Fedor Alexandrovich has the unkempt, bushy look of a Bolshevik or a doomsday prophet. He has some surprising things to say. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which happened when he was just a kid living nearby, may have been orchestrated by high ranking Soviet officials. An enormous radar facility may have been involved. Fedor has taken it upon himself to uncover these secrets, adding amateur journalist to a resume that includes artist, playwright and filmmaker. He might be Don Quixote and he might be Edward Snowden. And before the end of The Russian Woodpecker, filmmaker Chad Gracia’s chronicle of this investigation, you may very well believe him.
The hunt begins at the Kiev Reservoir, where Fedor pours a bottle of red wine into the water as an offering to this now-radioactive lake. Red wine was supposed to have mitigated the effects of the contamination — though, like so many other facts from 1986, it seems suspicious. Equally suspicious is the monumental radar facility lurking a few kilometers south of the nuclear power plant. Now just as ghostly as the rest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, this skeletal behemoth is at the center of Fedor’s theories.
To summarize without giving too much away, the logic is as follows. This collection of antennas and machines is called Duga 3. It’s an over-the-horizon radar system that was used by the Soviets to broadcast signals and collect information, ostensibly with a reach that could extend over the Arctic and into the United States. Much of that is speculative, but what we do know is that it broadcast an incredibly irritating signal from 1976 to 1989. It was dubbed the “Russian Woodpecker” because it sounded just like the bird, ten rapid clicks per second. Fedor thinks that this top secret military operation must have had something to do with the nuclear disaster.
He starts talking to the men who worked at Duga 3. Along with his best friend/cameraman Artem Ryzhykov and Gracia, Fedor manages to use hidden cameras to get a full list of everyone who was there at the time. The resulting interviews are tense, to say the least. These men are all former military, still trapped in a Soviet mindset. When questioned about the specifics of the radar system’s goals, one of them actually changes the subject with a clunky “Let me tell you about Stalin,” and then begins a tirade exonerating the long-deceased dictator of all (long-proven) wrongdoing in Ukraine. These men are tight-lipped not simply because they’ve had the KGB over their shoulder for most of their professional lives, but because of the Soviet Union’s culture of secrecy. The fact they have denied something becomes the most compelling reason to believe it might be true.
The psychological and social remnants of the Soviet Union are therefore about as persistent as the nuclear radiation itself. This, more than anything else, is the most powerfully resonant metaphor here. As Gracia shows in the beginning of the documentary, even the physical film used to record Chernobyl that day has been perverted by the radiation. Our perception of the event is forever altered by how it happened. Fedor’s mission to break free of that is immensely political. When he began his mission, Viktor Yanukovych was still President of Ukraine. His ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a place where the mysterious deaths of journalists occur with alarming frequency, were hardly good news for anyone trying to uncover dangerous information.
His concern for the safety of his family becomes one of the more enervating narrative threads of the film, which gradually becomes more and more of a character study. The way that he is affected by what he discovers, the truth in which he now must live, is reminiscent of the way revelation alters lives in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour.
Yet while that film addresses the whole globe, The Russian Woodpecker builds a very specific metaphor from Fedor’s story. Gracia uses the 2013 Euromaidan protests and subsequent Ukrainian Revolution as a powerful leitmotif, driving home both the open space of real revolution and the specific national politics of Chernobyl. If Fedor is right, it is another in the long list of grievances Ukraine levels against its larger neighbor to the East. The revolution also gives him the strength he needs. The film begins and ends in Kiev’s Independence Square, where this artist, amateur journalist and citizen shouts his controversial discoveries into the assembled public. One gets the sense that now, in a Ukraine remaking its society out in the streets, people are more willing to listen than ever before.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015.