The Russian Woodpecker – don't let a good story get in the way of the facts

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      Paul J

      I got an email from videomaker featuring the Russian Woodpecker award winning documentary – so I watched it, because I’d been initially listening, then investigating the thing since the late 70s. A clever video, but what struck me was how interestingly the creator obscured many of the facts and spun the story to make something out of frankly nothing. Back then, with the Cold War doing it’s thing – Russia was unknown, and quite impossible for the normal folk of the West to analyse. Initially I became aware of it because I was a radio ham, and hone I got involved with Civil Defence, so perhaps had some low level knowledge other’s didn’t have. Back then here in the UK we were more concerned with Albania and Radio Tirana, who at about 6pm each evening transmitted an 8 second loop of a trumpet playing 8 notes, over and over again on EXACTLY the same frequency as our new, trendy BBC Radio 1 channel. our radio listening of the latest hits blotted out each night as the propagation conditions allowed the distant Radio Tirana to hop and jump to the UK from it’s Eastern Block origin. If you were a radio ham, you confirmed your contacts by sending a post card, and usually you got one back from foreign countries – rather nice collecting them. Russia, however was very different. Nobody could send a postcard to Russia direct, you sent them to the UK (or in the US, the American) radio society, who forwarded them in bulk to Russia. If you did want to send a card direct, you sent it to PO Box 88 Moscow, and a few weeks later, via this PO Box, you’d get one back. ~Content and comments were always a bit bland, but there were some nice places in the USSR from the photos. Contacts with them were always polite but lacking in personal detail. Just figured Russians were not that chatty. When the Cold War ended – I discovered PO Box 88 was actually KGB Headquarters and most radio hams were party members. I remember in 1984 talking to a Russian and I said I was sorry to hear about President Andropov, and he asked what I meant? I said he was dead. Reported on the BBC. That was the end of the conversation. Their people didn’t know he’d died, but the world did! The Woodpecker – which you can now see for real on Youtube, being near Chernobyl was very easy to explain, and unlike in the documentary, everyone knew exactly what it was and nobody believed the turn you into zombies talk. An over the horizon radar. The US had something similar, and we even had one on British soil too. Of course, we too were very reluctant to talk about them. Far more mysterious and interesting are numbers stations – these were very common back then, and a method for a country to communicate with their spies in foreign countries easily. For those that don’t know (and again Google will inform) the idea is that says would buy a Sony 7100 short wave radio from any electronics store worldwide – a very common small portable domestic radio. Going through customs with one raised no eyebrows. The spy would tune in at a certain time and frequency and they would hear a sequence of number groups – usually in the style 1-5-2-2-4, then a pause, then 4-3-3-2-6 and these would continue for a long time. Using a one-time pad, a simple piece of paper with numbers and letters, the real text messages would appear.Most number stations were in English, read by real voices (probably mainly on tape) but some used weird and quite scary artificial voices. Well worth a google/youtube. There were far more of these than radar clicks. They’re not even totally dead. People are reporting a few surfacing again and enthusiasts attempt to track them down. the British RAF base in Akrotiri in Cyprus is often mentioned as being active again. Even in this day and age, the simplicity and lack of an electronic trail makes it a great way to communicate with people without compromising them. There was a movie called ‘the numbers station’ but it wasn’t particularly factual.

      The facts seem to be that the Cold War is still of interest – many younger people never having even heard of it because it wasn’t a bombing type war.Perhaps there are more movies to be made. Plenty of truth to stretch. Lots of secrets still out there to be uncovered.

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