Abastumani, hidden in the wild Georgian mountains, was a once-secret Soviet observatory. BBC Future visits to see how it has adapted to life after the Cold War.

At the end of a winding road largely populated by itinerant cows and emaciated horses, up a forested mountain, a small but plucky team of scientists is working to save the world.

They’ve done so for decades amid waves of government repression mixed with official apathy. But the team members are not the protagonists of some sci-fi epic. Here, at the Soviet-built observatory in Abastumani, Georgia – a town of less than 1400 people 20 miles from the Turkish border – this is daily life.

“We have 14 telescopes,” says the observatory’s director, Dr Maia Tordua, also a professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital. “Two of them work.”

Abastumani was once at the forefront of astronomical development. The town – famous in the 19th Century for the quality of its air and thermal waters – was a popular summer resort for the Romanov family who then controlled Georgia as part of the Russian Empire. Tsar Nicholas II’s brother, Georgy Romanov, was an avid amateur astronomer, and it was he who brought the first wave of scientists over from St Petersburg; by the end of the century, Abastumani’s first telescope had been built. For the first two decades of the 19th Century, Abastumani was the Bath of the Russian Empire: a social as well as scientific hub for the cultural elite.

Georgian scientists were often treated as grunts for their Russian counterparts

But it was not until 1932 that Abastumani – then part of the Soviet Union – became the site of a formal Soviet observatory: part of a wave of Soviet interest in space technology that would culminate in the launch of Sputnik. Chosen both for its astronomical past and its stable climate – a necessity when, as Tordua points out “even a breeze” can catastrophically alter visibility conditions – the Abastumani site was the second in the Soviet Union, after one in the Crimea. The first telescope – a 40cm Zeiss refractor from 1937 – is one of only two still in use today.

Lowly role

Not that the scientists in Abastumani always had much to do. Some major developments took place under the leadership of Eugeny Kharadze, the scientific titan who oversaw Abastumani from 1932 until Georgia’s independence from the USSR in 1991. And Roman Kiladze, for example, theorised the existence of Pluto’s largest moon Chairon a full year before the formal US discovery in 1978. Fellow scientist Mikhail Vashakidze was among the first to discover polarised radiation in the Crab Nebula. Georgian scientists were often treated as grunts for their Russian counterparts: the Russians would send off Sputnik, while Georgians would take satellite measurements from below.

“Georgian astronomers served mainly as observers for Russian astronomers,” recalls Bidzina Kapanadze, a long-standing researcher at Abastumani whose research focuses on black holes in active galaxies. “They were sitting in the offices… observing on cold winter nights” – he mimics a shiver – “and then they sent their measurements to Russian systems. The Russian astronomers were first on the paper and the Georgian astronomers were last.” Corruption was also rife, Kapanadze points out, with seniority and personal connections often counting for more than scientific acumen.

Another problem was the closed nature of Soviet society, which made it difficult to publish outside Russian journals or learn from international colleagues. And Soviet ideology often got in the way of good research. Kharadze points to the existence of no less than 17 outbuildings on the Abastumani site: a reflection, he says, of the Soviet tendency toward “quantity over quality”. Each five-year plan meant a showy new building – exquisitely decorated with astrological signs – even as the actual technology of the observatory stayed largely ignored.

The lawless years of independence under Edouard Shevardnadze almost led to its collapse

Still, Tordua points out, Georgian scientists were able to do good – if often unheralded – work, decently funded by the Soviet regime, with a new telescope coming in every few years (the most recent telescope came to Abastumani in 1977).

But the challenges Abastumani faced under the Soviet Union were nothing compared to what came next. If the Soviet system had its limitations, the lawless years of independence under Edouard Shevardnadze almost led to its collapse. Tordua, who came to Abastumani in 1989 – during the waning years of the USSR – recalls the sudden shift.

“In 1989, Tordua says, “[Abastumani] was at the top of everything… more than 250 people worked here and lived with their families in this area. It was the top of functioning observatories [in the USSR].”

Then “in a few months, everything changed.” The Soviet Union fell. Georgia became independent, and the nation collapsed into chaos. Kharadze was unceremoniously dismissed against his will – Tordua recalls his extreme displeasure. “I started my thesis and suddenly everything collapsed.”

