Observatory Resists Plan To Move It to Far North

Observatory Resists Plan To Move It to Far North

Published: June 13, 2012 (Issue # 1712)

The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on Wednesday will discuss the fate of the Pulkovo Observatory, an internationally recognized institution that has recently found itself at risk of being moved to the Kola Peninsula as a group of deep-pocketed investors is lobbying to seize the choice plot of land occupied by the astronomers.

Founded in 1839 by the order of Tsar Nicholas I, the Pulkovo Observatory is the oldest in Russia and is internationally renowned as an astronomy center, alongside its counterparts in Greenwich, London and Paris. In the days before the Greenwich Meridian was adopted as the international standard, the Pulkovo Observatory marked out a strip of land that was considered zero longitude in Russia — the point from which all national geographic calculations were computed.

In Russia, the Pulkovo Observatory it is nicknamed the country’s astronomic capital. In 1945, a local law established a three-kilometer protected zone around the observatory and stipulated that no industrial or residential construction be allowed in the area. In 1990, the observatory received additional patronage from UNESCO, which included it on its World Heritage List. In 1997, the Russian government also included the observatory on its list of the most valuable sites of the country’s cultural heritage.

Wednesday’s discussion has been instigated by the parliament’s Yabloko Democratic Party faction, which is crying foul at the plans to move the observatory out of St. Petersburg to vacate space for lucrative upmarket summer cottages and transport infrastructure.

“The siege around the Pulkovo observatory is getting tighter as we speak,’ said Vyacheslav Notyag, a lawmaker with the Yabloko faction in the city parliament.

“It will be a real shame if we lose Pulkovo Heights in 2012, especially after our fathers and grandfathers resisted the Nazi invasion during World War II. The only difference is that this time, the enemy with a voracious appetite for this land is driven by financial motives, rather than fascist ideology.”

“Incidentally, if the cottage complex gets built, it will partly cover the memorial burial site from World War II,” the parliamentarian added. “That would be nothing but sacrilege.”

The idea of moving the St. Petersburg observatory to the Kola Peninsula was first voiced in 2011 during a debate over updates to the city development plan. The Tatyana Slavina architectural bureau was commissioned by City Hall to conduct a professional survey of the area surrounding Pulkovo Airport. The experts, considering the potential of the airport’s fast-paced development, including the construction of a third terminal, suggested that the surrounding area would be best used to create additional transport infrastructure and host commercially profitable projects.

“Owing to urban development reasons, the observatory, which has to provide precise astronomic research and monitoring, should be relocated to a more favorable area, for example, in the mountainous area of the Kola Peninsula,” reads the completed survey.

Notyag said that despite the construction ban and UNESCO protected status, the land occupied by the observatory has been divided by the authorities into plots that are already being offered to investors.

“The city’s development plan involves potentially dividing the land between investors who would use the plots to build luxury cottages, business centers or commercial centers in the area,” he said.

The parliamentarian wants to launch an investigation into how this scenario has become possible, despite the legal limitations that protect the area around the observatory. During Wednesday’s discussion, Yabloko will confront members of the city government, including Igor Metelsky, the deputy governor in charge of property and land issues, over this question.

Alexander Stepanov, director of the Pulkovo Observatory, said that the St. Petersburg station — the only large center operating in its longitude — has for decades focused on monitoring the southern sector of the sky, and the move would entail a change of focus, which the scientist regards as senseless.

Speaking at a recent roundtable at Rosbalt news agency, Stepanov said that the weather on the Kola Peninsula is unsuitable much of the time for a certain range of astronomic observations, which would limit its possibilities.

In addition, if the move to the Kola Peninsula goes ahead, the observatory there is likely to experience a shortage of professionals. The St. Petersburg scientists have said they will not leave the city, and would rather seek alternative employment at home. This would essentially mean a significant setback in the scientific research area.

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