In 1836, the Pulkovo Observatory opened in St. Petersburg, Russia. It boasted the world’s largest refracting telescope of the time, with a 15″ lens.

For the 50th anniversary, a 30″ telescope was commissioned. Again it would be the largest telescope lens in the world, produced by the American brothers Alvan and George Clark.  Five years in the making, it was so precisely shaped, the final stage of polishing was done by rubbing their thumbs against the glass.

By 1900, the Pulkovo telescope has been used for highly sophisticated science. Belopolsky does spectroscopic measurements of the planets, using the delicate technique of optical Doppler shift to separate the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere.

In 1912, a wealthy nobleman donated his private observatory in the Crimea to Pulkovo, giving them a southern station with better seeing conditions. A massive 40-inch reflecting telescope had been commissioned from Howard Grubb in Ireland, but in the confusion following the Soviet revolution, it was not finally delivered until 1925. At that time, it was the largest telescope in Europe.

In 1936, the Pulkovo Observatory was ravaged by Stalin’s political purges. Following the denunciation of a professor by a disgruntled graduate student, a chain reaction began of arrests and false accusations obtained under torture. 27 of the 29 astronomers were arrested, of whom only one would ultimately survive, the astrophysicist Nikolai Kozyrev.

Germany targeted Soviet observatories during World War II, destroying some of Europe’s finest astronomical instruments. In the siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), the observatory was targeted by air raids and artillery, and completely leveled. In the Crimea, German forces occupied the territory of the southern observatory. When they finally retreated, Soviet astronomers found the observatory burned and the telescopes missing.

After the defeat of Germany, Kozyrev was released from prison to help with the restoration of damaged observatories. The Soviet Union exacted massive reparations, part of which were replacement telescopes. The 40-inch Grubb reflector from the Crimea was found at the Potsdam observatory in Germany, but it had been damaged beyond repair. In its place, the 122 cm Zeiss reflector at Babelsburg was taken. It stands to this day in Simeiz, where Vasily Moroz famously used it to obtain infrared spectra of Mars and Venus in the late 1950s.

In Leningrad, a few brave men had been able to save its library, containing books and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century. They also removed the 30-inch lens from the great telescope and stored is deep underground. But it was determined that the great refracting telescope could not be recreated.

In 1954, a 26-inch Zeiss refractor from Germany was moved to Pulkovo. Originally, the telescope had been commissioned during the war as a gift to avid amateur astronomer, Benito Mussolini!