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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Enigma: The mystery of Russia's UVB-76 radio transmissions explored

Enigma: The mystery of Russia's UVB-76 radio transmissions explored


UVB-76


UVB-76, also known as The Buzzer, is the nickname given by radio listeners to a shortwave radio station that broadcasts on the frequency 4625 kHz. It broadcasts a short, monotonous About this sound buzz tone (help·info), repeating at a rate of approximately 25 tones per minute, for 24 hours per day. On rare occasions, the buzzer signal is interrupted and a voice transmission in Russian takes place. It has been active since at least the late 1970s or early 1980s, when the first reports were made of a station on this frequency. Its origins have been traced to Russia, but although several theories with varying degrees of plausibility exist, its actual purpose remains unknown to the public.

From a lonely rusted tower in a forest north of Moscow a mysterious short wave 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 nasal 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. Why? It was a mystery.

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.

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