Chernobyl | The Russian Woodpecker

As we made our way out of Pripyat the day was drawing to a close. The light was fading gradually and our snow clad surroundings were drenched in the cold blue of the evening light. We walked towards the edge of town where the buildings were less numerous and the snow fell heavily upon us, adding a fresh layer of powder to the crisp white ground we were walking on. A clearing in the trees denoted a road; our bus was waiting for us, headlights on in the gloom.

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We seemed to race down the frozen road, the dark shadows of the forest flashing past the windows. We had one last thing to see before this day was over and we headed back to Kiev, just 10 minutes down the road we pulled in at our last destination of our Chernobyl trip – the decommissioned military site and home of a huge antenna, part of the DUGA radar system which was the cause of the ‘Russian Woodpecker’.

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The radar system is an over-the-horizon system that was used as part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network. Two Duga radars were built, the one we were visited near Chernobyl and the other in eastern Siberia. The system was operational between July 1976 and December 1989. It was a powerful system that emitted a sharp, repetitive tapping noise disrupting legitimate broadcasts, oceanic commercial aviation communications and utility transmissions, to name a few. The unclaimed signal initially led to much speculation which resulted in rumours of Soviet mind control and weather control experiments. The disruption became such a nuisance that it resulted in thousands of complaints from many countries and was nicknamed the ‘Russian Woodpecker’.

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Passing through old-school, stereotypically military styled gates we appeared to be walking into a dense woodland. The sky was a deep royal-blue and snow continued to drift down on us, any detail of the trees had long disappeared and we were left to walk past their skeletal silhouettes set against the darkening sky. Rounding a corner we were suddenly confronted with the radar, it was amazing that we hadn’t noticed it earlier as it lurched high into the sky above us. Also silhouetted in the growing darkness, it was a myriad of straight lines, an enormous structure of beams and cables creating repetitive patterns overhead.

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An impressive feat of engineering and all the more so that they were able to keep its military use a secret, claiming it was nothing more than a normal radio station. The base itself appeared on maps as a children’s summer camp and it was only after the disaster that its true usage was made known to the world. We were told about underground bunkers that are still locked and untouched to this day; with no true record of their location being saved they remain unfound. It was a huge operation that was powered by the adjacent nuclear power plant. Apparently one of the four reactors was running solely to power this base and the antenna.

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Walking back in the dark, the air was growing ever-colder and we were pleased to get back on the bus. The headlights illuminated the isolated snowy road ahead of us as we made our way to the final check points. On the way out they were far less interested in our identities; instead we were being scanned for radiation on our clothing, ensuring neither of us were showing signs of dangerous levels before leaving the exclusion zones. We went through the process twice before settling ourselves in for the two hour journey back to Kiev in the dark.

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