One World doc Russian Woodpecker explores possible links between Chernobyl and nearby Soviet radar

'The Russian Woodpecker'

The Russian woodpecker was the nickname given to a rapid-fire shortwave signal emitted during the cold war from the Duga radar in what is today’s Ukraine. But was there a connection between Duga and 1986 disaster at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power station? That question is explored in a film entitled The Russian Woodpecker currently being screened at the One World festival of human rights documentaries in Prague. I discussed the subject with producer Mike Lerner, a guest of East Doc Platform, which is organised by the Institute of Documentary Film.

Mike Lerner,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“They built this [Duga] antenna for a number of reasons. One was to detect incoming nuclear weapons. But it was also designed to send radio signals into America.

“The idea was that it might destabilise communications in that country and perhaps even psychologically disturb the Americans and drive them all crazy.

“Fortunately for America, this machine never worked properly. And one of the incredible reasons that it didn’t work was that the signal couldn’t get past the aurora borealis.

“So there was this curtain of colour that God created to protect America somehow against this evil Russian weapon.”

The protagonist of the film is a Ukrainian artist called Fedor [Alexandrovich]. Tell us about his relationship to the Duga radar, which produced the Russian woodpecker.

“Fedor was about six years old when the accident [at Chernobyl] happened.

“He was living in Kiev and was actually affected by this radiation and suffered very greatly, physically and emotionally, from the effects of that accident.

'The Russian Woodpecker'
“He learnt about the existence of this radar actually from the cinematographer in the film, this guy called Artim Ryzhykov, who’s also a character in the film.

“His father used to be in the Russian air force and would tell him stories about flying over Chernobyl and seeing these things.

“It was something in the family mythology. And when Artim told Fedor, he became obsessed about trying to find out what this thing was, why they built it, who built it, and if there was any connection between it and the explosion at the reactor.

“Because they are very close to each other. It’s a question that we haven’t really answered – why did they build them so close together?

“There’s no connection with the electricity or anything like that.

“I guess that because it was a nuclear reactor, it was a secluded zone and protected and secure, so maybe they thought that it was a good place to put something secret.”

And Fedor believes that Moscow gave the order to destroy Chernobyl?

“What we know as a fact is that on the night before the accident the people in Moscow in charge of the energy supply tried to persuade the engineers to carry out these economy saving tests.

'The Russian Woodpecker',  photo: FilmBuff
“They said, Can we run the reactor more efficiently? We’re going to carry out experiments to see if we can do that.

“But all the engineers said, If you follow that procedure and you do that, it will inevitably cause the thing to blow up.

“For some reason, these people in Moscow managed to persuade the night shift [at Chernobyl] to do exactly this experiment. And guess what happened?

“So who did it? Why did they do it? It wasn’t as though they weren’t given due warning that this was a very dangerous thing to do.

“Lots of experts… in fact in the film they say it’s a criminal act to do what they did – anybody who knew anything about nuclear energy would never have done it.

“So our theory in the film may or may not be correct. But it’s the only one out there.

“And certainly whilst the answer may or may not be correct, the question is the right one to ask.”