Strange Russian "numbers station"

In the new issue of Wired, Peter Savodnik wrote a great story about the very strange Russian shortwave station UVB-76. Known as the Buzzer because of the buzz patterns it transmits, UVB-76 is most likely a "numbers station" that governments use to transmit secret info to operatives around the world. The article reminded me of the piece I wrote about Numbers Stations for the old bOING bOING Digital webzine back in 1999. Fascinating stuff and I love that the mystery continues! From Wired:
 Magazine Wp-Content Images 19-10 Ff Uvb76 F 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.
"Inside the Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma" (Wired)

"Spy vs. Spy" (bOING bOING Digital)

Listen to UVB-76


  1. working late, listening to music, no one else around… a track from the conet project pops up on your random playlist… goosebumps

  2. “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 had ever kept UVB-76 from its inscrutable purpose.”
    Well duh. KGB ran the state before the revolution, after the revolution, is running it now and will be running it for the foreseeable future. So I don’t see any reasons why the station should break its routine.

  3. If I was running an intelligence agency, and we had a numbers station that had been obsolete for years, you know I’d have fun with it.

  4. I remember the first time I heard this, I was so annoyed. It kept going “number nine, number nine” and making all these stupid noises. I could never be a spy.

    1. Whoa! I’ve always been fascinated by them, mostly because they’re so mysterious. Any hints on what running one was like? How often would you receive new material? What was your range? Any clue on your intended audience? Would you get feedback? Etc?

  5. Based on what’s reported in the article, I lean towards the calibration signal hypothesis.

    A good comedy/drama involving Soviet number stations is the 1991 British mini-series, “Sleepers”, available on DVD from your favorite online retail and rental outlets.

    1. It’s also worth trying to hunt down the BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Tracking the Lincolnshire Poacher’ which gets no closer to solving the mystery but has plenty of recordings of the various number stations that are out there.

      1. Well, the Lincolnshire Poacher is well known to have been transmitted from a British military base on Cyprus.  It’s gone now, but its location was one of radio’s worst-kept secrets for decades.

        It’s not like it’s *that* hard to find the location of a ridiculously powerful shortwave transmitter.

  6. I once  picked up a numbers station while testing a transceiver in my basement and it was possibly the most creepy/fascinating thing that’s ever happened to me on the air.   My wife made me shut it off after a minute though because it was making her skin crawl.

  7. My dad was into shortwave when I was a kid in the 80s in Alaska. He had his radio set up near our Apple IIe and he’d often leave it on in evenings. All kinds of creepy static and random voices (usually pilots but sometimes voices in other languages) was thus my evening background noise while playing “Odessa Lake”, “Oregon Trail” and “Zaxxon”.  Usually the chatter was boring but sometimes we’d get creepy signals, sine wave sounds, beeps. Made the hair stand on the back of your neck faster than anything on dark winter evenings in Alaska!

    But one time I was sitting there playing “Zaxxon” when some random pilot chatter that was going on (Australian, I think) suddenly went strange as one of the pilots excitedly (and in a panic) described seeing a UFO and just went batshit nuts  over it.  I was about 6 or 7 so I didn’t have the skills to tell if they were  for real or what but I’d never heard anyone goof around before and the guy seemed very serious so it scared the crap outta me.

    Listening to these numbers stations is eerily fascinating and oddly nostalgic. o_O;

    1. I used to listen to my brother’s shortwave sometimes and would tune into the Soviet over-the-horizon radar.  It sounded like a rapid thumping.  I also liked listening for the echos created by meteorites burning up in the upper atmosphere.

  8. ‘Fringe’ did an episode on this. Turns out the numbers led to locations where parts of a secret machine were buried by a technologically advanced early people. 

  9. Alone at a cabin one night, things were cool and carefree, then I remembered, in that particular tone of voice: “…Nancy Adam Susan, Nancy Adam Susan, Nancy Adam Susan…”, and my emotional state took a sharp turn towards a sense of general, abstract menace.  Stupid Conet Project…

  10. Am I the only one who wants a wallpaper with that image?

    Oh, and that number stations are cool too.

  11. I always figured the Buzzer was a Dead Hand system or something… when it went offline a while back, I remember a lot of people were going “Oh shit…” But since I’m here typing this, I guess I was wrong.

    Still, do you know how much money it takes to run a station like UVB-76? It maintained functionality through the collapse of the USSR – surely someone feels the need to keep it active.

    1. It’s possibly relatively low power – I’ve talked to radio amateurs from around the Moscow area (near where UVB-76 is located) with only 100W.  On HF a little can go a very long way.

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