Inside the Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma
By Peter Savodnik | September 27, 2011 | 12:00 pm | Wired October 2011
Audio version available:
(38.4 MB .mp3)
Somewhere in Russia a signal of mysterious beeps and buzzes has broadcast
since the high-water days of the Cold War. But why?
Photo: Sergey Kozmin
From a lonely rusted tower in a forest north of Moscow, a mysterious shortwave radio station transmitted day and night. For at least the decade leading up to 1992, it broadcast almost nothing but beeps; after that, it switched to buzzes, generally between 21 and 34 per minute, each lasting roughly a second—a nasally foghorn blaring through a crackly ether. The signal was said to emanate from the grounds of a voyenni gorodok (mini military city) near the village of Povarovo, and very rarely, perhaps once every few weeks, the monotony was broken by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often strings of Russian names: “Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman.” But the balance of the airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones.
The amplitude and pitch of the buzzing sometimes shifted, and the intervals between tones would fluctuate. Every hour, on the hour, the station would buzz twice, quickly. None of the upheavals that had enveloped Russia in the last decade of the cold war and the first two decades of the post-cold-war era—Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika, the end of the Afghan war, the Soviet implosion, the end of price controls, Boris Yeltsin, the bombing of parliament, the first Chechen war, the oligarchs, the financial crisis, the second Chechen war, the rise of Putinism—had ever kept UVB-76, as the station’s call sign ran, from its inscrutable purpose. During that time, its broadcast came to transfix a small cadre of shortwave radio enthusiasts, who tuned in and documented nearly every signal it transmitted. Although the Buzzer (as they nicknamed it) had always been an unknown quantity, it was also a reassuring constant, droning on with a dark, metronome-like regularity.
They don’t know just what they’re listening to. But they’re fascinated by the unending strangeness of the mindless, evil beeping.
But on June 5, 2010, the buzzing ceased. No announcements, no explanations. Only silence.
The following day, the broadcast resumed as if nothing had happened. For the rest of June and July, UVB-76 behaved more or less as it always had. There were some short-lived perturbations—including bits of what sounded like Morse code—but nothing dramatic. In mid-August, the buzzing stopped again. It resumed, stopped again, started again.
Then on August 25, at 10:13 am, UVB-76 went entirely haywire. First there was silence, then a series of knocks and shuffles that made it sound like someone was in the room. Before this day, all the beeping, buzzing, codes, and numbers had hinted at an evil force hovering on the airwaves. Now it seemed as though the wizard were suddenly about to reveal himself. For the first week of September, transmission was interrupted frequently, usually with what sounded like recorded snippets of “Dance of the Little Swans” from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
On the evening of September 7, something more dramatic—one listener even called it “existential”—transpired. At 8:48 pm Moscow time, a male voice issued a new call sign, “Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris,” indicating that the station was now to be called MDZhB. This was followed by one of UVB-76′s (or MDZhB’s) typically nebulous messages: “04 979 D-R-E-N-D-O-U-T” followed by a longer series of numbers, then “T-R-E-N-E-R-S-K-I-Y” and yet more numbers.
Just a few years before, such a remarkable development on a shortwave station would have been noted by only a tiny group of hobbyists. But starting the previous June—after the first, mysterious outage—a feed of UVB-76 had been made available online (UVB-76.net), cobbled together by an Estonian tech entrepreneur named Andrus Aaslaid, who has been enthralled by shortwave radio since the first grade. “Shortwave was an early form of the Internet,” says Aaslaid, who goes by the nickname Laid. “You dial in, and you never know what you’re going to listen to.” During one 24-hour period at the height of the Buzzer’s freak-out in August 2010, more than 41,000 people listened to Aaslaid’s feed; within months, tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, were visiting from the US, Russia, Britain, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Japan, Croatia, and elsewhere. By opening up UVB-76 to an online audience, Aaslaid had managed to take shortwave radio—one of the most niche hobbies imaginable—and rejuvenate it for the 21st century.
Today, the Buzzer’s fan base includes Kremlinologists, anarchists, hackers, installation artists, people who believe in extraterrestrials, a former Lithuanian minister of communications, and someone in Virginia who goes by the moniker Room641A, a reference to the alleged nerve center of a National Security Agency intercept facility at an AT&T office in San Francisco. (“I am interested in ‘listening,’” Room641A tells me by email. “All forms of it.”) All of them are mesmerized by this bewildering signal—now mostly buzzing, once again. They can’t help but ponder the significance of it, wondering about the purpose behind the pattern. No one knows for sure, which is both the worst and the best part of it.
