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This Russian open window into the honest history of the Soviet past was unthinkable before 1991, and in the years since 2001 it has closed again. There were no follow-up editions of this History of Computing Devices and Information Technology Revealed, and there appear to be no other copies for sale of the first English language edition. That makes this post, at least in part, a book review of a book you can’t get, but that would hardly have been a novel situation in the Cold War-era, information-deprived Moscow that’s the center of this story.
The Soviet Union started computer research for roughly the same military reasons that the UK did (COLOSSUS) and the US did (ENIAC). They used the same level of technology; vacuum tubes and electromechanical relays. These were long-proven components from telephone and radio, and posed few challenges to Soviet industry. Programming this generation of computer was a clumsy, literally patchwork affair. Dials had to be turned and phone-style connections repatched by hand.
Computers that could store their own programs and run them automatically came along quickly. America’s experimental EDVAC led to the civilian UNIVAC, the first commercially successful computer.
The same things happened in the USSR much more slowly, partly due to the lingering, still-crippling aftereffects of WWII, and partly because of a sluggish, passive economy that allowed little room for innovation. But there was one crucial additional factor; in the late Stalin years, the Party came to regard computers and their makers with deep suspicion. It’s hard to explain why, because the official explanations make no sense. Supposedly, cybernetics (the word was already in use, here as well as in Russia) contradicted Marxist theory about the material basis of the human brain. But most observers point to a different factor: Stalin’s paranoid antisemitism, and the prominence of Jews in mathematics and the sciences. In any case, after Stalin died in 1953, the Party’s attitude about computers made a 180-degree turn. They saw what an effective instrument of control they might offer, and how essential computers were to missile design and atomic energy. The Soviets began to make up for lost time.
These were, for many Russians, the halcyon years of the Soviet Union, the Sputnik-and-Gagarin years, when for all of the country’s remaining poverty and backwardness, it could claim, credibly, that much of the world looked up to their technical achievements. Soviet computing made the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors, and was even competitive with western networking technology, since the vast distances of the USSR required wide area networks. As the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution approached, France adopted the Soviet color TV system and foreign airlines considered buying Tu-144 supersonic airliners. Here is a very early example of computer animation, rendered on the BESM-4, part of the workhorse series of Russian-built computers.
Soviet doctrine wasn’t always observed to the letter, but in general, what one republic or oblast got, everyone else demanded, so for most of the Sixties, computing was encouraged to spread out more widely among industries across the country. Making forward progress was second priority. This period of consolidation coincided with a delayed transition to integrated circuits, which required greater industrial precision and chemical purity than manufacturing individual transistors.
The Soviets and other eastern bloc nations with locally built computer systems of their own (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and east Germany), facing possible universal adoption of American standards and operating systems in everything from ASCII codes to modem handshake protocols, tried to starkly reframe the situation as American dominance versus the world. They found a receptive audience in the state-protected computer industries of France, Italy, Germany, and to a much lesser degree Britain, which already had lucrative partnerships with the Americans.
This purported Europe-against-American manufacturers front in the systems and standards wars was never very fierce, because hard-nosed European customers wouldn’t play along with their supposed “national champions”. Soviet claims, and later Russian ones, that they were the gallant creators and leaders of a continent-wide, counter-American movement of their fellow European computer producers, are sadly delusional. Europe didn’t see them that way, not even the eternally many, many skeptics of US power and influence.
It was then that the leaders of Soviet computing saw an opportunity to leapfrog the west, to not only catch up but definitively beat the Americans and everyone else. They proposed a complex new hardware and software architecture called ES, which they claimed was far better than the emerging champion from the USA, IBM’s System 360.
And here, in that now-distant time of 1968-’71, is when the veterans of the USSR’s computer elite felt what they’d always recall as the stab-in-the-back of bureaucratic betrayal, ending the illusion that they were leading the world. For the Party and state ministries made the decision to reject the homegrown ES system in favor of IBM’s conquering 360. For loyal Party members in academia and the electronics industry, the decision was inexplicable. To them there could be only one explanation: unpatriotic, America-worshipping officials were secretly undermining the local boys in order to suck up to the west—an idea that was often expressed in startlingly direct and vulgar terms.
This was the historic breach, the unforgivable sin that haunted aging Russian computer designers and to some degree haunts them still, twenty years after this book was published. They’ve never let go of the grudge. But the real explanation for the bureaucrats’ veto was simpler and blunter: For the first time, software was now more expensive and important than hardware. If the socialist world went with System 360, they’d be standardizing on a vast base of existing software they could steal. So that’s what they did.
An amazing thing is, there are Russians who blame us for it, as if we had anything to do with that decision. IBM, let alone America, didn’t beg them to adopt the software, let alone steal it from us. This one is on them, pure and simple.
In the Eighties, few people foresaw how soon and how suddenly Communist government would collapse, but on the other hand nearly everyone had tacitly come to define their futures in essentially capitalist terms. Computers were going to be part of that future, as they were under Communism. With smaller and smaller computer systems spreading out into a new worldwide market for them, socialist bloc countries sought out specific market niches where their most economically useful engineers and coders could play a profitable role. Many learned that role so well, they eventually emigrated to America, where most found a financially warm welcome.
Millions of young people across eastern and central Europe readied themselves for that future. I was surprised by how many of them I’d see in the subways of Budapest, Prague, and Moscow, daily commuters bundled up against the cold, jostled by the bumpy ride, intently making penciled notations in self-help books that taught computer programming. These were people who didn’t own a home computer but expected to, soon, and whenever they got finally one, they wanted to be ready to make it do useful work. It was hard not to be impressed.Published in