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New Europe

Day Ninety: Riga

The Ventspils radio telescope 
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The Ventspils radio telescope, through which Soviet Russia listened to the world, was saved from destruction by a dedicated group of local scientists and engineers.
Michael Palin - New EuropeYesterday, a refreshing day off pottering round, not the old centre, but the rich heritage of Riga's Art Nouveau architecture, reflecting the wealth and enlightenment of this cosmopolitan port at the turn of the twentieth century. Alberta Street (Alberta iela) is a repository of boldly experimental flourishes, the most imaginative of which were designed by a Rigan called Mikhail Eisenstein, whose young son went on to direct films in Russia, producing such twentieth-century classics as Battleship Potemkin, Ivan The Terrible and Alexander Nevsky.

Today, leaving this walkable city behind with some reluctance, we head for Latvia's west coast. This takes us across the old province of Kurland. In the seventeenth century, when the European powers were flexing their muscles across the Atlantic, their enterprising ruler Duke Jakob struck a neutrality deal with Oliver Cromwell, and acquired the West Indian island of Tobago, which he rechristened New Kurland and which carried on a thriving trade with Europe under his distinctive flag, a black crab on a red background.

Nice to think of Latvia having once been a colonial power.

The nearer we get to the Baltic, the more monotonous become the acres of sand and pine forest. We're looking for something quite unusual, and looming above the tree canopy, some 20 miles north of the town of Ventspils, we finally pick it out. A massive, goblet-shaped radio telescope. In the days of Soviet occupation this was one of the most important of their listening devices, so important that when the Russians pulled out of Latvia at the end of the Cold War, they did their best to make sure it would never be used again.

But they reckoned without men like Juris Zagars.

He has a good story to tell. How what he calls 'one of the most beautiful radio telescopes in the world' was saved from destruction by a group of Latvian scientists, and turned from fighting the Cold War to fighting global warming.
The Russian proposals for blowing up the facility caused an outcry across the scientific community. Juris tells of how the Royal Astronomical Society joined the Russian Academy of Science in protesting that 'to destroy the best radio telescope in northern Europe, only for political reasons, was some kind of vandalism'.

At the eleventh hour, the decision to blow it up was rescinded.

'It was like a fairy tale,' says Juris.

Well, not quite. The Russians sent a crack squad to sabotage the telescope without actually destroying it. In the control room at the base of the telescope Juris explains how they went about it. He shows me thick communication cables into which some hundred nails were driven and their heads cut off. Wires were cut in all but one of the thirty drives needed to power the telescope, and battery acid poured onto them. Hundreds of other vital electrical connections were broken and the paperwork and diagrams that were needed to reconnect them were destroyed.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety: Riga
  • Country/sea: Latvia
  • Place: Ventspils
  • Book page no: 214

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