VI – Russian Woodpecker

Remember the cold war? I do. I remember the drills at school, what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

Even at the time I was sceptical of the “duck and cover” message. I’d seen footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and sheltering under a door frame struck me as a wholly inadequate response to nuclear Armageddon.

But I don’t think I ever realised how close we came.

Stanislav Petrov, a colonel in the Soviet army, is credited with averting a catastrophe (The Man Who Saved The World). In 1983, he chose to ignore an alert that the US had launched 5 missiles. It was indeed a false alarm.

Man who saved the world

The principle of MAD – mutually assured destruction – is brilliant in a way. You hit me, and I’ll throw a killer punch before your blow even lands. Brilliant and utterly bonkers. For it to work, both sides must have equally devastating firepower, and flawless early warning capability.

Hence Duga 1. Part of an over the horizon radar system, the giant receivers were built near Chernobyl to benefit from the camouflage of the wooded Polissia and unlimited electricity from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant; these were power hungry beasts.


Top secret, access to the massive installation was built with 8km of concrete blocks. This sort of road is favoured by the military as it is quick to build and easy to maintain. Like the Russian infantry: when one unit ceases to be effective, you replace it with another.

IMG_4548 (Edited)

The official story was that Duga 1 was an abandoned children’s holiday camp. The bus stop where the tank friendly track struck off from the main road was decorated with a cuddly bear and forest fruits.  At the end of the road, a sign in English says STOP. Presumably the American spies who were not fooled by the cunningly disguised bus stop and made it through all the military checkpoints would think twice about proceeding past a STOP sign, give up and go home.

In the 1980’s there were many rumours as to the purpose of this massive steel construction: a weather forecasting unit, or a device for weather control? A TV antenna? There were only 3 channels in the former Soviet Union. A device for blocking TV signals from the west? An alien communication centre? Or Soviet mind control to keep the population credible and obedient?


The short bursts of high energy pulses sent into the ionosphere to check for missiles in flight interfered with commercial aviation and other radio communications. Tap, tap, tap. It became known as the Russian Woodpecker.

And, irony of ironies, as an early warning system, Duga 1 had so many design flaws, it never worked.

Continue reading? VII – Dogs of Chernobyl

Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller “The Chemical Detective” is published by the Oneworld imprint, Point Blank Books and available here.