Chornobyl Duga Base

One part of our day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv included a stop at the former Soviet base operating a Duga Radar Tower. What is a Soviet Radar Tower you ask? I had literally zero idea about this structure until we pulled up in the bus and walked the short way to the tower, also known as the Russian Woodpecker. As most know, I love AllTheOldAbandonedThings so I was of course fascinated by this Soviet adventure.

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This stop was an incredible look into Soviet military operations during this time period. With over 1,500 personnel at the height of operation, the base and tower are now abandoned, along with the other Soviet dreams for technological and societal prowess; this base met the same fate as the “city of the future”, Prypiat.

In his article for Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan notes the connection between these two sites in Chornobyl:

“If anything, the military purpose of Chernobyl 2 [the Duga Tower] is a reminder that the purpose of the Chernobyl power station was never entirely civilian, either. While it did provide vast amounts of electricity to Ukraine, its four reactors were of the RBMK variety, meaning they could be easily switched between the fission of uranium for civilian purposes and the enrichment of plutonium for military ones. That left the top of reactor lightly covered, in order to make the switching of fuel assemblies easier. That’s why, when the thing unleashed its fiery belch one April day, a good part of Europe got a dusting of radionuclides.”

Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here.

I can now cross “wandering around an abandoned Soviet base in Northern Ukraine” off my bucket-list.

Where are we?

This tower was part of the Soviet over-the-horizon radar (OTH), an aspect of the government’s missile defense early-warning radar network. There are two Duga towers: one here in Chornobyl and another was built in eastern Siberia.

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Known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the distinct tapping sound made by the system that interfered with other broadcasts, communications, and transmissions without warning, the tower is ENORMOUS. You can listen to the tower’s distinct tap-tap-tap sound here.

Like Prypiat, all operations at this hidden military base ceased after the explosion of reactor four. Today, the tower and buildings are deteriorating into the same woods that hid the operations taking place here during the Cold War.

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Abandoned buildings on this base include a kindergarten, work spaces, and apartments, along with the enormous tower.

Chornobyl Duga Base:

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This base near Chornobyl was such a hidden secret that the location did not even appear on maps of the region; it was simply referred to as a summer camp.
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I can’t put into words just how massive this structure is in real life. The tower is higher than the surrounding forest: at 135 meters (443 feet) high and 300 meters (984 feet) wide, visitors can see the structure towering over the trees on the drive through the woods.
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The plans for the first Duga tower started in 1946 as a way to combat the extension of missile ranges. This mission was accelerated in the 1960s as the Soviet Union became increasingly under threat of missile attack by the United States.
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The construction of the base and tower actually cost double the price of the power plant built in Chornobyl.
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These Duga systems were powerful and could emit over 10 MW.
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While the source of the Woodpecker signal was under constant speculation, NATO intelligence named the signal STEEL WORK or STEEL YARD. They were able to figure out that the location of the signal was in the USSR but there were conflicting sources on the exact location.
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The signal from this Duga Tower went silent in 1989 for supposedly unknown reasons but there are a number of factors that could have contributed to its demise: the end of the Cold War, the fall of the USSR, the success of the US-KS early warning satellites eclipsing the need for this type of structure, and of course, the explosion at the power plant which now placed the Duga Tower in the Exclusion Zone.
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There are a number of conspiracy theories surrounding this Soviet base and the Duga Tower.
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The documentary The Russian Woodpecker (2015) proposes the conspiracy that the explosion of reactor four was in fact a cover up for the design flaws of the Duga Tower. 
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Others believe the Duga tower was used by the Soviets for mind control purposes.
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Our tour guide in front of the tower. It really is absolutely enormous.
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We also toured through one of the buildings near the tower and on the base.
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The amount of electronic waste just strewn about the site made my heart hurt.
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Many structures on the base are still standing even though the operation here has been officially discontinued; the exact date of its termination is unknown.
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One of the most unbelievable aspects of this base is the level of priority given to its mission and the amount of money (7 billion Rubles) contributed to make this idea into a reality, only to see all this work and materials completely abandoned today. Nazarayan notes: “It’s almost like everyone agreed to play an incredibly dangerous game that, after half a century, suddenly seemed pointless and even boring. When it was over, the players dropped their toys and went home.”

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Sources:

Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here.
Spencer, Luke. 2016. “The Top Secret Military Base Hidden in Chernobyl’s Irradiated Forest.” Atlas Obscura. Available here.

 

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