Why the Soviets didn’t start a PC revolution

First in space, Venus, and Mars, the USSR did not lack engineering prowess. Why then, a revolution in personal computing happened westward of the Iron Curtain? Ideology played a role, of course, but computers were also just not cool enough.

Long before computers became phones, cameras, or TVs, their primary purpose was war. The power to calculate missile trajectories, nuclear impacts, and resource distribution within hours instead of months was, and still is, a crucial advantage over an enemy.

People in charge of the USSR were fully aware that the British and the Americans employed artificial machines to do their math for them. The official line on cybernetics was hostile, and computer science was denounced as ‘dehumanizing capitalism.’ Secretly, however, catching up was in full swing.

Mera CM 7209 in Chernobyl, Pripyat. Image source.

In 1962, President Kennedy’s top aid warned that if the Soviets manage to turn things around, ‘by 1970, the USSR may have a radically new production technology’ with self-teaching computers and concluded that without a change in pace on the American side ‘we are finished.’

As we now know very well, that did not materialize. So much so that there’s hardly anyone able to name at least a single Soviet computer brand. Understanding the benefits computing provides, it seems exceptionally odd.

According to Slava Gerovitch, science historian and director of the Program for Research In Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (PRIMES) at MIT, the history of computing in the USSR happened in waves. Computers were frowned upon, loved, and distrusted in 40 years.

“Many people in the Soviet Union were suspicious of the government. So, when cybernetics became popular and was approved officially, people started to think that maybe there’s something wrong with it,” Gerovitch told CyberNews.

I sat down with Gerovitch to discuss how ideology might have affected the cyber race, how different Soviet computing was, and why the said socialist revolutionaries did not champion the digital revolution that benefited the West so much.

Many people in the Soviet Union were suspicious of the government. So, when cybernetics became popular and was approved officially, people started to think that maybe there’s something wrong with it,

Slava Gerovitch.

Looking back at the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union seemingly had technical capabilities to be on par with the United States. I’m talking about the rapid development of the atomic bomb, advanced aviation, and space capabilities. Would it be unreasonable to assume that the Soviets were not far behind the US, at least early on in terms of computing?

The first electronic digital computers were built in the US for the atomic bomb calculations in the mid-forties. The Soviets learned about them and started constructing their own. So, there was a definitive lag from the start.

With rocket development, the Soviets learned a lot from German scientists, so there was some technology transfer. There was a lot of ingenuity on the Soviet side, of course, but the Russians appropriated new technology, developed it, and improved it.

Also, the process of launching new technological initiatives was very different from the US. In the States, the military would present a problem and open funding for qualified academics to submit proposals to solve the problem using that funding. In the Soviet case, it was a top-down decision to assign someone to work on an issue.

So, there was little competition. Later on, as competition emerged when they had established institutions, there was competition among institutions, even in the Soviet system. But in the 1940s, like the work of Sergey Lebedev in Kyiv on the first Soviet electronic digital computer, the MESM machine, was initially his own initiative.

Mera CM 7209 terminal computer. Image source.

Essentially, using the resources he had personally under his control as director of the Institute of Electric Technology in Kyiv. It took a while before the proponents of electronic digital computers won the argument with the proponents of an analog computer in the Soviet Union and could get resources to launch a massive project of building a large electronic digital computer.

So even though the Soviets had had an Institute established for the development of large computers in 1948, initially, the champions of analog computer computers controlled the institute.

For two years, that Institute had had lots of resources. Still, they pulled all those resources into analog computing, and only in 1950, the proponents of electronic digital computing won that argument.

What you said paints a picture that there was a path dependency that started from the initial lag. Is it correct to assume this? Meaning the Soviets were always catching up instead of leading the race in computing?

In one sense, yes. The Soviets already knew that the Americans and the British had working machines, whereas they were trying to build the machines. But they did not know many details about the Western machines. So, they had a fair amount of room for their own invention rather than just coping Western machines. There was some room for interesting, genuine developments.

Cybernetics became a victim of the entire ideological campaign by Soviet journalists, ideologues, and people who are not in any way connected with actual computer development,

Slava Gerovitch.

In your book From Newspeak to Cyber-speak, you talk about the Soviet refusal to accept cybernetics. You discuss how the computer in the Soviet Union was taken as a ‘giant calculator’ while the Americans saw it as a ‘giant brain.’ How did that ideological strain limit Soviet advances in computing, if they did at all?

There were two parallel developments. On one side, electronics engineers were working on new calculating machines for the military. This was a respectable activity, with a high priority for the defense industry, meaning the military provided necessary resources.

A parallel development, totally independent of this, was an ideological campaign in the Soviet media against all sorts of ideological targets in the West associated with American imperialism. That included academic theories developed in the West, including cybernetics.

Cybernetics became a victim of the ideological campaign by Soviet journalists, ideologues, and people who were not in any way connected with actual computer developments.

It became clear to the Soviet engineers who were working on computers that they should not in any way associate their work on computers with 'tainted' cybernetics. That led to engineers talking about their work as purely technical. Computers were essentially large calculators rather than machines capable of performing a thinking function. That would have put them in danger of being linked with ideologically tainted cybernetics.

