The Russian Woodpecker

  • On my visit to Chernobyl and Pripyat, one of the places I was taken to was a site known as Chernobyl-2, Back in the 80s it was labelled on the maps and the signposts as a Children’s’ Home. It’s 11km outside Pripyat in a straight line, and down a 7km-ish road through the trees off the main road between Pripyat and Chernobyl City. It’s deep in a forest, almost as if they wanted to hide the fact that it wasn’t really a Children’s Home.

A large metal framework, a bit like a radiator, seen from below.
The Duga Array, the Russian Woodpecker, as seen from ground level and close up
Rather, it is a huge piece of metal piping. It looks like a radiator, and was more formally known as the Duga-1 array. In the 1980s, in the West, it was given the epithet ‘The Russian Woodpecker’.

What was the Duga array?

It was never officially revealed at the time what this huge hunk of metal in the forest actually was, although it’s clearly not populated by small people. However most people in the West at the time believed it was an over-the-horizon radar array, and this has since been confirmed by the release of Soviet-era documentation.

My knowledge of physics isn’t great, it was never a subject I found interesting. As such, I’d suggest doing your own research on what over-the-horizon radar is, and how it works. As far as I can gather though, radar involves firing radio waves into the sky, and if they bounce back, well, you’ve found yourself an object. Normal radio waves though travel in straight lines, which means since the Earth is curved, you can only detect something in your line-of-sight, otherwise the wave carries in a straight line into the atmosphere and away. An Over-the-Horizon radar is one that uses simple physics to ‘bounce’ the radio waves off the sky, thus allowing them to travel much further around the Earth. Doing this effectively requires large computing power and even larger transmitters and receivers, located close to but still some distance from each other.

Close-up of the back of a large metal frame. It disappears off the right of the image and goes on for some way beyond. From this angle it's also clear that the bottom of the frame is bend slightly to gie it almost like legs to stand on.
The Duga Array, as seen from behind
In this case, the array at Chernobyl is part of the Duga-1 array (‘Duga’ meaning ‘Arc’), and is the receiver of the two – the transmitter was 57km NE, just north of the town of Slavutych. This is ironically where the people of Pripyat were evacuated to.

Its location here was twofold. It was in a relatively remote area of the Western Soviet Union, close to The West, and surrounded by trees. This makes it a perfect spot for both remaining hidden and yet be easily used for tracking what the enemy was doing. However it was purposely constructed close to the Chernobyl Power Plant. The two came as an item, in a sense, because it’s believed about a third of the entire output of the power plant was used by the array. Tracking foreign objects on this scale used a lot of power.

Why was it called ‘The Russian Woodpecker’?

The best frequencies for over-the-horizon radar seem to be in the low MHz range, in what’s commonly known as ‘shortwave radio’, similar to those used by amateur and CB radio, and air traffic control. The Duga array’s power output was estimated at around 10 MW.

This meant the pulses sent out by the Duga array were picked up as transmissions on radio sets. What it sounded like was a constant and repetitive ‘buzz’, at regular intervals (several times a second), similar to how a woodpecker would sound, hence the name. The problem was the signal was strong enough to ‘leak’ over several frequencies and affect other broadcasts, making that wavelength range virtually unusable, to the extent people manufactured ‘woodpecker-proof’ radio systems. Note this affected the Soviets in the same way as the West, and at some point it changed frequencies without warning.

View from directly underneath the Duga Array frame, looking upwards. The pattern of the frame is such that a small patch of sky is visible between all the metallic pipework.
The Duga Array, as seen from directly below
In radio culture, the Russian Woodpecker became synonymous with other shortwave broadcasts like Numbers Stations (spies), and other weird radio broadcasts like UZB-76 (The Buzzer), and ‘Letter Beacons’ of repeating morse code that translate into a letter (eg ‘R’). These may nor may not be a way to, essentially, keep that frequency clear (for someone like the Russian military) and ensure no-one else could broadcast on it.

I find all that kind of thing fascinating; mysterious radio noise and the like. Especially because something like that was so … ‘illicit’ growing up – I never thought I’d get a chance to see something so intrinsic to the enemy’s military.

How big was the Russian Woodpecker?

Well, you can actually see it, on the horizon, from the top of the tower blocks in Pripyat. As secret sites go, it’s not exactly perfect, especially as back in the day I’d imagine there was less forest cover.

