A different poison is spreading today: Chelyabinsk has become a major transshipment center for Afghan opium and heroin, which enters Russia from Central Asia.
The drugs usually reach Russia from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in trucks or, in smaller amounts, tucked away in train compartments or nervous travelers' stomachs.
The trade is nothing new in Russia, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, it exploded. Afghan opium production climbed from 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to a record 8,200 metric tons in 2007, partly because U.S. and NATO-led troops put a low priority on curbing it. Heroin flooded into Central Asia, and on to Russia.
"When I heard the Americans were going to enter Afghanistan I thought they were going to solve the problem, to stop the drugs," said Yevgeny Roizman, who had connections with Russian organized crime before he became a member of parliament. He now runs an anti-drug organization in the city of Yekaterinburg, another big heroin-distribution hub north of Chelyabinsk.
"But in the period after they came, there was a big increase in the region . . . ," Roizman added. "It makes me think the Americans have done nothing to stop the drug trafficking."
Although it's an unintended consequence of the U.S. action in Afghanistan, some Russian officials trace the growing problem to an American plot.
Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, the national drug enforcement agency, told parliament in May that it was reasonable to "call the flow of Afghan opiates the second edition of opium wars." He was referring to the 19th-century war between Britain and China sparked by exports of opium from British India to China.
Ivanov isn't alone.
"I can name you a lot of politicians in Russia who said that the Americans specially arranged the situation in Afghanistan so that we would receive a lot of drugs, and this is the real aim of their occupation," said Andrei Klimov, the deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament. "I'm not sure this is true, but who knows."
The U.S. government takes no direct responsibility for fueling Russia's drug problem.
"I would say the entire international community is responsible. The U.N. Security Council looked favorably on the U.S. and NATO doing what they're doing in Afghanistan," a State Department official said, referring to the U.N. mandate backing the foreign presence in the country. "So when critics like Russia say the U.S. and NATO aren't doing enough, well, it's really the entire international community that needs to take action on this."
A second State Department official pointed to the lack of Russian effort to provide assistance in Afghanistan.
"The Russians have had opportunities to come to the table on this and to provide alternative options," the official said. "If this really was a priority for them, we could work something out."
Both officials were authorized to speak to a reporter only if they weren't identified.
In Russia, it's much easier to blame a U.S. conspiracy than to bring up the subject of corrupt officials, the Russian mafia and their involvement in the drug trade.
Russia's Federal Drug Control Service wouldn't respond to McClatchy's questions over the course of a month, nor would the Interior Ministry or the national intelligence service. The Russian government routinely suppresses basic information about drug-related trials, even the names of defendants.