As you might expect, the Buzzer’s history is murky. Roughly 30 years ago, it’s said, the Soviets built a radio station near Povarovo (the accent is on the second syllable), a 40-minute drive northwest of Moscow. At the time, Leonid Brezhnev was still alive, the Kremlin presided over an intercontinental empire, and Soviet troops were battling the mujahideen. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was revealed that Povarovo was controlled by the military, and that whatever happened there was top-secret.
Estonian tech entrepreneur Andrus Aaslaid runs an
Internet relay for UVB-76 out of his attic office.
Photo: Alver Linnamägi
Shortwave radio aficionados developed various hypotheses about the role of the station in Russia’s sprawling, military-communications network. It was a forgotten node, one theory ran, set up to serve some function now lost deep in the bureaucracy. It was a top-secret signal, others believed, that transmitted messages to Russian spies in foreign countries. More ominously, countered another theory, UVB-76 served as nothing less than the epicenter of the former Soviet Union’s “Dead Hand” doomsday device, which had been programmed to launch a wave of nuclear missiles at the US in the event the Kremlin was flattened by a sneak attack. (The least sexy theory, which posited that the Buzzer was testing the thickness of the ionosphere, has never enjoyed much support.)
Before Aaslaid’s Internet relay and the events of 2010, the dedicated trackers of UVB-76 probably numbered no more than a thousand. Some had been listening in their spare time since the 1980s, holed up in attics, garages, basements, and cluttered offices. Many spent their days working for large organizations—insurance companies, telecommunication conglomerates, militaries, universities. They lived in West Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, the US. Some hesitated to disclose their locations to fellow listeners; others used pseudonyms or handles. Before the fall of Communism, many of them actually believed they were in danger, assuming that they could be tracked (through technological methods that were never quite clear) by the same shadowy forces—KGB agents or radio engineers at the CIA or MI6 or Mossad—that controlled the stations they obsessed over. The listeners often thought they might have unearthed something top-secret, that there were files at foreign spy agencies with their names on them. They loved that they didn’t know what they were listening to and were fascinated by the unending strangeness of this persistent, mindless, clandestine, evil beeping.
“It was thrilling,” says Ary Boender, 57, a financial consultant who lives near Rotterdam, Netherlands. He first tuned in to UVB-76 in January 1983. He says he didn’t mean to. He was looking for another station, rolling across the dial, and suddenly he heard the crackly, wispy beep beep beep. And stopped. This is how many fans talk about their discovery of the station: It was late, and they were looking for something else—a weather channel, a maritime report, some Air Force chatter—when all of a sudden UVB-76 broke through the ether and they were captivated, unable to stop listening to the haunting pulse that bleated through the cold and snowy dark all the way to their receivers. The question they all wanted answered was, what the hell is this? “The fun is and was to find out who they are and where they transmit from and what the purpose is,” Boender says.
Before the Internet, shortwave fans knew of one another’s existence largely through niche publications, whether photocopied newsletters like Monitoring Times or small-circulation magazines like Popular Communications. (Cover line on the October 1985 issue: “Eavesdropping on Aircraft Communications!”) If something exciting happened on UVB-76—when there was an uptick in the duration of the beeps from, say, 1.9 to 2.2 seconds, or when the timbre of the beeping waxed or shifted, or when there was a rare pause in the transmission—fans would write in and speculate about possible meanings. They would clock the frequency of the beeping and listen for discrepancies or numbers or voices just beneath the veil of sound. They would ferret out other subscribers to the newsletters they received and other members of the shortwave radio associations they belonged to and share their findings.
Even today, listening to UVB-76 is like listening to a world that hasn’t existed for decades. This feels especially true late at night when you’re in a dark basement, headset on, enveloped by all the pops and whirs and snippets of anonymous voices from other signals seeping across the airwaves—”these little trips into fantasy,” as Room641A puts it, that “happen when you are sitting in front of your receiver passing by Radio Havana at 3 in the morning.”
Most observers believe that UVB-76 is an idiosyncratic example of what’s called a numbers station, used to communicate encrypted messages to spies or other agents. Typically, these stations transmit numbers in groups of five, making it impossible to detect partitions between words and sentences. The numbers can be decoded using a key in the possession of the intended listener. Numbers stations are thought to have existed since World War I, as documented by the Conet Project, a compilation of recordings that was first released in 1997. (Director Cameron Crowe, a fan of the Conet Project, used samples from it in his 2001 film Vanilla Sky.) Drug runners are believed to have used numbers stations on occasion; so too are the North Koreans, the Americans, the Cubans, and the British. Indeed, shortwave hobbyists suspect MI6 was behind the most famous numbers station on the planet, the much-revered Lincolnshire Poacher.
