Zach, last week you called me out for always using the same basic format during the introduction to my topic. This week I’m going to change it up a bit. Normally I’d ask you a question about whatever topic is at the center of my mystery. This week I’m going to ask you a question that is only tangentially related and you have to figure out how it’s related to this week’s mystery. Zach have you ever seen the TV show “Lost”?
In the first season of Lost the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 discover a strange radio broadcast coming from somewhere on the island. The broadcast is an automated message from a french woman that when translated says, “If anybody can hear this, they are dead. Please help us. I’ll try to make it to the Black Rock. It (or he) killed them. It (or he) killed them all.” This message had been playing, nonstop, for 15 years. This week, Zach, we’re talking about a mysterious radio signal that has been broadcast, nonstop, for at least 44 years.
UVB-76 is a station broadcasting at 4625 kHtz somewhere in Russia. It plays a constant loop of a strange buzzing noise which you can hear under my voice right now. For quite some time, until around 1992, UVB-76 broadcasted nothing but beeps, but somewhere along the way it changed to a rhythmic buzzing that varies from 21-34 buzzes per minute with 2 quick buzzes every hour, on the hour. For this reason the station is commonly referred to as “the buzzer”. The station is thought to be run by the Russian military but this has never been confirmed by the government.
Zach I want you to follow me on a journey. You’re walking alone in the Russian wilderness with your shortwave radio slung around your neck like a crazy old guy at a baseball game. It’s getting a little dark outside but fortunately you have favorite monotonous tone to keep you company. As you walk down the dirt path you notice something is off. Maybe a buzz was slightly off, maybe a buzz was slightly too quiet. Something is different. Someone is controlling the broadcast. Then you hear………
In case you don’t speak Russian you just heard a man read a series of numbers and Russian names and most people think this is the real reason for the broadcast. The interruptions happen at random intervals that can be anywhere from minutes to months apart and they never repeat or show any kind of obvious pattern. They do have a standard format however. First the monotonous beeping is interrupted, then a voice reads the station callsign and some combination of numbers and russian names.
I know that you are well up to speed on late 20 to early 21st century Russian history but let me give you a little recap of things that have happened in the last 40 years. You have the last decade of the cold war, 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 rise of oligarchs, the financial crisis, the second Chechen war, the rise of Putinism, and the beginning of the Crimean war. Despite a country going through complete and total upheaval, UVB-76 has continued to broadcast. In fact, UVB-76 has been even more active since the turn of the century with voice messages increasing to multiple times a month.
Another strange thing about UVB-76 is that it isn’t a loop or even pre recorded. It seems to be a manually generated buzzer noise. This was deferred after listeners started hearing phone conversations and banging noises in the background. The buzzer is made by some kind of device in front of a microphone and there is often a person in the room with it.
More than just background voices and banging noises have been heard from UVB-76. In 2010 the station did several very weird things. On June 5 the buzzing stopped. There was no announcement and no explanation then it started again the next day. Everything seemed mostly normal, there were some things that sound like morse but nothing dramatic. Then on August 25th at 10:13 AM everything stopped again then there was a series of bumps that could be routinely heard for the next month. For the first week of September the broadcast was regularly interrupted with portions of “Dance of the Little Swans” from Tchaikovsky’s swan lake. https://youtu.be/oH5Fn_u7XQk?t=93 There were also reports of a woman’s scream being heard on the air.
Then on September 7th at 8:48 PM Moscow time a male voice issued a new call sign, “Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris”. The station had now changed it’s name to MDZhB. Around this time the station also changed locations, originally it was traced to Povarovo a military outpost a few miles north of Moscow. Around the same time as the strange noises heard in 2010 the station was relocated to an unknown location near St. Petersburg. Since it’s move and rebranding UVB-76 or UZB-76 or MDZhB or The Buzzer or whatever else you want to call it has been broadcasting normally. There are occasional technical problems and the voice broadcasts have become more frequent over the years.
There are several theories about why UVB-76 exists. The first actually comes from a Russian state-funded organization called the Borok Geophysical Observatory. This group published an academic paper that explained the the signal originates from an observatory using the frequency to measure changes in the ionosphere. At first this seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation until you remember the voice. Why would a group of researches need to send coded messages in order to study the ionosphere? There’s also something I haven’t mentioned yet Zach. The original location of UVB-76 has already been found and explored.
After the station changed location two groups of explorers travelled to Povarovo. When they got there a local man told them about a storm that happened in 2010. One night a dense fog rolled in and the military outpost was evacuated within an hour and a half. After sneaking onto the former military base the groups found an abandoned bunker and several abandoned buildings. Equipment and random items had been left behind and strewn about, there were leaks that had frozen over, and the building seemed completely abandoned. During the exploration a book was found that contained a log of messages sent by UVB-76. This discovery all but confirmed the station’s affiliation with the Russian military. Now the “official” explanation seems a little strange. Why would a research group operate out of a military bunker?
Another theory is that the station is a Dead Man’s Switch. The theory claims that if Russia were to be crippled by a nuclear strike that prevented the orders for retaliation the automated system would launch a counter strike at the most likely perpetrator (aka America). This theory isn’t one of my favorites because it doesn’t explain the voice broadcast or the strange noise. Additionally the Russians would have to be incredibly stupid for this to be their automated retaliation system. First the station has gone out many many times since it first started broadcasting sometimes for several days. Second why would they rely on a manually generated tone to hold their nuclear arsenal at bay? The device generating the tone has broken on more than one occasion and the rate and pitch of the noise has varied over the years. Finally why would they use a system that would be so easy for another country to replicate? Nothing would prevent the US or any other country from broadcasting a recorded version of the station shortly before killing everyone and thereby nullifying the deadman’s switch.
For me, the best explanation is that UVB-76 is used for communication within the Russian military. It definitely explains the strange messages that are broadcast whether it be internal communication or if it’s intended for operatives overseas. Number stations such as this have been operated by dozen of countries, rebels, and paramilitary grounds for decades. They use an open frequency to broadcast coded messages (often in a series of numbers) to an unknown recipient who is the only one who can easily decode the message. This theory doesn’t explain UVB’s buzzer. Perhaps it’s meant to hold the frequency, maybe it’s to draw attention to itself, I’m not sure.