105 km yesterday from Koldava to Riga airport, whence we cheated and hired a car today to visit the fascinating former Soviet Cold War eavesdropping station at Irbene – once so secret that from its inception in the mid-60s right through to 1989, the Americans had no idea it was there.
And yet, it was from here – Moscow’s equivalent perhaps to Britain’s GCHQ – that for a quarter of a century, the Soviets were able to listen in to the most secret of American communications, from telephone calls to messages to and from missile submarines.
Zdvezdochka – or Little Star – is a 32-metre radio telescope, the eighth biggest in the world and similar in function to Britain’s Jodrell Bank.
Very recently refurbished, it’s now being run with support from the European Union as a civilian operation in tandem (that word again) with similar telescopes around the world in exploring deep space.
Until the Russians handed the place over in 1994, there were up to 2000 people living here in secrecy lockdown, with their own small town now abandoned.
The departing ex-superpower took everything movable away with it from kitchens and toilets to the smallest of the three parabolic antennae that started eavesdropping on the West around the time Jutta and I were working and studying in Moscow nearly a half century ago.
What they had to leave behind they sought to render unusable, though not to drastically that it couldn’t be patched together again with new West European equipment.
With a link here first to our route into Riga (we leave tomorrow heading for Tartu, Estonia’s second city), here are some hopefully enlightening pictures.