1974 (which was published with black bars showing the 168 redactions demanded by the CIA) and led to the establishment of the Church Committee, the publication of Khrushchev Remembers was a rather complicated put-up job orchestrated by the CIA and the KGB.

In 2001, Marchetti wrote:

Perhaps the most startling example of the ClA’s manipulation of the publishing world is the case of Khrushchev Remembers. Khrushchev is still widely believed to have been the author. He is supposed to have dashed it off one summer and then said to himself, “Where will I get this published? Ah! Time-Life!” The tapes reached Time-Life, we all read it, and we told ourselves, “Isn’t that interesting.”

A little thought should be sufficient to dispel the notion that the KGB would allow Khrushchev to sit in his dacha dictating tape after tape with no interference. He certainly dictated tapes, but the tapes were censored and edited by the KGB, and then a deal was struck between the U.S. and the USSR, after it was decided, at the highest level, that such a book would be mutually beneficial. Brezhnev could use against some of the resistance he was encountering from Stalinist hardliners, and Nixon could use it to increase support for detente.

The CIA and the KGB cooperated in carrying out the operation. The tapes were given to the Time bureau in Moscow. Strobe Talbot, who appears on television frequently today and is Time’s bureau chief in Washington, brought the tapes back with him. I was present in an apartment in which he hid them for a couple of days. The tapes were then translated and a manuscript developed. During this period Time refused to let people who had known Khrushchev personally, including White House staff members, listen to the tapes.

Knowledgeable people began to tell me. “I don’t believe this.” “There’s something mighty fishy here.” When they read what Khrushchev was supposedly saying, they were even more incredulous. But the book came out, Khrushchev Remembers, accompanied by a massive publicity campaign. It was a great propaganda accomplishment for the CIA and the KGB.

I touched on Khrushchev Remembers in my book. I did not go into any great detail, merely devoting several tentative paragraphs to the affair. Just before my book was published Time was considering doing a two-page spread on me until they learned of my expressed reservations on the trustworthiness of Khrushchev Remembers. I began to get phone calls from Talbot and Jerry Schaechter, then Time’s bureau chief in Washington, telling me I should take out the offending passages.

I had written, correctly, that before publication Strobe Talbot had taken the bound transcripts of the Khruschhev tapes back to Moscow, via Helsinki, so that the KGB could make one final review of them. I told Schaechter and Talbot that if they came to me, looked me in the eye, and told me I had the facts wrong, I would take out the section on Khruschhev Remembers. Neither of them ever came by, the paragraphs stayed in my book, and in any event Time went ahead with the two-page spread anyway.

Some food for thought for consumers of the clandestinely recorded and providentially smuggled Zhao Ziyang memoir Prisoner of the State, perhaps.

With these caveats, Khrushchev Remembers is Khrushchev, even if he’s speaking through a KGB/CIA filter. And some important and interesting historical events are addressed.

Time Magazine

Time Magazine

One of which is the matter of Dr. Drobotko, as recounted in Khrushchev Remembers.

At the time under discussion, Khrushchev is the recently assigned Ukraine First Party Secretary and Stalin’s chosen instrument for imposing the center’s will on Ukraine, recently brutalized by the death of millions during collectivization, and to bring down the curtain on the feisty and independent and soon to be literally extinct native Ukrainian Communists. Then there’s the complication of thousands of dying horses, perhaps poisoned by aggrieved Ukrainians (killing of horses was considered an important element of resistance to collectivization) or even saboteurs in collusion with Hitler:

[In 1939 we] immediately found ourselves up against a dangerous problem. Horses were dropping dead on farms all over the western section of the Ukraine, along the Polish border…During a visit to a collective farm…I asked a stable attendant if he had any idea why the horses were dying like flies.

He told me that the horses were being poisoned.

“I saw this man administering poison to the horses,” he said, “so we grabbed him and turned him in. And you know what he turned out to be? A veterinarian!”

This was plausible enough. We figured that the Germans…might be trying to sabotage our economy and our military capabilities [As Edward Cruikshank points out in a footnote, the Red Army literally ran on horsepower until the Allies started delivering motorized vehicles during World War II—ed].

