Strange, Persistent Pecking Noises from Chernobyl: The Russian Woodpecker
By Elina Mishuris
The Russian Woodpecker
Directed by Chad Gracia
Opens October 16
A pecking came across the sky, and this was the Russian Woodpecker: an annoying radio signal that interfered with communications in Europe and even in parts of the Soviet Union, from which everyone assumed the signal originated. In fact the pecking sound was a byproduct of an early-warning system the Soviets had developed, so they’d know if anyone launched a nuke at them. More specifically, it came from an array near the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, now located within the Exclusion Zone, where no one lives and radiation remains high, and pictures of which (abandoned schools, empty pools) keep turning up on the internet: the holiest site of ruinporn.
An array is an enormous, impressive structure, like a section of the Great Wall built out of radio towers. For the Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich (others have suggested he personifies the Holy Fool populating Slavic folklore) the array, and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion, maintain a dark and persistent half-life, just like the Soviet Union itself. In Chad Gracia’s documentary—his first film, and a winner, at Sundance, of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize—Fedor and a friend, Artem, set out to make a video piece about Chernobyl—Fedor, naked, holding a burning torch and a clear mask to his face—or else conduct to an investigation into its cause—the array didn’t work, had cost lots of money, and would have been a great embarrassment, so what a coincidence, this preventable accident happening so close by! Round eyes darting with alarming, birdlike speed, Fedor conducts interviews with the old guard: aging men, some scientists, some investigators, some flunkies—many of whom are determined to save face forever. Stalin couldn’t have been a bad guy, one insists. He was a seminary student!
Stalin’s dead, but the dream of total control floats over Russia and Ukraine like a poison cloud: there’s footage here of the Maidan protests, the clashes with police. Fedor is an eccentric, a mop-headed young dad, a maniac in a leather jacket climbing a rusty structure in a nuclear fallout zone, and an inspiration, Gracia seems to be saying: until even Fedor gets spooked, and tries for a time to end the investigation. For an account of the tragedy of Chernobyl, we can turn to the latest Nobel winner. For an account of current and daily tragedy, whereupon any hope for truth is savaged by a system concerned only with keeping itself alive, we could do worse than look and listen to the Woodpecker.