Image is taken from the top of a tower block in Pripyat. It's of a plain sky and treescape, with a small, barely distinguishable series of metal towers in the distant mist.
The Duga Array, as seen from the top of a tower block in Pripyat
– “Oh, what’s that metal frame in the distance that looks like a radiator?”
– “Comrade, that’s a children’s home”
– “It … clearly isn’t”
– “Are you saying the Party lies? Off to Siberia with you”

It’s about 700 metres long and 150 metres high. It’s not something you can just sweep under the arboreal carpet.

What was it like to visit the Russian Woodpecker?

The site itself is quite well protected. The road to it ends at two sets of huge gates, each embossed with a metallic 5-pointed star of the kind of so beloved of communist aesthetic. One set of gates is very much suffering in the years since abandonment, the other is still quite solid.

The entrance to the Duga Array. It's two solid gates in the road that open outwards from the middle. On each of the gates is a large embossed 5-pointed star. Just behind the gates the edge of the array can be seen.
The main entrance to the Duga Array
At the array are a couple of buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s ex-Polytechnic. One is large and white, the other quite low-rise and built of orange brick. Both are very cuboid in shape, whose only decoration is a large number of windows. Because obviously anything stylistic is the work of decadence and doesn’t meet strict utilitarian standards. Outside the buildings are a series of abandoned vehicles, many quite heavy-duty, all in various states of disrepair and almost certainly undriveable.

Inside the buildings are long, wide, corridors, some of which have had floor collapses so you have to walk along the supports/foundations. The walls are, like everywhere else, pretty damaged with bits falling off everywhere. There’s not much light in these buildings as the windows are quite small and often quite distant. The roof seems to be falling down, or at least the insulation is falling through the metallic beams holding it all up. I obviously can’t help but wonder about the presence of Asbestos, but one assumes if it were present in dangerous levels, they wouldn’t let us in here in the first place. Right?

A broken computer keyboard with cyrillic keys lies on the floor of the complex, electronics smashed.
Broken keyboard in the nerve centre
In some of the rooms are pipes and other various metallic objects of unclear provenance, sadly none of which are humming eerily or glowing green. Scattered on the floor are the wrecked remains of electronic equipment, like keyboards, with the circuit boards clearly visible. Worn-out signs in Russian, some slightly faded, may once have told you what everything did. More likely they were some kind of motivational poster. And by motivational I mean ‘Glory to the Motherland’, rather than живи, смейся, люби. Maybe they’re telling you not to touch anything unless authorised. But if there’s something you learn from playing video games, it’s to go nowhere near any pipes, wires, or unlabelled metal objects.

A large open-plan room with a broken desk console of some kind of the centre. Glass, wood, wires, and paperwork are scattered on the floor nearby.
Some kind of console I guess?
The main control room still exists and looks like something straight out of a 1970s sci-fi movie, *after* the heroes have blown it up. There’s large block cabinets housing control panels, in futuristic grey, covered with switches, buttons, and long-broken LEDs. Instructions still line the walls, urging long-gone operators to initiate the correct sequence lest the missiles be launched. That’s probably not true, but who knows what secrets lurk underneath a children’s home.

A stereotypical 1970s sci-fi operations centre, with LED-type display buttons on panels, and lots of apparent network-representative displays. It's in ruins; broken plastic and metal on the floor, and wires hanging down from the ceiling.
The main control room of the Duga Array
The floor is covered in wires, pulled out from their casings and plopped on the floor, while everywhere there’s broken pieces of metal, shards, screws, nails, and broken glass, amongst other detritus, Somewhere in here there might still be a live microphone I can use to recreate a numbers station and confuse the heck out of listening radio hams, but I can’t find it. What I do find is a weird … what can be best described as a 1970s space-age diorama. It’s the sort of thing that two parents would make out of cardboard the night before a primary school assembly. It’s of the top third of the Earth, a flat-rendered arc, with a progressively darker night sky above it, dotted with stars.

A representation of the earth in space; the top third of a large globe with a starry sky above it. The part of the Earth pictured is centred on the North Atlantic. It is in place directly in front of a couple of control console desks.
You can see where they were interested in, for sure
It was fascinating to see somewhere this notable up close, especially given the nature of the site. For decades it didn’t even officially exist, never mind was accessible, and therefore has a very strong sense of mystery and adventure. In fairness, much of the ex-Soviet Union is a bit like that to me. It’s somewhere just that but out-of-reach that we knew we’d never be able to get to – and the people there would never be able to get to us – which is why places like this hold a special interest for me. It’s that feeling of ‘this is off-limits’, like most abandoned places, but doubly so, because it’s an abandoned place that was already impossible to reach, and which had that aura of ‘but what’s really going on, what’s it all about’.

There’s almost certainly a whole host of secrets still unrevealed. And maybe that adds to the feelings of adventure.

Share this post: