By Brandon Konecny.
During Nikita Khrushchev’s tenure, he wanted to make Moldova an agricultural powerhouse. The “Garden of the Soviet Union,” he called it. Vegetables, fruits, wines, juices: all were going to come from the USSR’s second smallest republic. But how was a country that’s a quarter of Indiana’s size supposed to produce enough food to feed an empire that once covered one fourth of the earth’s land? Some thought the answer would come from then-current radiobiological and agricultural research – or to put it less technically, by irradiating crops.
If that sounds like an abysmal idea, that’s because it was. These experiments failed to produce the anticipated results, and most of the researchers have since died, often at young ages. Although some have tried to explain away their deaths, sometimes by citing their heavy drinking or other lifestyle choices, Dragos Turea isn’t convinced. For him, a linkage exists between these researchers’ early deaths and the radiation they were exposed to, and his stunning debut film Soviet Garden (2019) is an attempt to unearth it. He has, no doubt, made one of the finest Moldovan documentaries of recent memory.
Much of the film follows Turea as he drives around trying to establish this causal chain. This leads him to the researchers involved with the radiation experiments, at least those who are still alive. They tell him the shocking details of the project and how they worked with radiation with little to no protective gear, sometimes grabbing irradiated material with their bare hands. Sure, this caused warts to appear on their body soon afterward, but they were never told that it was reason for alarm. He also interviews some of the villagers who lived – and still live – near the site where they planted these atomic crops. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few of them knew these experiments even occurred.
All this eventually brings him to ground zero of the experiment, the Gamma Field, a plot of land encircled by large mounds of dirt. At its center once stood a large, ominous metallic pole that would irradiate the surrounding crops. Though this land has long since been abandoned, the fingerprints of these researchers’ work remain. When Turea points a Geiger counter at the ground – the same ground on which a nearby villager’s cattle still graze, mind you – a faint beeping becomes audible. The radiation is still there.
However, this film offers more than engaging interviews and shots of Turea as he journeys through the Moldovan countryside. One of Soviet Garden’s most enjoyable features is Turea’s intercutting footage from Soviet propagandistic films, the kinds that have been stereotyped in the West: the ones of local communities and peasant farmers proudly tending their land, all in political solidarity. But these black-and-white images of smiles, of dancing, of traditional musical performances, of farming practices appear unsettlingly deceptive in the context of Soviet Garden. We know the USSR used these films to assure them that they belonged to a trustworthy, benevolent superpower. But when this footage appears together with the film’s interviews, we see this archival footage for what it often was – a veneer of truth that concealed such scientific missteps as the Moldovan agricultural experiments.
But how could these researchers, many of whom were among the most respected in their field, compromise their scientific judgment for a patently foolish goal? Was it hubris, as when Sigmund Freud resisted revising his previously flawed psychoanalytic theories? Was it the researchers’ inability to maintain critical distance from their subject matter, as when Philip Zimbardo lost sight of his ethical role to protect human subjects in The Stanford Prison Experiment? Was it fear of political repression, as when Soviet scientists refused to denounce Trofim Lysenko’s genetic theories as mere quackery? For many of the researchers, it was the result of sheer political obduracy. What mattered to the Party bossmen wasn’t the researchers’ frequently expressed concerns, but the Party’s agricultural targets.
This experiment is but one instance of the long tension that has existed between politics and science, and Turea doesn’t think it’s over. As he drives away from the Gamma field, he asks himself in voiceover: “I wonder where in the world…the next Soviet Garden [will] appear.” Given our current state of affairs, it’s difficult to take issue with his pessimism. Even the United States, the leader in scientific and technological productivity, now has politicians at loggerheads with long-accepted scientific theories, such as humankind’s contribution to climate change and the safety of MSR vaccines. And this is distressing. When governments instrumentalize science for political interests despite reasoned opposition, they risk creating environmental and public health and safety blunders whose effects continue beyond our lifetime, just as the Gamma Field’s radioactivity persists like a historical specter tightly holding our present in its grasp.
Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.