When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic meltdown on April 26th, 1986 (one of the worst such disasters in human history), it caused toxic nuclear material to poison much of the USSR and Eastern Europe. The effects of the meltdown are still being felt, with the area still largely unlivable and health issues afflicting the survivors and their descendents still being investigated and categorized. But the shadow of Chernobyl echo over the past thirty years as an example of the cruelty and arrogance of the Soviet Union. The endlessly fascinating and sharply bizarre documentary “The Russian Woodpecker” starts out as a nutty conspiracy theory before morphing into a far more relevant and barbed re-contextualization of the tragedy in the light of recent tensions between the Ukraine and Russia.
This documentary starts off as a biography of Ukrainian artist Fodor Alexandrovich, whose work combines performance art with more classical forms and is often politically confrontational. Initially, he seems to be staging a kind of piece connected with the Chernobyl meltdown, since as a child he remembers fleeing Kiev in fear of the radiation. Alexandrovich looks wild-eyed into the camera and says things like “Ukraine is full of ghosts.” He visits the Chernobyl museum, its lights flashing like a Japanese discotheque, and shows his young son what happened when he was the same age. Archival footage and news reports underline the tragedy, especially with the USSR’s slow response to address the survivors about the potential health threats.
But instead of following the development of his art installation (whatever form that might take), “The Russian Woodpecker” shifts brilliantly, quickly taking the form of a conspiracy thriller. The fact that Alexandrovich is an unkempt weirdo with yellow teeth, a straggly beard and threadbare sweaters only makes his investigation more compelling —shaggy dog detective stories have never been this shaggy. Initially, Alexandrovich is spurred on by stories about a vast satellite array that stood taller than the Great Pyramids of Egypt in the shadow of the nuclear power station (Alexandrovich’s flowery description: “The Moscow eye was next to its atomic heart”). This was a government installation that wasn’t identified on any maps (it was referred to as a boy scout camp), but that many talked about (shortly after the explosion, an Air Force pilot described it as a glimmering golden pyramid) and even more felt the effects of.
Officially called the Duga, this towering structure was controlled directly by the highest echelons of the Soviet Union in Moscow. Alexandrovich learns that it had the rare ability to send a signal along the curvature of the Earth, using ions in the Earth’s atmosphere to bounce off of. In the ’80s, it drove the American military crazy, since the signal would come across on long-range radios as an incessant ticking. Hence the Woodpecker nickname stuck. But its exact purpose remained a mystery. What Alexandrovich and writer/director Chad Gracia discover is that it was a kind of government-developed weapon that was supposed to alert Mother Russia of any kind of long-range missile activity, but it’s accuracy was compromised by Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights. So this was a $7 billion installation, meant as a next-generation weapons defense project that ended up doing nothing.
After speaking with various officials and scientists (many of whom were reluctant to talk years after the Soviet Union had been disbanded), Alexandrovich starts to devise a conspiracy theory that seems pretty plausible, given the Soviet Union’s history of secrecy and the brutal way it dealt with its problems: he believes that someone with ties to the Russian Woodpecker ordered the meltdown at Chernobyl as a way to cover up the array’s failure. After all, it stands to reason that had anyone actually investigated the Woodpecker, they would have discovered that it was bunk. And then people would have had to pay, dearly. There was a mysterious phone call the night of the explosion that Alexandrovich believes came directly from Russia; it was this phone call, insisting that the reactor be pushed beyond capacity, that resulted in the meltdown and the subsequent contamination of the entire area… include the vast Woodpecker antennae. If Duga was part of a radioactive wasteland, nobody was going to dig for answers (or anything else for that matter).
As the documentary goes along, Gracia is quick to point out the interview subjects who all these years later seem loyal to the Soviet Union, and who are visibly unnerved by an American being in their presence. As Alexandrovich digs deeper, he becomes more visibly unnerved, eventually fleeing the country with his family, fearing that Soviet forces will harm his young son. But instead of the movie being halted, that’s when it takes on an additional dimension, as Alexandrovich goes from a provocative performance artist to a radicalized freedom fighter, spurred on by Putin’s pro-Soviet rise to power and protests related to the president shying away from joining the more stable European Union to align the country more closely with Russia – which led to widespread riots, brutal assaults and murders. At one point, Alexandrovich is so shaken up that he wants the documentary shut down completely, but later is seen on a stage in Kiev sharing his strangely convincing story. As he says, there are enough people who can throw Molotov cocktails; he’s got something else to do.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you believe Alexandrovich’s story that a $7 billion weapons system was ultimately the cause of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; what matters is that Alexandrovich believes it so completely. And through his eyes (which seem to bug out of his skull), the entire Russia/Ukraine relationship takes on a vivid, personal immediacy. He is an artist who makes a tangled conspiracy take on a tactile, relatable malevolence. “The Russian Woodpecker” is the story of two countries that may have divided but who are still linked through their politics, exports and the ghosts that still wander the contaminated grounds of both Chernobyl… and the Russian Woodpecker. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.