I asked Uspensky [People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs in Ukraine—ed], “Do you still have in jail any of the men who were caught poisoning horses?”

…He named some professor at the Kharkov Veterinary Institute, a Jew, and the director of the Kharkov Institute of Animal Husbandry, a Ukrainian.

…“Call them into your office, will you?”

“What’s the use? They’ve already confessed to the NKVD that they’re saboteurs and German agents…”

I went to the NKVD and the Jewish professor, a gray-haired man of about fifty, was brought to me.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I’ve already given two testimonies and I can only confirm what I said there. Yes, we’re German agents and we were given an assignment to poison horses.”

I wasn’t satisfied…I decided to set up a commission to look into the mysterious deaths of all the horses. I was faced with a problem here, too, because there had already been several such commissions, and when the horses kept on dying, the commissions had been dissolved and their members arrested and eliminated. Therefore, with some justification, it was widely thought that an appointment to serve on one of those commissions sealed a man’s fate.

Khrushchev calls in the president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Aleksandr Bogomolets. (Interesting current events sidebar: A. Bogomolets was the great grandfather of Olga Bogomolets, the “Chief Physician” or “Angel” of the Maidan who reputedly offered the much contested observation that snipers at Maidan were shooting police as well protesters in February 2014 that was referenced in the Paett-Ashton phone call.)

A. Bogomolets, after some LBJ-style armtwisting by Khrushchev glumly agrees to chair an investigatory commission so that other colleagues will not be too afraid to participate. To provide greater assurance that the investigation is successful and less of a death trap, Khrushchev tells Bogomolets he’ll set up a second commission to “double the chances of one commission’s coming up with the answer.”

I actually had another reason for proposing two parallel commissions. I wasn’t excluding the possibility that there were saboteurs about, and I was hoping that if a saboteur got on one of the commissions, the other commission would be made up of honest men…

Just to be absolutely safe, we added a third commission made up of Russian scientists from Moscow, headed by Professor Vertinsky…

Sometime later one of the Ukrainian commissions, Professor Dobrotko’s, came to the conclusion that the horses were being made sick by a fungus which grew in wet hay.

“When I realized this must be the cause,” Comrade Dobrotko told me, “I even contaminated myself with the fungus…and I came down with an illness very similar to the one which is killing the horses.”

Professor Vertinsky wasn’t willing to accept Dobrotko’s conclusions. Vertinsky was a Muscovite, and Dobrotko was a Ukrainian. At that time the difference was still very significant…finally Vertinsky informed me that he had agreed with Dobrotko’s findings…The recommended method for stamping out the disease was simply—keep hay dry.

Stalin had been following the whole affair closely…Professor Dobrotko was awarded the Order of the Laborers’ Red Banner. In my opinion he deserved the Order of Lenin…

We had won more than just a victory for our agriculture. It was a moral and political victory as well. But how many collective farm chairmen, cattle raisers, agronomists, animal husbandry specialists, and scientists had lost their heads as saboteurs before I stepped in and took charge of the situation?

How many, indeed?

There is a certain amount of black comedy in Khrushchev’s account of his skillful conduct of scientific forensics a la Stalin with a triple-commission pirouette, albeit skillful perhaps only in forestalling the arrest and execution of the scientists until the truth could be uncovered.

But of course, it was not at all funny to the Ukrainians involved, including Dr. Drobotko (1885-1966) whom, attentive readers will have noticed, is consistently misidentified as “Dr. Dobrotko” in the US edition of Khrushchev Remembers. To further complicate matters, modern references drop the Russian-language “Viktor Grigorevich Drobotko” in favor of the Ukrainian “Viktor Hryhorovych Drobot’ko.”

There are tantalizing traces of Dr. Drobotko and the horse-death crisis in the English-language historical record.

The Ukraine outbreak was apparently an ongoing, extensive, and self-perpetuating problem affecting horses throughout the west of Ukraine, “enzooitic” as they say in the epidemiology biz. It was first reported in 1931 (8 years before Khrushchev convened his multiple commissions) and killed thousands of horses due to gastrointestinal bleeding and neurological complications.