An online group calling itself Enigma 2000 (the first part is an acronym for the European Numbers Information Gathering and Monitoring Association) collects data about numbers stations around the world. Jochen Schäfer, who heads the group’s German branch, says of UVB-76, “It’s no typical numbers station, but it is one.” Usually, he says, numbers stations begin their transmissions with a call sign, then move on to a specially produced introduction—the Lincolnshire Poacher, for example, got its moniker because every broadcast kicked off with the first two bars of the English folk song with the same name—before they start broadcasting numbers. “This station is different because of its structure,” Schäfer says. “Most of the time, there is just the buzzing tone… The messages come at irregular times.”
But this anomalous format has prompted some UVB-76 listeners to suggest that it is not a numbers station at all. One former high-ranking European official and longtime student of Soviet jamming of Western radio stations, known to his fellow UVB-76 fans as “JM,” maintains that the Buzzer’s purpose is to transmit coded orders to military units within Russia, not to spies outside its borders. JM notes that most of what has been pieced together about the station’s specs—its frequency of 4625 kHz, its main 20-kilowatt transmitter, its 5-kilowatt backup transmitter, and its horizontal-dipole antenna—points to conventional, military use. Bryan Tabares, a 21-year-old production engineer in Jacksonville, Florida, agrees and puts forward an even more innocuous theory to explain the disruptions of 2010: He believes it was merely “pink noise” manufactured by sound engineers to calibrate audio equipment. That’s all. “Everything that’s happened points to an equipment upgrade or calibration,” Tabares says.
One of several abandoned structures near the radio tower in Povarovo.
Photo: Sergey Kozmin
Boender, the financial consultant near Rotterdam, says he is now confident that UVB-76 is controlled by the military. He bases this conclusion on his analysis of known Russian military stations. That type of sleuthing seems to be a large part of the appeal for him and other shortwave aficionados. He gives another example: “We discovered a Russian network in the early ’90s, but it took us a couple of years before we actually found out who they were. It appeared to be a network of Soviet embassies, consulates, ministries, and most likely also the KGB and GRU [Russia's largest foreign intelligence agency]. A number of people around the globe listened, and we exchanged messages and recordings and analyzed them until we finally discovered who they were.” He adds, “That’s what makes it fun.”
It took a 37-year-old computer engineer in Tallinn, Estonia, to drag UVB-76 into the Internet era. In the process, Andrus Aaslaid has expanded the station’s audience in a way that no devoted listener could have anticipated. Aaslaid’s office is the third-floor attic of a stonework building on a quiet street in the center of the Baltic city. From the kitchen in the attic, he can see, about 20 feet away, the apartment he shares with his family, which takes up the top floor of a former boardinghouse built in 1897. Though Aaslaid isn’t well known internationally, inside Estonia he’s something of a poster boy for the local tech scene, which has produced not only giants like Skype but a slew of rapidly growing startups. In the early ’90s, Aaslaid launched his first company, LaidWare, providing banks with ATM-networking systems. Then he ran a firm that was acquired by the quartet behind Skype. Then he did a stint in Silicon Valley. After that he served as an adviser to two Estonian economic-affairs and communications ministers, including Andrus Ansip, the country’s current prime minister. Like many entrepreneurs, Aaslaid has a frenetic quality, and he resists convention: He got married to the mother of his children in 2010, when his daughter was 6 and his son was 4. He has a hard time staying at a job for more than a year. He dropped out of university after two months. (“I was already working as a programmer,” he says. “We were the first wave to learn it hands-on. You didn’t need a degree.”)
Natalia never strays through the wrought-iron fence. On the other side is the radio tower, and no one, she says, ever goes there.
Aaslaid discovered shortwave radio as a young boy, and even today, when he talks about the UVB-76 Internet relay, he sounds a little like a teenager, fascinated by a world he does not quite understand. He turns on his receiver and we listen for a few minutes to random sound fragments: a peace activist talking about “rediscovering Hiroshima,” a Russian newscaster describing carnage in the Gaza Strip, the tail end of a song by Supertramp. “I’ve spent nights just randomly browsing and sometimes getting really, really drunk,” Aaslaid says. (His drink of choice is Aberlour A’bunadh, a single-malt Scotch.) “In the era of the Internet and corporations, people’s lives are so well planned and predictable,” he says. “In some ways, UVB-76 represents the good kind of unpredictability and mystery.”
Hooking up the relay was technologically simple but physically challenging. To make his antenna, he scrounged up 230 feet of copper-plated wire and in the middle of the night strung it between the roof of his office and the roof of his apartment building, going back and forth several times. Then he hooked up his shortwave scanner to his computer. To handle the streaming audio, he used a British service provider called MixStream. Several weeks later, he upgraded to a custom-built magnetic loop antenna and swapped out his scanner for a software-based radio.
