Monthly Archives: June 2017

A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 3: A Game of Falling Shapes


Alexey Pajitnov

Alexey Pajitnov was the proverbial Russian bear, albeit more of the teddy than the grizzly variety. Big-boned and bearded, loose-limbed and always a little rumpled, his sunny disposition would brook no opposition even from the perpetual gray of the Mirror World. Not that he had much cause to complain, all things considered. Compared to many of his fellow citizens, Pajitnov had an easy time of it, being born into an intellectual family in Moscow; both of his parents were writers. Like many Russians, Pajitnov’s parents harbored no love for the Soviet system, but weren’t willing to die in a gulag in the name of some abstract cause of Freedom either. They taught their son to master the art of remaining quietly noncommittal when politics entered a conversation, and when the day came for young Alexey’s class to visit Lenin’s tomb, his mother wrote a note to the school saying he was sick. For the nonce at least, such small rebellions would have to suffice.

A lover of logic games and puzzles from an early age, Pajitnov excelled at math competitions as a teenager, and went off to university to study the subject. “Mathematicians are usually very strange people,” he admits. This mathematician, however, was a little different from the norm, a kid who loved movies almost as much as he loved numbers, who wasn’t any stranger to vodka and girls. With his big toothy smile, Pajitnov could be ingratiating even when he wasn’t trying to be. It was a quality that would serve him as well as an as-yet latent talent for game design over the course of the very unlikely career to come.

In 1984, Pajitnov was 28 years old, married, and starting a family; his wife was an English teacher, another stroke of luck that would serve him well in his future life. His early interest in pure mathematics had long since passed into a fascination with computers. “It doesn’t matter to a hacker what he is working on,” he says. “It could be a game or an abstract math problem, but if a computer is involved, he is a god and can do whatever he wants inside that world.” Living in the restricted society of the Soviet Union, such a sense of control was very appealing indeed to Pajitnov. He’d therefore managed to get a position at the Moscow Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, one of the oldest and most important hubs of computer research in the Soviet Union. (You may recall from the first article in this series how prominently it featured in the first extended visit by an American computing delegation to the Soviet Union back in 1959, or from the second article how it was the workplace of Leonid Genrikhovich Khachiyan when he made a significant discovery in linear programming.)

But with the excitement of Soviet computing’s early, pioneering days and the heyday of the cybernetics dream now well in the past, the Computer Center was limping along, like the rest of the country, without a great deal of direction. Pajitnov was supposed to be doing research into artificial intelligence and voice recognition, but that was difficult given the overcrowded conditions at the Computer Center. There was barely enough physical space to breathe there, let alone get real work done. He took to working a late shift, going in in the afternoon and staying at the office until around midnight, because that was the only way he could get a desk to himself. Nor was he happy about the uses to which the state dreamed of putting his work in voice recognition, such as a bugging device that would switch on automatically if certain words were spoken within a room. Still seeing programming as a form of escape, he started spending much of his time tinkering with games, beginning a friendly competition with a similarly disposed colleague named Dmitry Pavlovsky to see who could make the most popular software distractions. The computer on which they both worked was called the Elektronika 60, a clone of the American DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. Their terminals had no graphics capabilities whatsoever, sharply limiting the sorts of designs they could hope to implement. Initially, the audience they wrote for consisted only of their comrades at the Computer Center.

That began to change when Pajitnov and Pavlovsky added a third programmer to their little game-making collective. Vadim Gerasimov was a 16-year-old hacker who, thanks to the good offices of a high-school teacher, had gotten permission to hang around the Computer Center. Gerasimov became something of an expert in programming a very exotic bit of kit in the Soviet Union of those times: the EC-1840, a Soviet knockoff of the IBM PC, of which the Center had a few examples. As Pajitnov and Pavlovsky came up with promising games on their text-only Elektronika 60 terminals, Gerasimov ported them to the EC-1840, adding real graphics and sound effects.

