“Duga” Radar System, Ukraine

The Duga Radar System is a relic of the Cold War. A 150m high structure designed to detect ballistic missiles heading from the north west it was visible on the skyline from Pripyat, but very little was known about its function. In the west it was known as the Russian Woodpecker as it tapped and jumped around frequencies attempting to detect any missiles from the US. Evacuated and decommissioned some time after the Chernobyl Disaster the metal structure remains as the buildings crumble into the surrounding forest

looking up into the sun from the bottom of the antennae

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What is the ‘Duga’ Radar System?

Leaving the main road we pass the bus stop. Adorned with childrens characters it feels as if you are heading to a woodland camp. And that was the intention. The road is made of concrete slabs, still intact despite the extremes of weather they have endured over the last 40 years. Marked as a ‘children’s camp’ on maps it was a secret in plain sight.

For many years the “Duga” Radar system near Chernobyl was visible on the horizon from the city of Pripyat, but no-one really knew much about it. Located in the middle of the forest, 7km from the main road this over the horizon radar system sat and watched what the western world was doing. Two were in operation, this one near Chernobyl and a second in Siberia.

Duga was designed to detect ballistic missiles heading from the north-west, from the Arctic and the Atlantic, the direction US missiles would come from. It was a huge steel structure and still feels huge as you stand in its shadow today. 150m high and 500m long, with the second antenna slightly smaller at 120m high and 250m long they are on a scale which is hard to comprehend.

Lifts were installed in the legs to enable work to be carried out at the higher levels but these are now rusting and falling into the sandy land around the base of the structures.

Audible on radio’s across Europe it was known as the “Russian Woodpecker”. Tapping annoyingly as it jumped around the frequencies used across the world. Gradually over time the tapping diminished until it stopped altogether at the end of the 1980’s as the threat of a Cold War diminished. The reason why may never be known, but it certainly wasn’t evacuated immediately after the Chernobyl disaster.

Adjacent to Duga is Chernobyl-2. This was a garrison town that housed the computer systems needed to run the radar as well as accommodate the 1500 personnel employed. There was extensive training carried out within the garrison with training rooms still evident today.

The corridors are strewn with debris. All the computer systems have been removed but vast rooms remain with the racks where they would have once been. The training room contains paintings of the missiles used by foreign countries. Photographs were rare and so artwork was the only medium available.

Walking through these now derelict buildings and silent pylons, the threat of the West can be felt. Huge amounts of money must have been spent on procuring the expertise and energy to design, construct and operate the site. Guided by Tarzan one of the resident street dogs this is a strange but mesmerising place.

Photography Notes

The Duga Radar System provides three very distinct photography opportunities. The first is the barracks and the surround buildings. These have a very ‘Soviet’ appearance and feel to them and are slowly being engulfed by the forest. Some can be entered but all are in a state of disrepair. There is also some wall art that gives an insight into the function of the buildings.

There are some items still remaining in the buildings and on the ground surrounding the buildings where they have been left and discarded after clearance. Many are identifiable by those who have an engineering background but to most of us it is a pile of metal shapes. These are decaying in the extremes of weather that they are exposed to. Close up photography works best in these areas, identifying items and making them the focus of the photograph.

Finally the antenna. This is over 500m long so there is a vast number of options for photography. It is impossible to show the true scale of the structure. Taking individual sections and shapes and making them the focus of the image is the best way. Don’t forget to look up, especially when under the antenna. The patterns within the structure are beautiful in their own unique way.

Getting to the Duga Radar System

The Duga Radar System is located within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and is about 2 hours by road from Kyiv.

Entry to the radar system is only possible as part of a guided tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. These tours can be booked in advance and all depart from Kyiv.

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Places Close to the Duga Radar System