In the original timeline, the island was searched by the Soviet government for uranium at the end of World War II. Prospectors instead discovered rich veins of "Element 99," a totally new element which promised virtually unlimited "free" energy if properly harnessed. Eager to utilize the new element in his weapons race with the United States, Joseph Stalin appointed Viktor Barisov project leader and pumped vast amounts of military spending into the program, establishing the research station of "Katorga-12."
Alongside fellow researcher Nikolai Demichev, Barisov oversaw research into various applications for E99, from agriculture and biology to weapons research and energy production. In October 1955, a massive fire destroyed part of the island's Worker's District and claimed the life of Demichev, without whose political influence the island eventually suffered a lack of personnel. Shortly after, an unexplained accident on the island killed much of the inhabitants and forced Moscow to close the project and erase all evidence of its existence, to the point of wiping the island off all official maps. This secrecy continued until 2010, when a US spy satellite overflying the island was knocked out by a massive radiation surge, prompting the assignment of a Spartan team to investigate the source of the radiation.
In the alternate timeline created after Renko saved Demichev, however, the island's work force continued to grow and research into E99 continued, eventually leading to development of the TMD. When Barisov refused to turn the TMD over to Demichev for his research, he and all of the island's other scientists who refused to cooperate were labeled "traitors" and executed. Demichev's desire for political power led him to be obsessed with the Singularity and its activation, only for a accident to occur a few months after its activation. The resulting explosion and burst of E99 radiation killed or mutated much of the island's life, prompting the evacuation of all survivors and the erasure of the project's existence from public knowledge. By 2010, the only remaining lifeforms are the "zeks" created by the radiation burst, the gangly mutants and mutant flora while time distortions created by the Singularity dot the island.
- Katorga (ка́торга, from medieval Greek: katergon,κάτεργον galley) was a system of penal servitude of the prison farm type in Imperial Russia. Prisoners were sent to remote camps in vast uninhabited areas of Siberia—where voluntary labourers were never available in satisfactory numbers—and forced to perform hard labour.
- In 1943 the Soviet Union restored "Katorga Works" as a more severe punishment within the Gulag labor camp system.