For these operators, huddled around their stations as disembodied messages emerged from the static, it was a formative experience. “You listen and all of a sudden you come across a very strong signal,” said Akin Fernandez, a sound artist who later released a five-disc set of number station recordings as the Conet Project. “It’s the scariest thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals go everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.
The number stations are still cooling. But they are no longer so mysterious. In 1987, “Havana Moon” – the pseudonym of a former US intelligence agent William T Godbey – published the first comprehensive study of the stations. He and other enthusiasts, who coordinated newsletters such as Monitoring Times, and later via rudimentary chat rooms on dial-up modems, mapped their reach – and where they were broadcast from. “The Lincolnshire Poacher”, for example, was traced back to Bletchley Park, although he later moved to RAF Akrotiri In Cyprus. In 2008, it ceased to be transmitted. Today, anyone can follow them in line. There’s even a YouTube live stream from the Buzzer.
But is the Buzzer a number station? Smolinski doesn’t think so. “It’s basically a frequency used by the Russian military to send messages. As for the hum itself, I believe it’s a channel marker – it keeps the frequency open. It does not convey any information by itself. The Russian military keeps the frequency busy so no one else uses it, and message recipients can check the signal.
This signal has been traced to several places. For decades it was believed that the Buzzer was broadcasting from Povarovo, a small garrison town about 60 km north of Moscow. In fact, in 2013, a Reddit user by the name of Bottlebob32 claimed to have broken into the compound where it was forwarded. In an AMA, they described discovering a logbook detailing his codes, as well as an underground bunker where they “were hit with a very vile chemical smell.” Accompanying footage shows abandoned military equipment, overgrown and decaying buildings – and an ominous-looking tunnel.
The Buzzer, however, has moved on. Internet sleuths have deduced that his signal now originates from the 60th communication center in St. Petersburg and is relayed by a transmitter in Naro-Fominsk, outside Moscow, and possibly others. But could it be something more sinister than a simple number station?
Some claim that the Buzzer is actually part of the Russian “Dead Hand” nuclear deterrent. Naturally secret, the “Dead Hand” system was developed by the Soviets in the 1980s as a fatal response to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If the USSR was attacked, it would launch a retaliatory ICBM strike, triggered if seismic, light, or radioactivity sensors perceived an impact. Or if a certain radio station has stopped broadcasting.