The Russian Woodpecker is a documentary about zombies. Not the George Romero kind, but equally relentless in their quest for survival. Artist Fedor Alexandrovich was just four when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster destroyed the Ukrainian city of the same name, and Pripyat where its workers lived. Strontium from the radioactivity remains in his body. The film follows Alexandrovich as he attempts to make sense of the nuclear catastrophe, information about which is still controlled by the ghost of the Soviet Union.
His central fixation is the Duga, a towering Soviet radar that sent eerie pecking noises across the airwaves during the Cold War, earning it the nickname “the Russian Woodpecker.” By the end of the documentary, the pecking broadcast returns from somewhere in Russia, another apparition of the Soviet past. However, Duga was a massive waste of money and a military failure before it was even completed, and if Soviet leaders had found this out it’s likely the structure’s creators would have been killed. It just so happened that the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster occurred before its inspection, and to Alexandrovich, “there are no coincidences.”
“In 1976, a radio signal terrorized the Western world,” Alexandrovich says in the film. “The signal was traced to a small town in the Soviet Union, Chernobyl. Home to one of the largest nuclear reactors in Europe. And hiding in its shadow stands a steel monster taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza.”
The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize. It’s now available to watch online and screened in Moscow and St. Petersburg earlier this month as part of Russia’s ArtDocFest. Directed and produced by Chad Gracia, whose more skeptical view balances Alexandrovich’s growing paranoia, it’s impressive in the scope of history it covers, from the famines of the 1930s under Stalin, to the current conflicts in Ukraine. Alexandrovich makes a compelling central figure, with his personal connection to Chernobyl and the interweaving of his broiling art. In one scene he’s recapping the facts he’s gathered, his wide eyes and wild hair giving him the air of a mad prophet; in the next he’s a confident specter, his naked body wrapped in plastic, carrying a torch over the discarded gas masks in a Chernobyl school.
“My friends say contradictory things about him,” cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov says in an interview. “Some say, ‘He’s crazy, an idiot! He has dirty fingernails. He doesn’t brush his teeth.’ But the smarter ones say that Fedor is a genius. And everything he does is theater.”
Theatrical productions are his main art, along with teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kiev, and he’s not shy about drama. In one scene he breaks a piece of glass featuring the sketched face of a Soviet official whom he believes precipitated the nuclear disaster in order to conceal the failure of the Duga. Yet he also poses interview questions to the procession of officials, scientists, historians, and others connected with the Duga and Chernobyl. Some give wavering answers that suggest there’s a possibility Chernobyl was a cover for the Duga, while another assures him that the seminary-bound Stalin would never harm a soul. The “undead Soviet ghoul,” as Alexandrovich puts it, keeps reviving.
It’s easy to think of the Soviet Union as a fallen empire now relegated to kitsch. The Russian Woodpecker argues that it’s still very much a force, and that the phantom of its authoritarian rule — which Alexandrovich feels looming as he delves further into his investigation — still has an iron grip in its rigor mortis.
The Russian Woodpecker is available on iTunes, Vimeo, Amazon, and Google Play.