Later accounts would often paint Pajitnov as a complete babe in the woods when it came to the idea of selling games, but reality paints a somewhat different picture. While they were isolated from goings-on in the West in countless respects, he and his two friends were tuned-in enough to know that plenty of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain were making real money doing exactly what they were doing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t at all clear how they could turn games into a business in the Soviet Union, where business itself in the Western sense was largely illegal, where there was no way whatsoever to buy software even if you had the money to do so. So, Gerasimov distributed their games for free among the few other people in Moscow with access to the computers that were needed to run them, and the trio continued to complain, speculate, and dream.

The game that would change Pajitnov’s life and in its modest way change the world was born when he came across a pentomino puzzle in a toy shop one day. If you’ve played the popular board game Blokus, you have a good idea what such a thing is all about. A set of geometric shapes made up of differing arrangements of five squares — thus the name of “pentomino” — must be arranged onto a grid to fill every space on the grid and/or to use up every shape. For a mind like Pajitnov’s, the attraction was immediate. Indeed, pentomino puzzles were actually a rediscovery rather than a new find for him; he’d spent many hours playing with them as a boy.

His first reaction to this reignited passion was to attempt a fairly literal translation of a pentomino puzzle to the computer, departing from his inspiration in just one significant respect. Pajitnov realized that five-square shapes would be too complicated on the computer, too difficult for the programmer to draw and too difficult for the player to place in the limited screen space available. So, he decided to use four-square shapes — tetrominoes — instead. He called his game Genetic Engineering. The player had to move the pieces around the screen using the arrow keys, assembling them into larger “organisms.” But the concept lost something in the translation from the physical to the virtual. It wound up being, in the words of Vadim Gerasimov, “rather dull” to play.

Then a new idea burst into his imagination with the force of vision. He saw a never-ending stream of shapes falling toward the bottom of a rectangular “glass” at ever increasing speeds, the player trying frantically to arrange them into filled rows. Once filled, a row  would be wiped off the screen, buying the player a little time and space in what must ultimately be a fruitless battle against entropy. Pajitnov called his game Tetris, a contraction of “tetromino” with, for reasons nobody could ever quite get him to explain, “tennis.” (One is tempted to imagine the name being some form of homage to Tennis for Two, arguably the first true videogame ever, and/or Pong, the game of electronic table tennis that kicked off the arcade craze in the West, but Pajitnov was nowhere near familiar enough with the Western videogame tradition to draw such inspiration from it. Chalk it up as just one more example of so many early videogame designers’ odd fixation on tennis.)

The very first version of Tetris, as it looked on Alexey Pajitnov’s Elektronika 60 terminal.

Working on his text-only Elektronika 60 terminal, Pajitnov was forced to draw the “graphics” using brackets and spaces. Monochrome, absolutely silent, and possessed of plenty of ugly flicker as the shapes drew and erased their way down the screen, Tetris was a long way from any Westerner’s idea of a cutting-edge videogame. But it didn’t matter. From the first, Tetris captivated.

Some years later, pop psychologists would take to using the term “Tetris Effect” to describe the state of mental flow, of complete yet almost unconscious absorption, that could cause Tetris players to begin seeing the real world around them as a manifestation of the game. But the phrase could serve equally as shorthand for the effect Tetris has always had on the productivity of people who encounter it. When Pajitnov started to show the game to his colleagues, the sterile confines of the Moscow Computing Center became host to the first ever cases of both versions of the Tetris Effect. “Everybody who touched this game couldn’t stop playing it,” remembers Pajitnov. His fellow programmer Mikhail Kulagin remembers how “people started to gather together and play Tetris. There was a time when the whole Computer Center started to play Tetris.” “The game was compelling, and many of the employees got carried away, often to the detriment of their work,” says Yuri Yevtushenko, the director of the Computer Center. Vladimir Pokhilko, a psychology researcher working on a project with the Computer Center, saw the game there, liked it, and made a copy to play back at the medical institute where he usually worked. Productivity plummeted so badly thereafter that he finally had to erase every copy he had handed out. “I can’t live with your Tetris anymore,” he told Pajitnov, only half joking.

Of course, the Tetris Effect wasn’t wholly unprecedented in the hallowed halls of institutional computing. One is reminded of the unleashing of Adventure upon the world of Western computing in 1977, and the apocryphal claim that it set an entire industry back by two weeks while everyone solved it. Tetris, though, was even more dangerous in that it could never be solved. There was just that never-ending stream of falling shapes, and that never-ending compulsion to clear a few more rows than you managed the last time around.