It also emerged in the shadow of the brutal collectivization movement, whose combination of utopianism, malice, incompetence, and mass starvation was eerily recapitulated in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

Stalin’s exercise in coercive agricultural planning saw Ukraine’s number of horses collapse as farmers slaughtered their horses either out of defiance of the collectivization movement or because ownership of livestock was a clear and fatal indicator of kulak status. The lack of equine draught power, in turn, exacerbated the agricultural dislocations brought on by collectivization. As the famine tightened its grip, more horses starved to death for lack of forage or were killed for food.

It is estimated that Ukraine lost half its horses—a decline of over two million head—during the 1930s, making the issue of persistent, widespread, and unexplained death of horses on Ukraine’s border with Poland a matter of strategic and political concern.

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

In his memoir, Khrushchev passes over the gigantic horse hecatomb of the worst years of the 1930s (during which time he was working under Stalin in Moscow), let alone the millions of people killed in the famine. Instead, he seems to be angling for some credit for resisting the urge to continue purging Ukrainians over the horse mystery, and allowing Dr. Drobotko to trace the problem to its scientific roots.

The culprit discovered by Dr. Drobotko was Stachybotris mold, and he coined the term “stachybotryotoxicosis” to describe the poisoning symptoms caused by the mold’s toxins.

Horses that consume large quantities of the mold in wet hay essentially have their GI tract eroded by the toxin, hemorrhage extensively, and die quite unpleasantly. Humans can also be sickened, usually by aspirating the mold (it is one possible culprit in the “sick building” i.e. fungal contamination syndrome) or handling contaminated hay, and display respiratory and/or dermatological distress.

I wonder how much mold Dr. Drobotko had to consume, if any, to test his theory. According to the official record, Drobotko’s team proceeded in the old-fashioned scientific way. After feeding horses with stachybotris-infected hay and seeing them get sick, Drobotko confirmed the hypothesis by growing the mold on agar dishes and feeding the pure mold to horses in escalating quantities with correspondingly dire results. Human experimentation was perhaps confined to duplicating the dermatological rashes that agricultural workers had experienced by rubbing mold on researchers’ forearms and experiencing similar outcomes. (Joseph Forgacs, “Stachybotryotoxicosis,” in Microbial Toxins, ed. S. Kadis et al.)

Maybe Dr. Drobotko ingested or applied the mold to test its effects; or maybe he believed he had a lock on the cause but needed to engage (or pretend to engage) in self-experimentation in order to impress Khrushchev with the strength of his scientific convictions and socialist loyalty.

In any event, although Dr. Vertinsky managed to hog much of the scientific glory, Dr. Drobotko’s achievement was acknowledged at the national level and his research received attention in the West after World War II as his article on stachybotrytoxicosis was published in English in the American Review of Soviet Medicine.

His entry in a USSR biographical dictionary published in 1958 and based on the work of German researchers lists his achievements and also confirms that the equine stachyotryotoxicosis crisis was indeed a big deal, scientifically and politically:

DROBOTKO, Viktor Grigorevich. Microbiologist and epidemiologist; Doctor of Medical Sciences; full member, Ukrainian supervisor, Microbiology Institute, Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences.

Born 1885, Dekhtyary, now Sumy Oblast. Grad. 1913 Medical Faculty, Kiev University; 1914-25 zemstvo doctor in Romny, now in Poltava Oblast; 1925-31 assistant, Kiev Bacteriology Institute; 1931 became scientific associate and 1938 director and scientific supervisor, Zabolotny Microbiology and Epidemiology Institute, Kiev (now Microbiology Institute, Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences); 1948 elected full member, Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences; member, editorial council, journal “Antibiotiki;” author, about 100 works in the field of microbiology and epidemiology, dealing with the typhoid-enteric group of bacteria, rhinoscleroma, bacteriophages, dysentery, vaccination, the chemotherapy of infectious diseases, etc.; with other scientists defined the etiology of human and equine stachybotryotoxicosis, caused by the fungus stachybotrys alternans; in the USSR this disease was formerly considered the result of deliberate [sabotage] infection of horses and human beings which led, in 1937, to mass arrests of veterinary surgeons and bacteriologists; produced a new vegetable antibiotic “Imanin;” Order of Lenin; Order of Red Banner of Labor; medals.

