Early in June I checked an important item of my list of ridiculous and obscure things I want to see before I die. Today I want to share with you another one that I will probably never see in person, although as recently as the 1980s you could hear it at any point on the globe.

The Soviet Union, and Russians before and after it, equate size with power and success. When they build something, they build it big. Real big. Because if it's the biggest, it must be the best. And the best things are necessarily made by the best people. The logic is impetuous.

I talked a little about the idea of ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems in the previous post. The American approach to getting early warning of a sneak attack was to build a series of small radar stations across the remote Canadian Arctic. The Russian approach, not altogether surprisingly, was to build a really, really big radar. A radar so goddamn big that it could essentially see halfway around the globe. The result of this brute force approach was known to the Soviets as Duga-3, and to the prying eyes of NATO as "Steel Yard." To every amateur radio user on the planet, though, it was called the Russian Woodpecker.


To make the concept work requires a very big radar and a huge amount of power. The huge amount of power produced a radio signal that created an equally huge amount of interference with radio signals and other forms of communication. If the nickname "Russian Woodpecker" was not self-explanatory, here's a clip of what the interference sounded like on normal radio channels. It took almost no time to locate the source of the signal as this massive pile of metal Tinker Toys near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Good thing nothing bad would happen there around 1986!

The USSR shut the contraption down pretty quickly when its functions were taken over by other, less cumbersome technology like satellite monitoring. The "Steel Yard" itself remains standing, though, and despite having been abandoned to nature over 30 years ago it remains in remarkably good condition. It's a rather popular destination for thrill-seekers, armchair Cold War anthropologists, and base jumpers. Eventually the elements (or a tactical airstrike) will take it down, but until then it will keep calling my name. Metaphorically. Unless they decide to turn it back on again.

15 thoughts on “NPF: RUSSIAN WOODPECKER”

  • Is it OK to miss the Cold War? All that massive expenditure for R and D, now we have the internet, cell phones and VELCRO!
    We didn't worry about unknown unknowns- the Soviets were always the bad guys.
    OTOH, I'll never forget the nightmares I had as a six year old during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Good times.

  • This reminds me of Numbers Stations. The more I find out about the Cold War, the more astonished I am that we lived through it.

    Given that the Woodpecker is probably mostly painted rust by this point, I hope you can get to it before it collapses spectacularly.

  • Jack the Cold Warrior says:

    I was into ham radio when I was a teen, so I've heard the "Woodpecker" as well as other USSR jamming. They really hated Radio Free Europe.

    It was so cool in the late 60's and 70's to listen to the BBC, Radio Moscow and other national flag ship stations on shortwave…

  • @Robert; there were several close calls during the Cold War, including one that inspired the movie War Games (the 1983-ish version, not the current-ish one) and the international hit "99 Redballoons" from a German band in German (and English, for the Murkkun listeners): a bug in the computer system made the Russians think the USA had launched an attack against them. One brave soul figured out it was just a glitch and refused to return fire despite orders to do so. The Washington Post (and possibly other sources) had a story about it a couple of years back. I'm old enough to remember St. Ronnie Ray-gun's plan for giant space Tupperware that was supposed to keep us all safe from the Russkies and their "nuke-u-lar" weapons.

  • "Because if it's the biggest, it must be the best. And the best things are necessarily made by the best people. The logic is impetuous."

    "The logic is impetuous" – that's a genuine comedy gem. Bravo.

  • "Early in June I checked an important item of my list of ridiculous and obscure things I want to see before I die."

    you have got to get a girlfriend!

  • schmitt trigger says:

    Reading thru several links, one of them mentioned that the Duga-3 facility had cost over 7 billion rubles, which was twice as much as the nuclear power plant nearby.

    All of it, just corroding away and being reclaimed by nature.

  • The Pale Scot says:


    September 26 is Stanislav Petrov Day, I have a Stoli' every year in his honor.

  • @PaleScot; that's his name; Petrov! I didn't take the time to look it up last week, but that man saved the world.

  • I was 11 during the Cuban crisis, and tried to build a shelter in our crawl space. unfortunately, I was 11, and had a pick-axe and shovel, and a wheelbarrow.

    I needed a jackhammer w/ air-compressor and 2 or 3 adults. after working my butt off for many hours, the crisis was ended, and I had to stop work on the family shelter. The ridge-top our house was built on was what is called cap-rock, harder than all the other rock in the local stratum, too hard for an 11 year old to chop through.

    Many years later I was in the USN, assigned to the Navy base in Key West, where the local strategic imperative was to protect the Key West Conchs and Cubans from the Cuban commies. It was surreal, and I was there for most of my enlistment. There were anti-aircraft rocket launchers surrounded by tall walls of broken shell in several spots on the island, and a Naval Air Station.

    And the submarine base, where we intended to protect North America from the Communist Comintern with diesel submarines. My ship. the tender, was built starting in 1942, and went into duty just in time for the last few months of WW II. It was still in service when I was discharged, headed for the Med where it would support a squadron of fast attack boats… the second quietest boats in the world after the boomers.

    Long time ago.

  • Saw this at Sundance this past year, won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary category.

    Essentially, it follows an eccentric Ukrainian who starts looking into the idea that Chernobyl was intentionally forced to meltdown, by specific figures in Moscow, thus diverting attention away from the $7B failure that was the Duga-3. All juxtaposed against the RUS-UKR escalating relations and UKR uprising.

    You'd love it. Right up your alley.

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