Years of chaos

Then the blackouts started. “It was horrible, terrible… We had no electricity for four months.” This not only affected the lighting at the observatory, but more worryingly for such alpine conditions, heating as well. Tordua recalls waking up to temperatures of 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. In desperation, she and her fellow scientists turned to chopping down trees from the surrounding forest to make firewood. And salaries were nothing to speak of. “There was no money. The government, they gave 300 grams of bread per day per person.”

Unable to support themselves, most of the scientists – including, briefly, Tordua herself – were forced to leave for private work in Tbilisi, or for scholarship abroad. Meanwhile, the worst of the Soviet-era structure – nepotism and its attendant corruption – remained. “All the remaining scientists were Soviet-epoch men – over 80 years old,” recalls Kapanadze of the early 2000’s in Abastumani.

It was only after 2004’s Rose Revolution, which brought in new, Western-leaning president Mikhail Saakashvili, that things started turning around for the observatory; in 2008, it was brought under the aegis of the Ilia State University, providing a new degree of funding. (Around that time, a USAid programme to turn a portion of the observatory into a museum was implemented: the office of sacked founder Eugeny Kharidze was restored to look as it had when he left it; Tordua attests to the fact that it’s “exactly as it was”.)

Tordua and her team have tried without success to lobby the Georgian aviation authorities to alter incoming planes’ flight paths

Still, the observatory faces a number of challenges. Funding is minimal. Airplanes flying overhead frequently alter findings – Tordua and her team have tried without success to lobby the Georgian aviation authorities to alter incoming planes’ flight paths. She’s heard that Unesco can offer protected area designation to observatories – a potential solution – but one her scientists have as yet been unable to implement.

“We can’t reach them,” she sighs.

And of their two working telescopes, only one – a 70cm 1957 Meniscus Telescope (its designer, Kapandaze dryly notes, came up with the concept on a Soviet prison march to Siberia) – is still properly operational. The other – the 1937 Zeiss refractor – is used only in the museum. It would cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to repair any one of the 12 that have fallen into disuse: something unfeasible on an operating budget of 2m Georgian lari (£540,000) a year: a budget Tordua believes sees 85% go to salaries for the 150-odd workers here. Salaries are themselves catastrophically low; in 2013, the monthly stipend for researchers was halved from 625 to 312.5 GEL (£84), prompting several resignations. But even that budget is 10 times what it was a few years ago.

“Still,” sighs Bidzina, “under Shevnardze it was even less”.

It’s not only equipment that costs money. Tordua tells me that the cost of being published in a US scientific journal – many open-access scientific publications require scientists to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for publication– is often prohibitive, even as the drive to publish on the international stage makes such publications seem more necessary than ever.

After all, Kapandaze adds, “for decades, the only place we could publish was Astronomischesky Journal” – a prominent Soviet journal.

Watching the skies

Yet despite these setbacks, the scientists at the observatory make do with what they have: a 1957 telescope, an ordinary HP laptop, and rudimentary camera control software.

Tordua is undeterred by these challenges. “We have the equipment that we need to do the observations and can do the research and now we publish papers in international journals. The quality is high.” Sure, she admits, she’d like the funding for better equipment – in an ideal world, she’d like the technology to explore exo-planets – but she’s proud of how far the observatory has come.

In addition to their scientific work, the Abastumani Observatory gets 15,000 or so visitors a year. Some are school groups, like the tour bus of German university students holed up in the adjacent hotel. Others are private visitors. Tordua shows me the guestbook, which includes entries written not only in Russian and Georgian, but in German, English, French, Armenian, and Hebrew. All, she says, evidence that Georgia once again has the chance to participate on the international scientific stage.

In one of the observatory’s many outbuildings, Tordua introduces me to senior scientist Shota Insaridze, who focuses on “nearby asteroids” – in layman’s terms, those that could conceivably collide with Earth with catastrophic results. “He’s our watchman,” she says – focusing his efforts on observing what could one day become real dangers to our planet (he was involved in watching the asteroid Apophis, which at one time scientists feared had a 2.7% chance of hitting Earth). She highlights his recent work at the observatory – including finding multiple sets of rare binary asteroids, which orbit around one another, in the past year.

After all, even antique equipment can produce good science – with the right scientists. Tordua highlights the clock that she trusts to determining the positioning of the meniscus telescope. It’s a 1902 Ericsson (of later Sony-Ericsson fame): its pendulum swinging in concord with the movement of the Earth.

It’s 113 years old and still in perfect working order.

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