Code red: PCs made behind the Iron Curtain
For half a century, two sides of the world, the United States and the USSR, lived in two parallel universes, divided by ideology. Science and technology were no exceptions. With surging popularity in all things retro, we‘ve decided to take a look at mostly forgotten PCs made by the Soviets.
The Cold War offers plenty of evidence of Soviet scientific capability. Look no further than space race, nuclear advances, or the aviation industry. Up to this day, people behind the Soviet ‘Venera’ can boast of being the only ones to successfully land a craft on the unforgiving surface of planet Venus.
All that scientific potential, however, did not translate into a soviet computing revolution. We’ve extensively covered how the ‘1977 trinity’, computers by Commodore, Tandy, Apple, and later Atari changed the personal computing landscape in the West.
Digital revolution, however, did not come to the masses under the spell of dictators thrown into power by political revolutions of the 20th century. At least not in the same intensity as it did in the western hemisphere.
The Soviets had their first MESM computer in the early ‘50s. However, ideological rejection of what was perceived as an American-led cybernetics paradigm meant that research was sporadic, at least for a decade.
A challenging environment to create a new device, like a PC. Coupled with the planned nature of the Soviet economy, it was unlikely something as delicate as a PC could be born behind the Iron Curtain.
Several years before the ‘1977 trinity’ hit the US, the USSR likely had less than 10,000 computers in use. It is estimated that as late as in 1989, the USSR had around 200 thousand computers. For comparison, American companies, for example, Commodore and Tandy, sold the same number of machines over a single year in the late ‘70s.
However, with the winds of change sweeping over the flailing USSR, various clones of western machines and unique Soviet-made PCs blossomed. Closely knit hobbyist groups made some, and the planning committees approved others in Moscow. Slowly, the PC revolution crept over the Iron Curtain into the vast plains of communism.
The first Soviet machine, Mikro-80, a do-it-yourself computer with a Soviet-made KR580VM80A CPU, an Intel 8080 clone, appeared in 1983. That is almost a decade after a similar DIY computer, MITS Altair 8800, caught the attention of Tandy Corporations and began the PC revolution.
Since the early ‘80s, the Soviets manufactured several of their designs. Many of them, admittedly, were created based on the machines made by western counterparts. We’ve compiled a list of some of the coolest-looking Soviet machines.
Released in 1984, the Elektronika BK series was the first mass-produced official Soviet home computer. BK stands for ‘home computer.’ Sold at four times the average monthly wage, the machine was not something everyone could afford.
The device was a PDP-11 compatible 16-bit system that ran on a native 1801 series 3MHz CPU. Elektronika BK PCs employed FOCAL, Vilnius BASIC and other programming languages. The computer was built with Commodore VIC-20, Sinclair Z80, and other similar machines in mind.
Released around 1984, Agat-4 was a Soviet interpretation of Apple II. The legend goes that the copy was so literal that the ROM still had Steve Wozniak’s name in memory. However, even if that’s not true, the machine did run an operating system eerily similar to one employed by Apple.
The PC was equipped with a legendary MOS 6502 processor used in Commodore 64 and Apple II machines. The machine had 64K RAM. However, its most impressive feature was the price of over 3,900 rubles which was 26 times higher than the average salary estimated to be at 150 rubles.
The Soviets were expecting to sell the computer for $17,000 in the West. Their success is best illustrated by the fact that you’re likely hearing about this PC for the first time.
First released in 1983, the DVK line of computers was a PDP-11 compatible series of computers. Translated to English, DVK stands for ‘Dialogue Computing Complex.’
The computers were meant to be used for development,debugging, and serve as terminal devices in computer networks.
The computer line primarily used the Soviet-made 16-bit 1801 line of CPUs.
The Mikrosha was born out of a soviet computer hobbyist-made design called Radio-86RK. Like the AGAT line of computers, Mikrosha was made by the Lianozovo Electromechanical Plant or LEMZ for short.
The PC used a 1.77 MHz Intel 8080 CPU, and had 32kB RAM. Soviets made the computer for schools and other educational purposes.
Elektronika MC 0511
Released in 1987, the MC 0511 was a microcomputer meant for educational purposes. The machine was equipped with a 16-bit KM1801VM2 processor, 64 KB RAM, and a floppy disc drive.
The computer system was PDP-11 compatible and ran Vilnius BASIC, Pascal, RAPIRA, and other programming languages.
Interestingly, a computer made for educational purposes ran text and graphic games, such as a clone of Lode Runner called the Castle of Goblins.
Elektronika MS 1504
Elektronika MS 0515
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