Over the next six months, 200,000 listeners from scores of countries dropped in. Like any good shortwave junkie, Aaslaid watches the watchers—noting that, after the US, the number-two source of interest is Russia. Aaslaid says he’s received numerous email messages from artists and musicians who said the Buzzer had inspired them. X-Ray Press, a “math rock” band in Seattle, released an album this year called UVB-76, which features Buzzer-like buzzing in the background. Sherri Miller and Mario Fanone, two electronic musicians in Buffalo, New York, did them one better by naming their band UVB-76 and starting each live set with a brief sample of the Buzzer. Fanone plays a Casio digital guitar and a trumpet, while Miller generally plays a Korg Electribe, though sometimes she plays a vacuum cleaner, running its whoosh through an effects pedal to enhance its sound.
Aaslaid remains fascinated. “It has transmitted voice messages, it has been mute, its frequency has been hijacked by pirates, it has run through the maintenance with all the related voice messages and test runs, it’s had loads of strange noises, transmitted 24 hours with extremely high power all around the world,” writes Aaslaid, in a typically rapturous email about just what the station means to him. “Therefore I have fallen for it!” When I ask him why anyone cares about UVB-76, and why they should care about shortwave in general, he replies by invoking the universal connectivity that this primitive technology allows, even in places far from a cell tower. “Imagine somebody with a Morse key or a reel-to-reel tape deck in the middle of the Namibia desert, running a shortwave transmitter off a diesel generator and sending music or messages toward the ionosphere. In the middle of the night, it does not get any more spiritual than that.”
A new intrigue about UVB-76—or MDZhB—is the question of its location. Soon after the upheavals of August and September 2010, with all the stopping and starting and knocking and whispering, shortwave listeners reported another remarkable shift: The station’s position seemed to have moved. JM, the former European official, has since helped trace its rough location to near the town of Pskov, close to Russia’s border with Estonia. But no one has been able to triangulate exactly where the broadcast is coming from. Ary Boender theorizes that the move was related to a Russian military reorganization that took place that September, when the Moscow and Leningrad military districts were merged to form a new command center in St. Petersburg—which would explain why UVB-76, too, might have migrated hundreds of miles northwest. For the foreseeable future, though, the site of the transmitter has been added to the long list of its enduring mysteries.
Today, the mini military city in Povarovo, from which the cipher broadcast for so many decades, is nearly abandoned. The surrounding village is a gray-brown tapestry of Communist apartment buildings, recently built dachas, and babushkas hawking honey and cucumbers. Around the voyenni gorodok,there are gates and walls and signs—military vehicles only—but no guards or electrified fences, and the gates are not locked. The only activity is near the housing blocks filled with the wives and children and grandchildren of Soviet veterans, living and dead. “This was like paradise,” says one resident, Natalia, whose late husband, Sergey Nikolayevich, served as driver to the commander of the voyenni gorodok. When asked about the looming wrought-iron fence roughly a hundred feet from the entrance to her apartment building, she says she never strays through its gates. On the other side is the radio tower, and no one, according to Natalia, ever goes there.
The one-lane road that leads to the tower stretches about a quarter mile past a handful of empty buildings and a thick pine forest. A chain-link fence, supported by stone posts capped with moss, surrounds the tower. Between 100 and 150 feet tall, it’s red and white and rusting, with three or four satellite dishes attached to it. Next to the tower are a blue shed, a green metal hut stuffed with wires and electrical equipment, and an ancient stone structure that’s also overgrown with moss. And there appears to be a large underground facility: The muddy pitch on which the tower stands is riddled with metal cylinders (presumably ventilation shafts) rising out of the ground, and there is a very small pink building that looks like the entrance to a descending staircase. Also, there’s a door that’s partially ajar on the side of the stone structure. If you open it and peer inside, you’ll see a black hole where there must have been a ladder several years or decades ago, and if you drop a rock in this hole, it will take about a second to reach the bottom—whatever is down there is at least 32 feet belowground.
Just beyond the chain-link fence and the radio tower is another building, which is one story and also pink. There is a large antenna outside, and a tree, and a barking mutt leashed to a cable that’s strung from the tree to the building. The setup is such that if you were to approach the front door, you would enter the jurisdiction, so to speak, of the dog, which barks endlessly and ferociously, as if he has been beaten.
The front door appears to be locked. There is no light on inside; no one comes in or out. But someone has been here. The dog, after all, must be fed.
Peter Savodnik (petersavodnik.com) is a freelance journalist and the author of a forthcoming book, The Interloper, about Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in Soviet Russia.