the steel woodpecker

(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)

Breakfast at the hotel consisted of eggs, good black tea, and pancakes with cottage cheese and sultanas. The bus took us down a narrow concrete-block road through the woods, and we glimpsed a stag that stood in the open for a while before leaping off into the undergrowth. Radioactive contamination and weird rot patterns aside, the Zone is now one of the best nature reserves in Europe.

“Are you a bad enough dude to destroy capitalism?

South of Pripyat, Duga stands in the forest like a god’s comb.

“In Soviet Union time, this place was marked as a non-operational summer camp for children.” Gates with big silver stars and buildings painted with heroic murals of lantern-jawed Ivans wrecking fascisti jarred slightly with the description, although it’s plausible a summer camp for children would have those too. The Duga base camp went on for a while, full of trees, dead offices and heavy machinery, until we came suddenly to the heel of the array itself.

Part of Duga.

Part of Duga.

Even by the standards of the Soviet Union, which are different to everyone else’s – even by the standards of the Soviet military, which are another order of stupidly huge – the Duga array is astonishingly big. It’s not associated directly with the ChNPP, although a quiet backwoods location with a massive local power supply surely figured into its placement. It was the receiver for one of the most powerful radar systems ever built, bouncing signals off the ionosphere to pick up the signatures of ballistic missiles launching from the continental USA. Intruding on civilian frequencies (although they denied it), for years it made a random knocking sound on civvie radio which people came to call the “Woodpecker”.* A selection of photos which better get across the scale can be found here; the transmitter station itself is miles away, outside the Zone.


Although it looks like one big grid,** Duga is best understood structurally as a long line of metal towers, about 160m high, mutually supporting and linked by the huge array of antennae and reflectors (most obviously, the club-shaped dipoles you could cage an elephant inside) they carry. On each tower, two-storey ladders link slim metal platforms; eleven ladders, twenty-two platforms, the gap between each platform about four times the height of a man. In England, if we’d ever dared to dream this big, health and safety types would wet themselves at even being in the same postcode as Duga, let alone wandering the sandy scrubland around its base, and certainly let alone attempting to climb it. But Ukrainians, it has been observed, really don’t give a shit about health and safety.

Each ladder is a crudely made rack of thin rebar steps about fifteen metres high; the steps are very far away from each other, so climbing involves serious stretching and hauling, and the welding was never much good even before forty years of rust and fierce winds. By the top of the first ladder, I was considerably more out of breath than I’d expected. At the top of the second, which is above the treeline and so has both clear views of the ChNPP and a very brisk wind, my fingers were getting raw and numb and I’d whacked my shins far too many times on the absurdly spaced ladder bars. I alone of the group made it to the top of the third ladder, by which time my fingers wanted to fall off and my arms were trying to leap out of their sockets; the cold wind was howling around me and I was getting a real (if nerves-exacerbated) sense of how wobbly a forty-year-old structure which was never really meant to be climbed in the first place could feel. There were eight more increasingly rickety, increasingly exposed ladders to go. While I consider my extremely underdeveloped sense of self-preservation a “spirit of adventure”, I conceded that this wouldn’t be the day, and started to descend – which was, if anything, much scarier. We walked the length of the array and came back along an absurdly long support building at its base, exploring what was probably the seventies equivalent of a server room and marvelling at the huge blocks of cooling apparatus and (proportionally) even huger circuit boards piled up hither and thither.

“This is Radio Yerevan; we were asked: Is it true that American skyscrapers are the tallest in the world? We answer: Yes, it's true, but Soviet transistors are the largest in the world.”

This is Radio Yerevan; we were asked: Is it true that American skyscrapers are the tallest in the world? We answer: Yes, it’s true, but Soviet transistors are the largest in the world.”

Back through the woods, to the Pripyat hospital, which is about as eerie as you’d expect an abandoned hospital to be: rusted bed frames, pictures of Lenin, abandoned sheets and surgical equipment, hypodermics and autoclaves, supply cupboards full of test tubes and little bottles and ampoules of coloured liquids marked in Cyrillic; a huge, sprawling, peeling building. In the lobby of the hospital, a single fireman’s glove rests on a table. I read an account from Grigori Khmel, one of the Chernobyl firefighters who were first on the scene. As he tells it, they had no training or equipment for nuclear material, no real knowledge of what they were dealing with, and he described curious men picking up bits of graphite control rod blown out of the reactor core. Some of them went up to the roof, and left bodies so radioactive they had to be buried in sealed metal coffins; some stayed on the ground, and a few of them are even still alive.*** Most of their clothes and equipment are in a basement room in the hospital we were straight up told not to look for, but that one glove, thirty years on, made H.R.’s indicator jump from the .23μSv of normal Zone background radiation to 5, to 50, to 144.

Eye drops, I assume.

Eye drops, I assume.

* A recording purporting to be of the noise can be found here. It sounds more like a helicopter than a woodpecker to me.
** Well, two big grids; there’s also a lesser array, about 90m high, which uses shorter wavelengths (and thus has better resolution.) But next to the really big one, who cares?
*** Only two people actually died on the night of the disaster; around thirty others, almost all firefighters and reactor workers, died in hospital over the next few months from burns or acute radiation sickness. Four were killed when a Mi-8 dropping materials onto the reactor clipped a cable and crashed. Hundreds of other workers, and tens of thousands of liquidators, received severe radiation doses during the cleanup operations; the effect this has actually had is strongly disputed.

Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s– Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantPalace of Culture –
Duga array & Pripyat Hospital
– City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s