While this helped them avoid ideological attacks, it limited their vision for applications of computers. They preferred not to seek contact with scientists working in various fields who might've used those computers for running computer simulations to advance other scientific disciplines. The need to avoid ideological complications led to the limited area of applications of computers in this initial period in the early 1950s.

Computers on display in a parade in Eastern Germany, 1987. Image source.

Another factor, maybe even more important, was that computers were available only in defense institutions. So, scientists who could have used computers for simulations either didn't know about those computers or didn't have access to them. In essence, engineers were not interested in attracting users from the academy.

That ideological lag ties into the fact that by the late ’70s, the Americans witnessed a revolution in personal computing, while the Soviets could not meet the same speed of change. The Americans had Commodore, TRS, Apple, and all other sorts of machines. There wasn’t anything of that sort in the USSR up until 1983. Does it mean that ideology hindered the spread of computers in the Soviet Union?

The ideological complications with cybernetics and the applications of computers beyond pure calculation ended in the mid-50s when cybernetics was rehabilitated. Instead, it was pictured as a communist science. At that time, it became ideologically very beneficial to be associated with cybernetics.

Cybernetics was mentioned in the 1961 program of the Communist Party. It became ideologically acceptable to use computers for symbol processing and computer simulations. Naturally, scientists were very interested in using computers. And it was a very popular field from the mid-50s to the early-70s.

So, the cybernetics campaign of the '50s did not have a long-term negative effect. There were other factors at play. By the early to mid-70s, the popularity of cybernetics began to look overreaching, claims started to seem too general, there were too many promises with little to show for it.

Skepticism began to creep in among serious scientists about those early claims of the usefulness of computers. There also was skepticism because cybernetics became ideologically correct. Many people in the Soviet Union were suspicious of the government. So, when cybernetics became popular and was approved officially, people started to think that maybe there's something wrong with it.

That way cybernetics became a term associated with government-imposed efficiency-oriented control and not with novelty and reform in the sciences. That was particularly evident in economics, where people saw computers being used at various factories to control information and monitor people's performance more effectively.

By the early to mid-70s, the popularity of cybernetics began to look overreaching, claims started to seem too general, there were too many promises with little to show,

Slava Gerovitch.

Focusing on personal computing, other factors were at play. Computers are communication devices. You can easily store, transfer, copy, print, and distribute information. That means a computer is a tool for autonomous communication, not controlled by the suspicious government. Therefore, the Soviet government was not terribly keen for personal computers to get into many people's hands.

Another thing was that PC manufacturing requires a consumer-focused industry which was not a priority for the Soviet Union. So, the quality of parts and components that were produced was not high. Take the Soviet automobile: when you bought one, the first thing you did was starting to fix it.

It was the same with computers. You had to be an engineer to use it. The very concept of personal computing in the West was that it was for general consumers, not necessarily computer scientists or engineers. There were very different environments in which PCs were introduced and to very different audiences.

However, something did change during the mid-80s. With Perestroika, there was an explosion of Soviet-made PCs. Some models were even meant for export. Can the change be linked only to policy changes, or have the Soviet Union increased its technological capabilities?

With Perestroika, the government controls on small economic activity became looser. People could import computers from the West, and suddenly people were allowed to resell computers from the Western countries. They could also buy spare parts in the West, assemble their computers, or assemble their own devices out of Soviet-made parts.

There was room for less controlled economic activity that somewhat met the popular demand for PCs. With less control over communications, people started exchanging emails with the outside world. The need for communication devices and information processing devices rose, and it was met by import and local manufacturing.

A prototype of a home automation system. Image source.

But with the general decline of the Soviet industry and the early post-Soviet period, when the government stopped subsidizing prices, the production collapsed very quickly. From then on, Russia essentially relied on foreign-produced personal computers.

Earlier, you’ve mentioned the divergence in technology development and the notion of cybernetics developing independently from Western ideas. Are there any Soviet contributions to computing that still are noticeable today? For people born after the Soviet Union collapsed, it’s very easy to think that no innovation came from the USSR.

There were some interesting innovations by Soviet computer engineers and software developers. Some of them were the results of necessity and scarcity of parts when the Soviets had to solve complex problems with minimal technological resources. So, they tried to invent new computer architectures that might be more efficient than traditional ones.

For example, our usual computers have zeros and ones, two states for each cell in computer memory. But in the fifties, the Soviets developed three-value machines. This required a different type of programming, a different kind of software. It was a much more efficient use of computer resources.

Also, the Soviets had a tradition of very efficient programming in low-level computer languages, which required many mathematical skills in designing efficient algorithms. Working with low-level computer languages, essentially machine codes, assembler codes, allowed programmers to use computer resources very efficiently. However, it was a very challenging mathematical and logical task to write those programs, debug them, and so forth. It requires a lot of expertise from programmers.

The Soviet programmers are also well-known since, in those early years, they were able to pack compelling and efficient programs into computers that had very little memory. Due to efficient programming, the Soviets were able to solve the problems they needed.

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