With Tetris so popular inside the Center, it was inevitable that Vadim Gerasimov would program it for the EC-1840 in short order. Thus Gerasimov’s version became the first of the countless thousands of ports of Pajitnov’s original that were still to come. Writing in Turbo Pascal, a programming language that had been smuggled out of the West and was now as commonplace on Soviet PC clones as it was back where it had come from, Gerasimov not only added color to the game but did much to refine the way it played. In a telling indication that he and his partners continued to harbor grander, more international ambitions than what might be apparent on the surface, Gerasimov also translated all of the text in the game to English. Even if it never left Moscow, doing so would ironically make it more likely to be taken seriously by his fellow Russians. A huge cachet came attached to games out of the West; fascination with the Mirror World applied no matter which side of the mirror you happened to be on. And if Tetris should get beyond Moscow, beyond the Soviet Union even… well, you never knew, right? Gerasimov started passing Tetris around Moscow for free, as he had his previous ports of Pajitnov and Pavlovsky’s creations.

Vadim Gerasimov’s first microcomputer port of Tetris.

The Tetris Effect didn’t disappoint. Pajitnov describes the game spreading across Moscow, then across the Soviet Union, then across Eastern Europe “like a wood fire.” The fire’s spread was limited only by a lack of tinder, in the form of extant IBM PC clones behind the Iron Curtain to run the game. Hackers being hackers, other programmers took up the slack. Within a year, very good versions of Tetris were available on relatively more common homegrown Soviet microcomputers like the Agat and the BK-0010, along with their equivalents in many other Warsaw Pact countries. The Tetris Effect followed in the wake of each new version. For instance, the management of the Scientific Research Institute of Computing Systems, the home of the Agat, complained that further development on the machine’s systems software essentially stopped once Tetris invaded the programmers’ offices.

Tetris on the Agat computer.

A Digression on Design

My task of writing about Tetris as a design is made easier by the game’s sheer ubiquity. In 2010, it was estimated that two-thirds of all Americans had played Tetris at one time or another. Never before have I and never again will I be able to write about a game with more confidence that absolutely everyone likely to read my words has played it. So, I won’t bore you with a detailed description of its mechanics.

Yet the what of Tetris isn’t the why. Why do so many people find this incredibly simple game so addictive?

One answer is its unpredictability. Often classified as a puzzle game, Tetris can just as validly be seen as a throwback to the classic arcade game. Reflexes are as important as logic, and, thanks to the magic of the random-number generator that decides which of the seven possible shapes to drop next, every game of Tetris is different. If Tetris was deterministic in the way of its inspiration, the pentomino puzzle, it could be solved and dispensed with. Ditto if it offered a winning screen of any sort. But a game of Tetris ends always in defeat and that siren call to try again for a higher score. (“Life is hard and unjust, and ends always in death,” my father-in-law loves to say in his deadpan German. Tetris agrees wholeheartedly with that philosophy.)

The sheer simplicity of Tetris is actually its greatest asset, not only for the would-be player but also for the would-be programmer. Requiring as it does no artificial intelligence or advanced algorithms of any stripe, it’s become the first game ever made by thousands upon thousands of programmers over the course of decades. The countless legitimate and illegitimate versions have won it the official title according to Guinness of most-ported videogame in history. Whatever digital gadget you care to name, chances are it plays Tetris.

Yet the game’s simplicity has also been of more subtle benefit. Within the context of its goals, no other game design has ever been more perfect than Tetris. As many disappointing attempts to iterate on the concept proved — including quite a number of attempts by Alexey Pajitnov himself — you can’t add to, take away from, or modify Tetris in any way to turn it into a better game of falling shapes. The first iteration on the Tetris concept remains the definitive iteration, almost a unique phenomenon in the history of videogames.

