In the late 1970's, the Russian Woodpecker plagued the world's radio waves. The Russian Woodpecker was a shortwave radio signal that sounded like a series of sharp taps – ten per second – and disrupted public broadcasts as well as communications of boats, airplanes and utilities worldwide. In the chill of the Cold War, people wondered if the Russian Woodpecker might be some insidious attempt at mind control, but the source of the signal was actually a huge Soviet radar array known as the Duga. The Duga was an “over-the-horizon” radar system – so-called because it utilized the ionosphere to bounce signals halfway around the world. There were actually two Duga systems, but this film concerns the one located near Chernobyl, Ukraine. That particular Duga, you see, was forced to cease operations after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
In The Russian Woodpecker, an eccentric Ukrainian artist investigates the possibility that Chernobyl was no accident. The nearby Duga was in development for decades, but was ultimately a failure, unable to fulfill its intended purpose. If Soviet authorities had learned of this fact, the responsible parties would have likely been sent to the Gulag, or simply put to death. In this light, the Chernobyl meltdown seems extraordinarily convenient for certain high-ranking Soviets who had everything to lose. At least, this is the conspiracy theory probed by Fedor Alexandrovich.
For Fedor, the mission is personal. Four years old at the time of Chernobyl's meltdown, Fedor was exposed to strontium radiation and forced to evacuate the area. Having grown up enduring a host of health problems, routing out the Russian Woodpecker conspiracy presents a path to reconciliation with Chernobyl and the shadow it's cast over Fedor's life. Fedor doesn't merely seek answers; he hopes to flush the radiation from his soul.
Fedor's quest can't help but take on a quixotic character – he's a young and mercurial artist with feral, unkempt looks, and he seems curiously mismatched as he squares off against imposing ex-Soviet officials. But his interviews give an unsettling keyhole view of the stranglehold the Soviet system once had, and in some cases still has, on its citizens. Some older officials remain chillingly loyal to the old system, reciting scripted pro-Stalin propaganda decades after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. ostensibly freed them of this obligation.
Fedor and the filmmakers find intriguing connections which, while not amounting to a smoking gun, do give their theory a disconcerting plausibility. Certain key figures had both motive and opportunity to make the Duga's problems go away, it seems, and Fedor encounters “official resistance” as he gets deeper and deeper into his investigation, suggesting he's touched a real nerve. The project is further interrupted and complicated by the Euromaidan protests, and Fedor finds himself facing the same crisis of conscience as previous generations of Ukrainians: probing further could cost him and his family their lives.
In the course of his investigation, Fedor visits the abandoned town Pripyat (in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone) as well as the Duga itself. At these sites of intense biographical significance, Fedor wraps himself in cellophane and engages in something like performance-art-as-personal-exorcism. The Duga itself is a wonder to behold, a massive steel lattice adorned with spires and catwalks and strange wire zeppelins. One of the film's biggest thrills comes when the cinematographer, Artem Ryzhykov, climbs to the top of the Duga – a greater height than the pyramids – and looks over a cold, endless expanse of Ukrainian wilderness, the abandoned Chernobyl complex faintly visible in the distance.
Personal, exhilarating and ominous, The Russian Woodpecker is a memorable docu-thriller and cautionary reminder that – much like Chernobyl's lingering radiation –the ghost of the Soviet Union continues to haunt the lives of people like Fedor Alexandrovich today.