When westerners think of Siberia, gulags and human rights violations most likely spring to mind. With its extremely low temperatures, stretching 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero during winter months, Siberia is commonly thought of as a wasteland. But Siberia is also the home to something truly valuable: a huge supply of natural gas.
Getting that gas from the far reaches of the Russian northwest into Moscow and the other areas where people actually live and work, though? That was a challenge. In the late 1970s into the early 1980s, the Soviet Union had the skills and knowledge to engineer a solution, but with so many variables which required valves and pumps and other stuff to be adjusted on the fly, manual operation was not a viable option. And the Soviets did not have the expertise in computing required to automate more of the processes. Other countries did, but those countries were not about to sell this information to their Cold War foe.
So the Soviets did the next best thing: they stole it. The KGB sent an operative to a Canadian technology company which had software built for a sophisticated control system. The operative did his job, the Soviets built the pipeline, and gas flowed freely from Siberia westward.
And then, in 1982, the pipeline blew up. And blew up big. According to William Safire, the explosion was the equivalent of three kilotons of TNT, or, about a quarter or a fifth of the yield of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima 37 years earlier. The explosion was so large that it was detected by U.S. early warning satellites.
What caused the explosion? Apparently, the CIA.
A year or so before the explosion, a KGB spy named Vladimir I. Vetrov defected to France, providing French intelligence with thousands of secret documents later called the Farewell Dossier (Vetrov’s codename within French intelligence circles was “Farewell”). Some of these documents detailed the Soviet desire for the software needed to control the pipeline, and the CIA called in National Security Council economist Gus Weiss for advice. Weiss’ idea — put a Trojan Horse into the software the KGB was trying to steal and then, let them steal it.
Weiss went down in history as an unsung hero; he died in 2003 in what was officially ruled a suicide, but the Independent claims that “mysterious circumstances” surround his death. Vetrov returned to the Soviet Union and ended up killing another KGB agent, believing the other agent was on to Vetrov’s dual-allegiance scam; he was executed by the Soviets sometime before March of 1985.
Bonus fact: For much of the late 1980s, there was a rumor that the CIA created the AIDS virus, intending it to be a biological weapon (or creating it as a byproduct of biological weapon research). That rumor is false. The source of that rumor? The KGB, as part of an anti-U.S. propaganda campaign.
From the Archives: Eternal Flame Pit: A cache of natural gas in Turkmenistan which is burning brightly — and has been since 1971.
Related: “At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War” by Thomas C. Reed, a colleague of Weiss’ at the National Security Council. The book was the first to reveal the sabotage of the trans-Siberian pipeline.