Tetris is as abstract as any videogame ever made, without even the modicum of context provided by arcade classics like Pac-Man and Centipede. You’re never given any reason why you need to clear row after row of shapes; the game lacks any sense of embodiment or physicality whatsoever. For this reason, it’s often been held up as an ideal by members of the ludological school of game design. By many metrics the most popular videogame ever created, Tetris is also the ultimate in process intensity, proof positive that games are better — or so the ludologists allege — without messy distractions like story. When the narratological versus ludological debate was still in its infancy, academic theorist Janet Murray decided — full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes! — to wrench Tetris into a narratological frame. “The game is a perfect enactment of the overtaxed lives of Americans in the 1990s,” she wrote, “of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.” Even if one forgot that this “perfect embodiment of the overtaxed lives of Americans” was designed by a Russian who had never been to America, it sounded a little ridiculous, and the ludologist contingent justifiably savaged her for it. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an abstract game of falling shapes is just an abstract game of falling shapes.

In its abstraction and its complete disinterest in the experiential side of gaming, Tetris is the extreme opposite of the sort of games I usually write about. As an old literature major, I tend to approach games with an eye to story, texture, theme… all the things Tetris so conspicuously lacks. It may come as little surprise, then, that the Tetris Effect is to a large extent lost on me. Personally, I find Tetris amusing in short bursts, but grow bored in pretty short order. I appear to be immune to its legendary addictive qualities. I can recognize that it’s the quintessential masterpiece of minimalism in game design, even as I also recognize that I’m really not a minimalist sort of guy. Certainly I don’t think that we can take Tetris‘s undoubted success as a game design as proof that other, radically different approaches to the art are illegitimate. Tetris, a game bereft of context — almost bereft, one is tempted to say, of culture — is very nearly the polar opposite of what I personally look for in a game. In that perverse light, perhaps the greatest tribute I can offer to its genius is to note that I can actually enjoy it in short bursts.

If I wished to sculpt a less personal critic of Tetris, I would have to start with the words that always seem to surround it: words like “addiction,” “compulsion”, “obsession.” Writer Jeffrey Goldsmith coined the term “pharmatronic” to describe it — as in, an electronic drug. Pajitnov responded that “many people say that, but my feeling is it’s more like music. Playing games is a very specific rhythmic and visual pleasure. For me, Tetris is some song which you sing and sing inside yourself and can’t stop.” Fair enough — except, as Goldsmith himself countered, a song that gets stuck in your head can start to feel as much like a compulsion as any narcotic. A 2014 study showed that playing Tetris reduced cravings in smokers and drinkers by 24 percent. Could this be a case of one sort of addiction supplanting another?

While a dependence on Tetris is probably preferable to a dependence on cigarettes or alcohol, it is interesting to note how often negative adjectives like “addictive” are used in connection with Tetris in lieu of words with more positive connotations. As I viewed the (highly recommended) film Ecstacy of Order, about a Tetris “world championship,” I couldn’t help but wonder whether most of the eccentric cast of characters on the screen were really better off for having Tetris in their lives. “I’ve been playing Tetris for, like, twenty years” says one; “I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve played Tetris,” says another; “I play it, like, non-stop,” says a third; “I daydream it during the day and I have Tetris dreams at night,” says a fourth. Perhaps most ominously, one character in the film describes playing Tetris as “programming yourself to do it.” There is, it seems to me, not a lot of joy in Tetris.

Beginning in 1992, University of California, Irvine, professor Richard Haier conducted a series of studies measuring the effect playing Tetris had on subjects’ brain activities. He discovered that as his subjects spent more time with the game and were able to advance to higher levels their brains showed less activity rather than more as they played. There are many ways to interpret these results, most of which I’m eminently unqualified to even broach. It does, however, strike this non-neuroscientist as interesting that Tetris comes to engage less of the mind the longer you play it. All others things being equal, I think I prefer games which do the opposite.

But whatever your opinion of Tetris as a force in gaming and, indeed, in society, few would argue that there’s genius of some sort or other in this simple game of falling shapes. Many more words than those I’ve just spent here have been used trying to come to terms with why so many people find it so irresistible. Call it genius, call it kismet, call it addiction if you must. In the end, it’s grappling with the ineffable.


Tetris had become a sensation within the circumscribed and sparsely populated world of Eastern European computing, but it remained unknown in the West. In 1986, that situation began to change, thanks to a chance encounter in Budapest, Hungary.