Drobotko became Director of the Institute of Microbiology of the Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences in 1944.

However, he was not out of the woods, as the distinguished Soviet geneticist S.M. Gershenson revealed in passing in his survey of the horrors Lysenkoism had meted out to Soviet sciences, not just genetics but also microbiology as well as other fields:

In these times [apparently the 1950s—ed.] there appeared in micro-biology a theory proposed by G. I. Boshian, and strongly supported by Lysenko and his patrons. Boshian asserted that under certain specific conditions viruses may become transformed into bacteria, or the reverse. On the basis of this theory he advocated drastic changes in modern medicine, in particular in micro-biology and epidemiology. Had these ideas been realized in practice, they would have done great harm to many people. True scientists who tried to criticize Boshian’s ideas were severely attacked in the press as enemies of Michurin’s [Lysenko-supported graft hybridization] biology. Professor B. G. Drobotko of Kiev was among those who suffered. Boshian’s doctrine was officially included in microbiology courses in the universities and institutes of the USSR.

After Stalin died, Khrushchev carried on as Lysenko’s patron (Lysenko did not completely fall from grace until Khrushchev was removed in 1964, though he had been progressively sidelined since Stalin’s death thanks to criticism from Soviet scientists pretty much across the board).

Maybe Khrushchev’s kind words about Drobotko—whose name he doesn’t seem to have remembered properly- were intended by his KGB and/or CIA amanuensi to rebuke the pretensions of the current crop of neo-Stalinists by reminding the Soviet world of the enormous and irredeemable debacle of Stalin’s support of Lysenko and Stalin’s crimes in Ukraine at the same time.

Drobotko served as Director of his institute until 1962 and published over 160 scientific papers before he died in 1965. Drobotko’s memory lives on at the microbiology institute in Kyiv, now renamed the D.K. Zabolotny Institute of Microbiology and Virology in honor of its founder.

It is clear that Drobotko is regarded as a major figure in the survival and development of Ukrainian science during the Soviet period. The Institute’s history webpage states:

In 1937 it was a target of national significance to reveal the etiology of the disease that had caused mass loss of horses in the western areas of Ukraine and Belarus. The task had been set to the scientists of our Institute: P. Marusenko (Director, Head of the team), V. Drobotko (Scientific Supervisor), and microbiologists P. Yatel, D. Kudlai, B. Eisenman, M. Kolesnyk, M. Pidoplichko and B. Kagan. The complex approach to solve this task gave positive results the following year: the causes of the disease were established, and the disease itself was liquidated. On February 12, 1939, all the above scientists were awarded with orders for their success. It was the first case of rewarding the Ukrainian scientists with high state decorations.

The Institute website also has a picture of Drobotko and his team from a contemporary news article commemorating their success in licking the equine stachybotrytoxicosis problem. Dr. Drobotko is second from the left in the front row.

D.K. Zabolotny Institute

D.K. Zabolotny Institute

I believe a full retelling of Dr. Drobotko’s career would illuminate the violence, resistance, and suffering that permeated Ukraine during the Soviet era and perhaps commemorate some of the victims by giving names and faces and history to the scientists, bureaucrats, and agriculturalists—most if not all Ukrainians, I assume—who perished during the wave of paranoia that answered the inexplicable equine outbreak. And a description of Dr. Drobotko’s struggles and achievements would preserve the history of efforts to restore dignity, normalcy, and continuity to science in Ukraine.

Well, somebody might tell this epic story, but it’s not going to be me, I’m afraid. The Zabalotny Institute—where, I believe, Dr. Drobotko’s papers are held—distracted, no doubt by the demands of science and the exigencies of the current crisis, did not respond to my repeated contacts by e-mail.


Anyway, it’s a story that should and, I hope, will be told in full.

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