Science under siege: The quiet place where man made lightning

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The Independent Culture
PETER KAPITZA, the great Russian physicist, sacked by Stalin from the Soviet A- bomb programme, retreated to his dacha in the beautiful countryside outside Moscow and proceeded to build his private laboratory. It was there, in 1944, that he spectacularly blew out all the windows during his experiments and created ball lightning.

Peter Kapitza died in 1984, so it was with his son, Andrei, on a fine warm day earlier this year, that we left the concrete sprawl of Moscow's suburbs behind and headed out to visit his father's dacha.

Andrei was an attentive guide: 'Look how the sides of the road are cleared of bushes for 15 metres,' he said, pointing to the verges, unusually well manicured for a country where, as he'd remarked before, 'there are no roads, only directions'. In fact, the defoliation was to remove any cover for potential assassins near the road which was frequently used by government ministers on their way out to their luxury dachas.

The countryside of Nikolina Gora has counted Stalin, Gorbachev and even the British embassy among its part-time residents and the road leading out of Moscow is dotted with police control boxes. The arrival of a VIP convoy is invariably signposted by the increased twitchiness of the occupants, who come out and pace up and down, waving their white batons.

We passed Stalin's dacha of gloomy red brick, built in an even gloomier architectural style and reminiscent of a wicked witch's house in a Russian fairy tale. Stopping at a roadside store, we bought Russian pilemini - meat wrapped in pasta - and other things to eat. It was the first time I had seen such relative plenty in a Russian shop, but then this was no ordinary road.

Further on, we passed the summer residence of the Politburo apparatchiks. Overweight party chiefs would use a specially built lift to descend gently from the splendour of their hillside accommodation to the Moscow River below - well upstream of the city, the water here is clean enough for swimming and fishing.

Turning off the main highway, we made our way slowly along the narrow, winding road to the Kapitza dacha. When it was built in the late 1930s, it was one of only two dachas in the middle of a small wood. Now there are a dozen or more, owned by the nouveau riche of Russian society - gypsy singers, chess masters and even a few entrepreneurs. But unlike most of these other buildings, with their garish colours and obvious newness, the Kapitza dacha gives off a quiet air of permanence. Its old timbers and weather-beaten exterior have become part of the landscape.

It was here, in splendid isolation, that Peter Kapitza built a sizeable laboratory in the grounds of the house and later extended it so that he could install the bulky equipment necesary for generating microwaves. He even found time to build a boat, named Helium. There is a glorious photograph of him with his two sons proudly standing over it. The Helium is still there today.

Peter's widow is now in her ninetieth year and, although frail, retains all her powerful character - resolute and composed. She has witnessed two world wars, seen communism come and go, and has lived to see Russia emerge once more as an independent state. She speaks exquisite English, acquired during her years in Cambridge with her husband, and where her two sons were born.

It has been more than 15 years since she visited Britain and she says she misses the green English landscape most: 'The countryside here is so sad.' She confided that she is an avid listener to the BBC World Service and over lunch we discussed the famine in Africa, the troubles in Northern Ireland and the drought in East Anglia.

Afterwards we visited a nearby abandoned church, four centuries old. In the past it doubled as a beacon, sending messages to at least two other churches across the countryside, to warn of invasions. Now the church is falling apart, its accompanying graves sunk in a nearby plot of open land. The hamlet that has grown up alongside the church looks as if it has hardly changed since the days of Pushkin.

Andrei Kapitza has plans to establish a fund that will ensure the continuation of Russian research in his father's name. As the sound of crows echoed across the valley where the grass was turning to summer green, he turned his car round and we drove back to Moscow and the 20th century.

(Photograph omitted)

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