What if…and the “Russian Radio Mystery”

As covered by Wired magazine here and here, UVB-76 is a Russian shortwave radio station that has been observed since the early 1980s. Fans have been attracted to its mystery, its idiosyncrasies, and its constancy. Just as fans had begun to unravel most of the station’s mysteries, UVB-76 has surprised many with some dramatic changes.

UVB-76 used to broadcast a series of beeps. Around 1992, it changed to buzzes, each lasting for about a second, and two quick buzzes on the hour. This droning, some would say annoying, buzz earned the station its nickname: The Buzzer. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of The Buzzer. It kept droning on, and randomly (and rarely), the buzzing would be interrupted by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often Russian first names.

UVB-76 is an example of what is known as a “numbers station.” These stations are usually a means to transmit encrypted messages to spies. Most stations are empty air regularly broken by a standard signal before a series of numbers are read off (typically in groups of five to disguise word and sentence breaks). UVB-76 appears to be the inverse of a numbers station, making it more mysterious to listeners.

Listeners, who often stumbled upon the station accidentally, recognized the oddity and began following it. They were able to determine its origin as a mini military city outside of Povarovo, northwest of Moscow. Theories began to develop about the station being a KGB transmission center, or perhaps it some sort of ICBM dead man’s switch.

The listeners were small in number until two things happened. First, the station changed in surprising ways. The station had deviated from its buzzing only three previous times: in 1997, 2002, and 2006. On June 5, 2010, the buzzing stopped entirely. The station did not resume broadcasting until the next day. In August 2010, the station stopped and re-started twice. On August 25, 2010, UVB-76 surprised everyone, when listeners heard the station go silent; then they heard a series of knocks and noises as if someone was in the room. From that point on, listeners can hear muted conversations and items being moved about in the background. Since September 2010, the station has been interrupted by what sounds like bits of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Even more startling, on September 7, 2010, a male voice issued a new call sign, “Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris,” indicating that the station would now be called MDZhB. This was followed by one of UVB-76’s/MDZhB’s more typical messages: “04 979 D-R-E-N-D-O-U-T” followed by a longer series of numbers, then “T-R-E-N-E-R-S-K-I-Y” and yet more numbers. Second, since the June interruptions, an Estonian high-tech entrepreneur has put UVB-76’s signal on the internet, increasing the number of listeners exponentially (most in the US and Russia, interestingly).

Listeners have also noticed that the location of the signal has changed too. From Povarovo to near Pskov, close to the Russian-Estonian border. Yet as the Wired article mentions, perhaps the Povarovo facility only appears abandoned. The author noted certain clues that indicate someone might still be there. The mystery continues.

Some have speculated that the changes in signal and location are the result of better technology and the combining of two previously-separate military districts. But what if the changes were simply because the station had grown too popular? What if the station’s controllers needed to develop new methods because of the new listeners? What if the music and voices help the signal appear less mysterious or menacing? What if the signal was part of an element of the Russian military that went rogue after the Cold War ended? What if the recent signal changes indicate someone new has taken over the station–a new general or an oligarch? What if the dead man’s switch is accurate, and what if the recent changes and interruptions indicate the system is breaking down?

What do you think of UVB-76? Who do you think is behind it? Are we simply making a mountain out of a molehill of a signal that is mundane in reality?