The Russian Woodpecker: Chernobyl's Ghostly Engineering

in 33rd FilmFest Munich

by Carmen Gray

The Russian WoodpeckerThe Duga-3 was a huge-scale radar system built by the Soviets near Chernobyl in 1976. It was nicknamed “The Russian Woodpecker” in the west because of the infuriating tapping sound it made, disrupting shortwave radio transmissions. Before the USSR collapsed, the source of the signal was shrouded in mystery, giving rise to wildly speculative theories about experiments in mind control and weather manipulation occurring behind the Iron Curtain. Director Chad Gracia’s Sundance-awarded documentary “The Russian Woodpecker”, screening at the 33rd Munich International Film Festival in the smartly programmed and diverse International Independents section, makes this military installation its centrepiece. No longer in use but still a magnet for myths, it’s now in the heart of the ghostly post-disaster Exclusion Zone, its gargantuan, wiry lattice of cylindrical repetitions and towering grids like an enigmatic sci-fi invention rising from the barren landscape into the sky. Its sheer scale and shrouded purpose is the perfect signifier of a Russia tinged with fantastical atmosphere whose Soviet past still looms over it as a defining spectre in all its absurdly limitless ambition. The film argues that this bizarre structure’s history ran hand-in-hand with state corruption and oppression, setting out the conspiracy theory that to cover up the Duga’s poor functionality and the guilt of those responsible the Chernobyl reactor meltdown was deliberately set in motion in 1986. It’s a claim that stretches credibility. But the film makes a seductive case that captures the imagination in such a way that whether it’s true or not, defines a Russian climate of unreality built on censored silences and omissions in which the truth is often more surreal than fiction, and is near-impossible to penetrate behind a veil of unaccountability and manufactured versions.

Kiev artist Fedor Alexandrovich, blighted with radiation poisoning as a four-year-old and convinced all catastrophes have a definable cause, instigates the search for answers. Wild-eyed with dishevelled curls and scruffy bohemian garb, he’s the visual cliche of a creative youth with a renegade streak unwilling to bow to conventional thinking. His genuinely eccentric, Myshkin-like manner is an endearing presence in the film, reminding us that political dissent often springs first from artistic quarters – and is the point where it is most strenuously repressed. He had told Gracia about the Russian Woodpecker when the two were working together on a theatre production in Kiev in 2013, and from this the project sprang. Theatricality and a taste for bold visual statement provides the film’s inventive flair. At times this veers close to art-student pretension, as when Alexandrovich during his journey into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone swathes himself in plastic and carries a burning torch while walking over mounds of abandoned gas masks in a former school. But the element of performative spectacle to this investigation is more than just shallow posturing. In a climate of political surrealism and unbridled corruption, in which the truth is casually negotiable and the human life of a questioning citizenry held cheap, the possibility of real social protest and change is neutralised. Against this murky realm of misinformation, Alexandrovich makes himself visible as a beacon of non-apathy and difference, voicing and even inscribing on his body the socio-political environment’s absurdity.

Lending weight to his speculations amid a void of destroyed or classified records, experts are interviewed in the form of engineers and scientists who were close to the functioning and subsequent investigation of the Chernobyl plant, party apparatchiks and scholars. They confirm – often on hidden camera after a few vodkas due to their reluctance to speak out – that the reality of the Duga as a massively costly failure was about to come to light, and that Alexandrovich’s claims of a cover-up are at least possible. The artist is also eager to point out the alienating effect of the very concept of “experts” – that not knowing the detailed workings of nuclear power should not muzzle or render helpless a citizen from the duty to question, as authorities close ranks. Whether or not the Chernobyl meltdown was the deliberate act of one threatened Moscow power player is secondary to the film’s depiction of a region regressed to Soviet times and ruled with a brutal hand in terms of information control, in which digging around under conveniently established official takes on history can be risky indeed. The continuation of this aura of threat and control of the masses today gets to Alexandrovich himself, as he cancels his plan to travel to Moscow to investigate and quits work on the film due to fears for his son’s safety. This conversation, in which he reveals that this change of heart was instilled by a visit from the secret service, is filmed on hidden camera by his cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov.

Whether restaged or not, his palpable fear hits home in that it resonates with the personal dilemmas created by brutal censorship anywhere – that playing the hero requires recognition of potential impossible cost. When we see him later on the Maidan stage, his theory now oratory to fuel revolution, there’s a real sense of the way in which history is a strange, wiry beast formed from the interplay of truth and myth, courage and evasion in unpredictable constellations.
Carmen Gray