Russia’s technological power in the collective imagination. The UVB76 fantasy – half conspiracy theory, half cult of mystery.
Have you heard of UVB76? A mysterious Russian military radio frequency which started transmitting in the 1970s for reasons no-one seems to know? As part of my research into representations of Russia’s technological power, here is a modest little text on the subject. It takes another look at this amusing anecdote which is evocative of the rather particular image Russia and its technological complex still benefit from 20 years after the end of the cold war– a mix between fascination and the cult of mystery.
One night in January 1983, Ary Boender, a Rotterdam banker and amateur radio ham was sitting, as he often did, at the short wave radio he had set up in the shadows of his garage his garage listening in to sounds from all round the world. On the shortwave, reflecting on the ionosphere, radio signals can be sent a very long way. At this time when Internet was yet to exist, many people used to adapt their radios to surf from frequency to frequency – from a shipping forecast from the South Pacific to a Morse code message from the Sahara using a diesel generator or helicopter pilots’ conversations on the US West Coast. A chaotic hotchpotch of voices, music and signals transmitted from extremely diverse environments in the far-flung corners of the world – there was nothing better to stimulate your imagination especially when sitting in your garage at three in the morning having finished the last cigarette in the packet.
So when, like Ary Boender, you come across a frequency continuously transmitting around 25 enigmatic beeps per minute, you at least want to find out who was transmitting, from where and above all why. For about fifteen years, a little group of amateur radio hams who had noticed the strange “buzz” on the 4625khz frequency had been trying in vain to find answers to these three questions. All anyone knew, thanks to the triangulation of the signal, was that the sound came from somewhere in the Soviet Union and was very unusual. The use the signal might be put to remained a mystery. This was more than enough to trigger off certain people’s imaginations. Some suggested the “beeps” were a code being sent either to the Soviet diplomatic network or undercover agents abroad. But other observers argued that it could not be a code because of the absence of variation in the intervals between the beeps. Another group thought the mysterious frequency could be part of the Dead Hand system – a protocol whose existence has never really been proved and which is supposed to have been programmed so that the USSR’s nuclear arsenal could automatically respond to any nuclear attacks on Russian territory even if the command centres had been destroyed (an idea notably featured in Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove). The “buzz” on frequency 4625khz could thus be a kind of alarm system counting down to nuclear apocalypse. Finally certain rather over-imaginative individuals opined that the frequency could be used to converse with aliens…
Click here to listen to the signal
And then came Perestroïka, glasnost’, the fall of the Soviet Union and so forth. The mysterious frequency 4625khz continued to “beep”, seemingly oblivious to any geopolitical upheaval. Of course, less people were listening because the enemy had been beaten and the little thrill many radio hams got from switching onto the “buzz” had vanished when the final fantasies about USSR military power flew out the window.
But then in 1997 something happened. The continuous buzz stopped and was suddenly replaced by a series of sounds with no apparent logical links between them. A loop of an excerpt from Swan Lake was heard, then a faraway female voice buried under a fair amount of “interference” (from atmospheric disturbances) started reciting a countdown and question marks were transmitted in morse code. The frequency would start transmitting for no apparent logical reason and then stop again, returning to its regular lethargic “buzz”. Then in October 2010, the source of the transmission seemed to have changed and the signal evolved as well. Swan Lake stopped and with increasing frequency the mysterious female voice began repeating a series of Russian Christian names and figures along these lines:
“Ya UVB-76, Ya UVB-76. 180 08 BROMAL 74 27 99 14. Boris, Roman, Olga, Mikhail, Anna, Larisa. 7 4 2 7 9 9 1 4”.
At the same time as these changes in the transmissions, the development of the Internet and the retransmission of signal online by an Estonian engineer fascinated by the mystery frequency henceforth known as UVB76 contributed to a strong revival of interest in the story. Forums were dedicated to it and outrageously farfetched theories began to spring up, this time in the far-flung corners of the Web. On the evening of December 20th 2012, UVB76 stopped emitting completely for a few hours for the first time since the signal was discovered. Some suggested that, as UVB really was the Dead Hand system’s stopwatch, the next day had to be the so-called end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. The next day the frequency began transmitting again as if nothing had happened. I find it hard not to think that, whatever the frequency’s aims, the radio operator must have got wind of his online notoriety and decided to surprise his or her fans. Today we still know little about the signal – just that in 2010, the localization changed and a team of fans managed to find and get into a little barracks in Povarovo, a small voenny gorodok (closed-off military village) in the region of Moscow from where the transmissions had formerly been made. The fans made a fascinating photo report having discovered an abandoned bunker along with some military documents which unfortunately told them nothing about the objectives behind the frequency’s transmissions. According to the village’s inhabitants, the soldiers had left in a hurry after a storm, evacuating the premises in barely 90 minutes. Now the signal is emitted from the oblast’ (region) of Pskov and some suggest that the frequency is in fact used to measure the evolutions of the ionosphere.
The village of Kirsino in the oblast’ of Pskov has been the source of the signal since 2010.
So, countdown to the apocalypse, frequency for “undercover” agents or simple scientific instrument? Whatever the aims behind UVB it is an example which has the advantage of being both enjoyable and useful when evoking the types of popular culture “fantasy” people still have even today about Russian science and techniques. Since Stalin’s time, Soviet technology has been characterized by excess and a demiurgic desire to transform nature which has meant Soviet technology rapidly provokes representations in the West which increase the fear of the enemy and the mysterious, faraway character of the Russians. The USSR’s technological power was a true source inspiration for many “mass culture” works in the years from the 1950s to the 1990s and indeed still radiates on the power of a Russia which aims to preserve its material heritage and make it appear of more value. UVB76 is an anecdotal incident of little importance in this whole scheme of things, a kind of urban legend people talk about while enjoying a drink before forgetting all about it. However one thing is certain – if UVB76 had been a frequency of the Luxembourg armed forces, it is a fair bet that it would never have led to the same passionate enthusiasm…
PS: if you really do have time to waste, you can listen into the frequency in real time here.
This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.