Radio romance: the hidden lives of amateur radio enthusiasts and the power of DIY connection

11 February 2022

The discovery of radio waves revolutionised human interaction. Radio’s genius lies in its simplicity. Anyone with a little science knowhow and access to electronics can build a set at home, allowing them to contact others across countries, continents — and even in outer space — from their kitchen table.

In the USSR, amateur radio networks were particularly cherished for the uncensored contact they provided, even across the Iron Curtain. Photographer Vladislav Kuchinskiy journeyed across Russia to meet the dedicated radio amateurs continuing that legacy — unearthing the messages that still travel via radio wave.

The use of radio waves are regulated by governments and a transnational body, the International Telecommunication Union. Radio amateurs are only allowed to use a small range of frequency bands, but within those limits, they can transmit sounds, text, images, or data. Moreover, their messages can circle the globe. “Amateur radio networks give a lot of opportunities: freedom of speech, direct contacts that aren’t controlled by Internet or cell phone providers, first-hand knowledge and expertise on making and operating a DIY radio, networking, the chance to learn languages. It is always a lottery: on air, you may meet a neighbour, or bump into someone from France,” Kuchinskiy told The Calvert Journal.

Amateur radio use was unregulated until the 1920s, when governments began to ban individual transmissions, limit frequencies, and push for the certification of radio stations. Professional radio technicians had begun to see amateurs as a nuisance, deeming them “ham” — or “ham-fisted” — radio users. Amateurs later adopted the term “ham radio” as a show of pride.

The International Council of Radiolovers was established in 1925 to protect the rights of radio amateurs and support grassroots radio sport. National and international championships are still held annually: amateur radio stations compete to make the most two-way contacts with other stations, vie for the title of best radio host, and play intellectual games. The latest competition last April saw the Russian national team win the first prize, outscoring teams from the 37 other countries taking part.

In 2022, the greatest numbers of amateur radio users can be found in the United States, Japan, and Germany: Russia barely makes it into the top 10. But the country does have a particularly rich amateur radio history.

Before the sprawl of the Internet, Soviet-era radio clubs called kollektivki attracted a wide audience of enthusiasts and radio aficionados. The many facets of amateur radio attract practitioners with a wide range of interests. Some are drawn to contests and cross-country contacts, others collect hard-to-find equipment and radio parts, some are engaged in education, others are passionate about engineering and the DIY nature of the hobby. “You can’t just enter a supermarket and buy a ready-made amateur workspace,” Kuchinskiy explains. “These people are enthusiasts by nature. Most of them have nurtured the hobby since they were teenagers. Elaborate DIY radio stations are a lifetime achievement. Given that most amateurs barely make ends meet in ordinary life, such dedication and diligence is truly impressive.”

Kuchinskiy’s own contact with Russian radio amateurs started by chance, during a photo trip in Stavropol. He heard about Evgeniy Murashkin, a local farmer and a prolific member of the amateur radio community, known on the airwaves by his call sign, RN7T. Kuchinskiy decided to photograph Murashkin and his equipment. As well as his inside setup, his hobby could be seen in the 10-metre high antenna towering over his back yard, and his impressive database of 20,000 fellow amateurs worldwide.

To overcome the language barrier, amateurs across the world use numbers to communicate. Seventy-three means “Good luck!”, while 88 is used for “hugs and kisses” — although the latter is only deemed appropriate for female radio amateurs, and only if they have already met their on air contact previously.

Raisa Skrynnikova (otherwise known as R1BIG) is one of the few female amateur radio enthusiasts. Based in Zelenogorsk, a resort town right outside St Petersburg, Skrynnikova is also a prolific video blogger, and has been recording her radio adventures on YouTube since they began in 2018. As well as attracting more female users to the hobby, she also dreams of reaching out to the International Space Station. It may well come true: astronauts have their own official radio IDs, and many of them are also dedicated enthusiasts. If stars align, Skrynnikova may well get her wish: although the sun may be of more help. “The Sun’s activity is split into 11-year phases. When I started using ham radio, the current phase was fading. But in a couple of years, the sun will reach its peak again, adding full power to my portable antenna,” Skrynnikova says.

It is these tantalising opportunities for contact, as well as this close-knit community that keep radio enthusiasts absorbed in their hobby for decades. One radio amateur, Alexander Sheinis (UA1AJD), travelled across Germany visiting operators he previously met on air from home. “Wherever you go in the world, if you see a radio antenna on top of the roof, you can knock on the door, say your CALL and you’ll be welcome,” he told Russian magazine Russkiy Mir. Amateurs claim their code of behaviour is impeccable, and all DIY radio networks are hate and politics free. Tradition also has it that when an amateur establishes a contact for the first time, the person on the other side of the airwaves should send a postcard to commemorate the event. Sheinis’s most memorable card was sent from Argentina, back in the 1980s.

“[Radio] is eternal and limitless, like the ionosphere of the Earth itself,” he told Russkiy Mir. “Radio amateurs call it ‘the romance of radio waves.’ You don’t know exactly where on the planet your signal will fly, but you can be sure that at the other end you will meet a like-minded person and friend.”

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