The confluence of factors that made Hungary Tetris‘s port of departure for Western climes began with the country’s long pre-communist tradition of scientific and engineering excellence. In the twentieth century alone, this tradition had yielded such pivotal figures as John von Neumann, the most important early computer-science thinker this side of Alan Turing, and Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb. In the Soviet era, Hungary had played a major role in Project Ryad and other joint computer-development projects, and had been officially designated, along with the similarly capable Czechoslovakia, as one of the Warsaw Pact’s two non-Soviet centers of electronics development and manufacture. The Hungarian government took the assignment very seriously; children were required to start taking computer classes while still in elementary school.

Indeed, the Hungarian version of communism in general was progressive in some ways, at least by the standards of most of its Warsaw Pact peers. Years before Perestroika, Hungary had begun allowing a certain degree of private enterprise and private ownership. The result was an economy that worked just a little better than was the norm behind the Iron Curtain, one that could even manifest a modicum of entrepreneurial spirit on occasion.

The final great advantage enjoyed by Hungary was that of simple geographic proximity. Budapest and Vienna were only about 100 miles apart, the shortest distance between any two major Eastern and Western capitals. Alone among their peers living behind the Iron Curtain, Hungarian citizens could slip across the border for a day or a weekend in the West, then slip back into their homeland relatively painlessly. A steady stream of licit and illicit goods flowed into Budapest with them, and from there across the rest of Eastern Europe. For example, the master copies of most of the hand-dubbed cassettes of Western rock music that were at the center of a booming underground trade throughout the Warsaw Pact had their point of origin in the bright shopping districts of Vienna.

By the mid-1980s, the Hungarian habit of smuggling in goods from the West, not officially condoned by the country’s government by any means but not all that seriously prosecuted either, had come to include computer software and even hardware. A fair number of Hungarians managed to secure for themselves Commodore 64 systems, the ultimate gaming machine of the era; again, this made them uniquely blessed among Eastern Europeans. Others had access to the knockoff Sinclair Spectrums that were being produced in several Warsaw Pact nations. Every weekend a huge flea market was held in the courtyard of Budapest’s Petőfi Csarnok concert hall, during which thousands of pieces of software were sold, almost all of it pirated from the West. A Hungarian cracking group who called themselves FBI Crew became a prominent member of the international piracy scene as early as 1984, a first for any Eastern European country. FBI Crew made their name as “importers” from the West to the East, receiving pirated software from Western contacts via the post and then selling or trading it to locals. Thus the group became just one more part of Hungary’s cottage industry of bridging the capitalist and communist worlds.

Along with all of the goods moving eastward, it wasn’t totally unknown for Hungary to send something to the West. In the late 1970s, Ernő Rubik, a Budapest architect, had come up with a three-dimensional puzzle, a cube of colored squares which challenged one to twist and turn them in such a way as to make each face of the cube a single color. Tibor Laczi, a Hungarian entrepreneur who had partnered with Rubik, took it to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in West Germany in 1979, and soon signed a deal with the Ideal Toy Company to sell it throughout the West. The Rubik’s Cube became an early-1980s pop-culture sensation, selling in the hundreds of millions and spawning a whole library of often-bestselling books purporting to describe the best way to solve it. For once, the communists had managed to beat the capitalists at their own game.

Robert Stein saw the story of the Rubik’s Cube as an inspiration. Born in 1934 in Hungary, he’d come to Britain as a refugee following the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. There he’d made a successful career for himself in office equipment and electronics, going from selling typewriters to calculators to microcomputers. As managing director of an electronics distributor called Vulcan, Stein played a major role in popularizing Commodore’s first low-cost home computer, the VIC-20, by getting it into department stores across the United Kingdom.

Commodore at the time sold games for their computers as well as hardware, and was keenly interested in acquiring new titles on the cheap. Stein, for his part, still had connections in Hungary; in fact, he had recently inked a deal that let Vulcan import single-purpose chess-playing computers from Hungary for sale on British high streets. He knew there was a treasure trove of eager young programming talent in his homeland with no commercial outlet for their skills. Best of all, he knew that, the differences between the economies of East and West being what they were, he could hire these programmers cheap. He quit Vulcan and started a company of his own, naming it Andromeda Software. He would buy games from a stable of Hungarian hackers and sell them to Commodore and other Western publishers eager for more product to feed the demand of Britain’s big home-computing boom.

