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New Europe

Day Ninety: Riga

The Ventspils radio telescope 
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On the telescope's dish. The aluminium panels of all different shapes and sizes are accurate to within less than a millimetre. Apparently they just don't make them like this any more.
Michael Palin - New EuropeJuris and a handful of local Latvian scientists and engineers gave up their weekends and holidays to solve the elaborate puzzle of how to get the telescope up and running again. It took four years for them to repair damage that had been inflicted in less than a week.

Juris and I climb up through the innards of the giant frame. It's ruggedly built but with certain flourishes, like round porthole windows, which give it a style beyond the functional.

'This is like in a Russian submarine', enthuses Juris. And the comparison isn't fanciful. The telescope was built in the naval dockyards in Leningrad, for which Juris is full of both praise and envy. Because it was built for military reasons it was given an almost unlimited budget. No civil government nowadays, he says, would be as generous. It's also engineering of the very highest quality.

At its peak, when it was scanning the Western skies for information, there were 500 people working here under top-secret conditions. A small town of some 3,000 inhabitants had grown up to house families of the scientists. Ghostly remnants of this short-lived brave new world can be found nearby: derelict housing blocks and an abandoned community hall, complete with a stage and Social Realist murals of soldiers at war.

I ask Juris if he knows of any specific surveillance successes of the Ventspils telescope.

'Well, they knew about the death of the Pakistan President Zia ul Haq in an air crash six hours... '

'Before it happened?'

'No... no not before it happened, but six hours before the rest of the world knew about it.'

We're off the main stairway now and swinging high over the ground on a complex and intricate web of steel struts and beams. With a grunt of satisfaction Juris points upwards, and beckons me to follow him. It's a tight squeeze but worth it. The trapdoor opens onto the smooth parabola of the telescope's enormous dish. I feel insignificant, like a tea leaf at the bottom of the cup, surrounded only by aluminium and sky.

A few hours later I find myself down the coast in another relic of the Soviet occupation. Across the border in Lithuania is a garish, brightly lit seaside resort called Palanga, beloved not only of holidaymakers from all over the Baltics but also, once upon a time, by Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, who for five years between 1977 and 1982 was one of the two most powerful people in the world. And I'm to sleep in his bedroom.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety: Riga
  • Country/sea: Latvia
  • Place: Ventspils
  • Book page no: 215

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