From a lonely rusted tower in a forest north of Moscow, a mysterious shortwave radio station transmitted day and night. For at least the decade leading up to 1992, it broadcast almost nothing but beeps; after that, it switched to buzzes, generally between 21 and 34 per minute, each lasting roughly a second—a nasally foghorn blaring through a crackly ether. The signal was said to emanate from the grounds of a voyenni gorodok (mini military city) near the village of Povarovo, and very rarely, perhaps once every few weeks, the monotony was broken by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often strings of Russian names: “Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman.” But the balance of the airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones.
They don’t know just what they’re listening to. But they’re fascinated by the unending strangeness of the mindless, evil beeping.
The amplitude and pitch of the buzzing sometimes shifted, and the intervals between tones would fluctuate. Every hour, on the hour, the station would buzz twice, quickly. None of the upheavals that had enveloped Russia in the last decade of the cold war and the first two decades of the post-cold-war era—Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika, the end of the Afghan war, the Soviet implosion, the end of price controls, Boris Yeltsin, the bombing of parliament, the first Chechen war, the oligarchs, the financial crisis, the second Chechen war, the rise of Putinism—had ever kept UVB-76, as the station’s call sign ran, from its inscrutable purpose. During that time, its broadcast came to transfix a small cadre of shortwave radio enthusiasts, who tuned in and documented nearly every signal it transmitted. Although the Buzzer (as they nicknamed it) had always been an unknown quantity, it was also a reassuring constant, droning on with a dark, metronome-like regularity.
But on June 5, 2010, the buzzing ceased. No announcements, no explanations. Only silence.
The following day, the broadcast resumed as if nothing had happened. For the rest of June and July, UVB-76 behaved more or less as it always had. There were some short-lived perturbations—including bits of what sounded like Morse code—but nothing dramatic. In mid-August, the buzzing stopped again. It resumed, stopped again, started again.
Then on August 25, at 10:13 am, UVB-76 went entirely haywire. First there was silence, then a series of knocks and shuffles that made it sound like someone was in the room. Before this day, all the beeping, buzzing, codes, and numbers had hinted at an evil force hovering on the airwaves. Now it seemed as though the wizard were suddenly about to reveal himself. For the first week of September, transmission was interrupted frequently, usually with what sounded like recorded snippets of “Dance of the Little Swans” from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
On the evening of September 7, something more dramatic—one listener even called it “existential”—transpired. At 8:48 pm Moscow time, a male voice issued a new call sign, “Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris,” indicating that the station was now to be called MDZhB. This was followed by one of UVB-76’s (or MDZhB’s) typically nebulous 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.
Just a few years before, such a remarkable development on a shortwave station would have been noted by only a tiny group of hobbyists. But starting the previous June—after the first, mysterious outage—a feed of UVB-76 had been made available online (UVB-76.net), cobbled together by an Estonian tech entrepreneur named Andrus Aaslaid, who has been enthralled by shortwave radio since the first grade. “Shortwave was an early form of the Internet,” says Aaslaid, who goes by the nickname Laid. “You dial in, and you never know what you’re going to listen to.” During one 24-hour period at the height of the Buzzer’s freak-out in August 2010, more than 41,000 people listened to Aaslaid’s feed; within months, tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, were visiting from the US, Russia, Britain, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Japan, Croatia, and elsewhere. By opening up UVB-76 to an online audience, Aaslaid had managed to take shortwave radio—one of the most niche hobbies imaginable—and rejuvenate it for the 21st century.
Today, the Buzzer’s fan base includes Kremlinologists, anarchists, hackers, installation artists, people who believe in extraterrestrials, a former Lithuanian minister of communications, and someone in Virginia who goes by the moniker Room641A, a reference to the alleged nerve center of a National Security Agency intercept facility at an AT&T office in San Francisco. (“I am interested in ‘listening,’” Room641A tells me by email. “All forms of it.”) All of them are mesmerized by this bewildering signal—now mostly buzzing, once again. They can’t help but ponder the significance of it, wondering about the purpose behind the pattern. No one knows for sure, which is both the worst and the best part of it.
As you might expect, the Buzzer’s history is murky. Roughly 30 years ago, it’s said, the Soviets built a radio station near Povarovo (the accent is on the second syllable), a 40-minute drive northwest of Moscow. At the time, Leonid Brezhnev was still alive, the Kremlin presided over an intercontinental empire, and Soviet troops were battling the mujahideen. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was revealed that Povarovo was controlled by the military, and that whatever happened there was top-secret.