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Duga-3, the top-secret military base lost in Chernobyl’s irradiated forest

3 min read
Soaring high over the pines and firs in a forest clearing is the Duga structure. It looks as if someone had taken a 20-mile stretch of electricity pylons and squashed them into a line the length of a football field. A swirling mass of wires, pylons and cylindrical cones form a geometric structure of steel roughly 500 meters high....

First sending out its powerful transmission (10 megawatts) in 1976, the Duga-3 was one of three radar installations in the Soviet Union powerful enough to detect an incoming American intercontinental ballistic missile by bouncing a signal off the ionosphere. The antenna was 150 meters tall and 500 meters wide, and this masterpiece of mechanical engineering weighs about 14,000 tons. There are some people—some very paranoid people—who think Chernobyl 2 was used by the USSR for mind control. Others thought it might merely be controlling the weather, or communicating with submarines. In some ways, the Russian Woodpecker is more symbolic of the Soviet plight than the infamous Reactor No. 4, whose meltdown was catastrophic but also singular. Much like Pripyat, this was once a small town, though a much smaller and more secretive one, where 49,000 people lived, and when Duga-3 was fully operational, over 1,500 military personnel, scientists and technicians lived and worked here. During the Cold War, this site was shrouded in such secrecy, and on official maps, it was marked as a children’s summer camp. But like the rest of what would become the Exclusion Zone, it had to be abandoned suddenly in 1986. While it once was at the forefront of Soviet military and scientific technology, classified as top secret, today it rests, forgotten and silent in the woods surrounding Chernobyl. In 1976 amateur shortwave radio began hearing an unusual and powerful signal. Radio fans all over the world soon had listening disrupted by an unrelenting tapping sound. When source of the mysterious new transmission was relevated, it appeared to be coming from somewhere deep behind the Iron Curtain. This is the reason of the nickname “Russian Woodpecker.” Throughout Europe, public radio broadcasts began to suffer from interference. And the mysterious signal interfered too with emergency frequencies for aircraft. The real scope of the Russian Woodpecker remained a mystery. Conspiracy theories speak about a Soviet mind control to weather experiments. While the U.S. invested heavily in the NIKE missile and radar system for protection from Soviet missiles, the Soviets built the complex Duga radar to watch for U.S. missiles. Underneath the pylons there is the network of buildings that once housed the forefront of 1970s Soviet computer technology. In fateful day of April 26, 1986 like the rest of what would become the Exclusion Zone, Duga-3 was evacuated, and left to decay in the forest, but the exact date the Duga project was abandoned is, like most of the Exclusion Zone, somewhat of a mystery, and it seems that the base wasn’t vacated immediately after the fateful explosion.

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