...with a beak the size of Finland
March 10, 2018 2:57 AM   Subscribe

The Duga (aka 'The Russian Woodpecker') was an enormously powerful soviet radar system, with one large installation situated close to the Chernobyl nuclear power station. It is now a target for base jumpers and extreme climbers.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (10 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Oh yes! I've been there in 2016. It was the best part of the three day Chernobyl tour. We went there as a group of 14 (with two sixpacks of beer for the guards if they were to complain) and 5-6 of us climbed that monster.

It is really huge. When you stand on the ground you are already overwhelmed, but that's nothing compared to what you feel when you start climbing. As people climb on different ladders with different speeds, you find yourself alone pretty fast. And someone with a slight fear of heights (that's me) the worst part is not the height but when the thing you climbing is moving slightly. And of course, no matter the amount of steel the Soviets put in to this structure, after the 3rd level or so, it moves - mostly because of the wind.

So, there was I on slightly moving, rusting structure, alone in the wind, but apart from that no sound at all. The whole area is silent (the radiation affected avian life the most, other animals are doing fine, but you really don't hear birdsong) an ocean of green, with Prypat and the power plant in the background. It was almost a religious experience, not only sensing how enormous nature is but also how great the things humanity is capable of. This was the thought that kept me going. At every level I had this little discussion with myself: "Okay, you are here, probably the only time in your life, why stop here, let's do one more level" And the same on the next level, until you reach the one before the last.

And that's tricky, because if you want to reach the top, you need to climb the last ladder which is double the length of the previous segments for some reason. So you really need some encouragement to attempt that, after you exhausted yourself with the climbing up to that point.

But, oh boy, it does worth it.
posted by kmt at 4:25 AM on March 10, 2018 [26 favorites]

Also inspired the Brain Scorcher mind control device in Stalker:Shadow Of Chernobyl.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:49 AM on March 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I first heard about the Russian Woodpecker in William Poundstone’s Big Secrets; those sorts of things really raised my hackles in the 1980s. Had I known of the array responsible I’d’ve been even more intensely creeped out—the actual structure is mind-blowing.

And oh, kmt, your description was the cherry on top. Fantastic. I’ll never make it there but thanks to you I can at least imagine.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:44 AM on March 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Interesting stuff; thanks for the post.

Oddly, the Wikipedia article doesn't explain the name Дуга [Duga, with the stress on the last syllable]; it's the Russian word for 'arc,' and the Russian Wikipedia article says that the complex was so named because it was able to look beyond the horizon.
posted by languagehat at 8:05 AM on March 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Just to add: the last climber - the frankly insane Mustang Wanted - is from The Ukraine, so this is pretty much his home patch.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:12 AM on March 10, 2018

I only got through the first “base jumper” video so far, but that was a super interesting and fun ride. I was like, “are these guys intentionally being so self serious?” and they busted out the toy raft. It looks like a fun trip. Camping? Check. Forging through forests rivers and swamps? Check. Wild animals? Check. Decaying Soviet military structures? Check. Nuclear radiation? Check. Ducking security guards? Check. Climbing an impossibly high structure and jumping off into thin air? Fuuuk.

Also, this was the first follow up I’d read about the “Russian woodpecker” since I’d read about it years ago when it was just a “mysterious coded signal from Soviet Russia that disappeared suddenly.”
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:22 AM on March 10, 2018

Here's a report from a visit to the site of Cobra Mist, the USA-UK OTH radar station closest in concept and technology to Duga/Steel Yard/Woodpecker. It never worked, possibly due to Soviet countermeasures, and the West had much better coverage through other means, so despite it being very expensive it was abandoned quite soon after being completed.

Not so many jumping opportunities neither.
posted by Devonian at 9:46 AM on March 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I cannot imagine standing near that thing. I think my brain would break at the scale.

I think it was UVB-76 that disappeared for a while and a bunch of people freaked out thinking it was some kind of leftover Soviet dead man's switch.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:53 PM on March 10, 2018

I like to collect slightly-annoying electronic noises to use as my ringtone. Currently it’s the click-whine sound of GSM interference but for a few years it was the tap-tap-tap of Duga.
posted by um at 6:35 PM on March 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a cool post. I had never heard of this.
posted by 4ster at 5:59 PM on March 11, 2018

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