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Woodpecker in Chernobyl

Huge steel construction lies in the forests of Chernobyl exclusion zone. Hidden from people`s eyes, once it could be heard all over the world. Aimed to spot intercontinental ballistic missiles, it was never adopted by the USSR Ministry of Defense. Top-secret system caused as many issues to Soviet authorities as rumors among the people. Speculations on its purpose went from unfinished hotel to controlling people`s minds system; metaphorical nicknames – from Russian Woodpecker to Moscow Hidden Eye. After 1986, the gossip went as far as to claim that Duga caused Chernobyl accident. However, the thing that stunning structure has a striking story behind can`t be questioned.

Soviet Radar: Answering The Challenges Of Times

Woodpecker Radar
Duga System

As soon as the Iron Curtain divided postwar world, Soviets started developing systems able to detect intercontinental ballistic missile shortly after it was launched. According to Soviet militaries` calculations, American missile would reach USSR in less than one hour. The need of having early-warning system was essential. In 70ties, three early-warning radar systems were built in the USSR. First experimental antenna was called Duga-N (Duga – curve or arc in Russian) and located close to Ukrainian city Mykolayiv (Nikolaev in Russian). Two more were built soon after. Duga-2 radar was built on the very East of Russia in Komsomolsk-na-Amure. Duga-1 was built in the Northern Ukraine, which is sometimes mistakenly called Duga-3.

Construction of Duga-1 began in early 70ties and was finished by 1979. Operation of the early-warning radar system was based on the idea that short-wave radio bands can be reflected from the ionosphere. Thus, reflected signal could be used for over-the-horizon detection. The method allowed identifying objects 4,500 km away from the radar. Transmitted at an angle, the signal would reach the ionosphere, be reflected and come back to the ground. Ground as reflecting surface would send it to the sky again. Theoretically, plumes left by flying ballistic missile would bounce the signal off and return it to the receiving antenna.

Duga – Radar To Work Out The Conspiracy


Duga-1 operated two antennas, receiver and transmitter, 60 km apart from each other. Transmitter was located in military town Liubech-1, Northern Ukraine. The other part of this Duga, antenna which had to receive the signal, was built 10 km away from Chernobyl town. It consisted of two parts to cover wider range of frequencies. Height of Duga radar (its bigger part) is 150 m, length 500 m. “Small” part is just 100 m high and 250 m long. Moscow Hidden Eye seemed to be difficult to hide. However, carefully chosen place made it impossible to spot the radar from any of the main roads in 30km radius. Apart from Pripyat, there were no cities with multi-storey buildings. As a part of conspiracy plan, small town for the militaries and their families was named Chernobyl-2. Dense forests helped to conceal the construction. Soviets marked the site as an abandoned summer camp on all their maps. Icing on the cake – bus stop decorated with Misha the Bear, symbol of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Built right in the beginning of the 8km road that leads to the military site and the town, it was never in use.

Failure Of Duga System


Despite all the effort put into Duga-1, it brought more issues rather than efficiency. Firstly, Duga-1 “looked” in northern direction. When passing the North Pole, signal had to encounter with unstable conditions of wave propagation and chaotic perturbation of the ionosphere. Practically, the radar was able to detect only massive start of ballistic missiles, but would be blind when it was coming to just one. Secondly, using frequency range from 7 to 19 MHz, system interfered with commercial aviation communications and radio bands. Repetitive knocking sound burst into broadcasts. Being heard, radar unveiled itself to the world and was nicknamed as Russian Woodpecker. Radio amateurs wrecked secret location of Duga: Woodpecker was in Ukraine, they were guessing. All these shortcomings prompted the Soviet military leadership to reconsider the project and modernize it. Starting from 1983, the Woodpecker “calmed down” and such a disruption into shortwave radio space was recorded no more. Final test was scheduled for 1986. However, explosion at Chernobyl power plant ruined these plans.

Coming from the destroyed reactor, radiation contaminated Duga, so that Woodpecker was put out of service and Chernobyl-2 was evacuated. It was thought that after decontaminating the construction and the town, people would be able to come back and continue working. However, some of the electronic computing machines were affected by radiation and “burnt” inside. The higher military command decided to evacuate the rest of the equipment to Duga, radar which was located near Komsomolsk-na-Amure. Conspiracy theories connected the explosion to the Duga. They claimed, Chernobyl accident had to distract the attention from the Woodpecker, although radar suffered from the radiation.

Woodpecker In Chernobyl Zone Nowadays

Duga Woodpecker

After the Iron Curtain fell, Soviets stopped developing the system. As USSR collapsed, the radars were disassembled and sold for scrap metal. Only one survived. It is located 10 km away from Chernobyl; Duga-1 is preserved by contamination which makes it impossible to take it out of the zone. In the beginning of 90ties, the most valuable parts were looted; luckily, geometrically perfect steel construction stays even today on the Northern part of Ukraine. In April, 2020 forest fires threatened the area. Greenery around the antenna and the town burnt to ashes, however, the radar, command centre, driving school and facilities in Chernobyl-2 were not damaged.

Nowadays, apart from Russian Woodpecker, antenna is known as Monument to the Cold War. Since 2013, Duga-1 is included to the official touristic route. You can visit the radar by choosing one of our tours.


You can see Chernobyl Duga with your own eyes with our exclusive Chernobyl tours.

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