Wednesday 28 February 2018

Visiting the Russian Woodpecker near Chernobyl, Ukraine

An article featuring my 2016 visit to the derelict Duga-1 radar base in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was rewritten when the publisher wanted a different focus. So here’s my original description of the former Soviet radar base, for your enjoyment…

The eeriest moment on our overnight tour of Chernobyl happens not at the infamous reactor site, which exploded in 1986 and spewed radioactive waste into the sky.

Instead it’s at ‘Chernobyl 2’, a code-name used by Soviet authorities to hide an even more sensitive facility. For hidden within the forest was a huge radar installation guarding against an incoming missile launch.

It’s just one of several strange places visited on the tour, all abruptly deserted after the 1986 accident.

Clearly, this is not the itinerary of your average tourist jaunt. However, in recent years the Ukrainian government has allowed tour companies to take small groups into the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the doomed reactor complex.

The company that’s hosting me, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by one of the emergency workers who helped clean up the site in the 1980s. Most of its customers visit on a day trip from Kiev, two hours away; but there’s the option of a two-day tour, which means a sleepover and more sites to visit.

The exclusion zone contains more than the radar base and the reactor complex with the ruined Reactor 4 under its protective shelter.

Numerous villages were also abandoned, along with the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat. In many ways the villages are the saddest places to explore, with their collapsed houses and empty schools, still scattered with belongings including children’s toys.

The radar complex, formally known as Duga-1 but nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker for its endless clicking sounds when operational, is another memorable site.

It’s a spooky place, reached by turning off the main road past a dilapidated bus shelter painted with cartoon animals – part of its Cold War cover as the supposed location of a children’s holiday camp.

At the end of a bumpy road of concrete slabs is a huge radar array. Over 150m high and stretching for 800m along a forest clearing, it’s a complex structure of metal girders and components.

And it creaks in the wind, a creepy sound in a dead-quiet grove in the middle of nowhere. The sounds of the paranoid past, haunting the present.

Tim Richards was hosted by Chernobyl Tour. You can find details of its tours and make bookings at

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