Stein had no personal interest in games, and Andromeda didn’t place a big priority on quality as opposed to quantity. Over the course of just two or three years, he imported several dozen cut-price original games and ports, many of which went entirely uncredited to his company on the packaging and none of which are much remembered today.

When the home-computing boom began to tail off circa 1985 and the market settled back toward its natural equilibrium, it was largely the second-tier companies like Andromeda that failed first. Stein’s little venture would doubtless have fallen into the dustbin of history without another peep had he not dropped in on the Institute of Computer Science in Budapest, one of his big sources of programming talent, one day in 1986, just to see if they had anything new and interesting in the works that might save his declining business. Stein:

We were wandering around in a big room with all kinds of computers going, all kinds of software going. And suddenly in a corner I saw a game which consisted of bricks coming down, or some kind of shapes. It was tucked away somewhere in a corner. I was asking, “What is this?” They said, “Oh, ignore it.” So we wandered on, but I kept coming back to it.

Stein eventually sat down to try the game, and promptly had an experience all too typical of many avowed non-gamers’ first exposure to Tetris: he couldn’t stop playing. His tour guides could only sympathize; their Institute was itself in the full thrall of the Tetris Effect. But the reason they’d been so reluctant to show the game to Stein soon became clear: Tetris wasn’t actually one of their games. The Hungarians had ported the game, just for personal pleasure, to the Commodore 64, a far more marketable platform in Britain than the IBM PC on which Vadim Gerasimov’s version ran. Stein would have happily bought that version from them without another thought about its real origins. But the Hungarian programmers were too honorable to take the deal. Tetris simply wasn’t their game to sell to him, they insisted. If he wanted to buy it, he would have to do so from the Russians who had originally created it.

Back in Moscow, a colleague of Pajitnov at the Computer Center handed him a telex message written in English. “It looks like someone is interested in your game,” the colleague said. The message was indeed from a someone in Britain, who said he had seen Tetris while visiting Hungary and wished to license it and sell it in the West. Pajitnov, who had dreamed for years of something like this happening to rescue him from his life of institutional captivity, felt like a Cinderella who had just been handed a glass slipper. Still, as he would soon learn at extensive length, the devil is always in the details. It took him several weeks just to collect the authorizations he needed to send a telex back. “Yes, we are interested,” he wrote. “We would like to have this deal.” There followed a trans-European dance that sometimes resembled a farce more than a serious negotiation, complicated by the limited organs of communication between East and West and the Russians’ sketchy command of English. Most of all, though, the whole situation was just completely unprecedented on the Soviet side. “We had no idea what to do,” Pajitnov says.

Convinced by the Russians’ initial response that they were ready to sign a contract, and convinced by their seeming lack of business acumen that he would be able to dictate the terms of that contract, Stein started to shop Tetris to publishers while the negotiating farce had hardly begun. In a telling sign of his conviction that this game could be huge, he even reached out to American publishers, something he had never bothered to do with his other bargain-bin games. There’s an amusing entry in the diary of Jordan Mechner of Prince of Persia fame, who was working at Brøderbund Software in California at the time he wrote it. It’s dated October 23, 1986: “Everyone in the office has been playing a lot of Tetris — a Russian submission for the IBM PC. It’s a classic, like Breakout.” October 31 finds him beating out his colleagues for the number-one spot on the intra-office Tetris high-scores list. The Tetris Effect had come to Brøderbund, and to plenty of other British and American publishers as well.

Yet Stein found the game to be a harder sell than he’d anticipated. For all that everyone who sat down to play it seemed to have difficulty standing up again, Tetris was just so different from anything else that marketing departments didn’t know quite what to do with it. It was all just so abstract. There was no obvious hook: no starring character, no story line, no explosions. What would they put on the box? Even Brøderbund, home of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego, whose instinct for selling software to Middle America was normally unparalleled, took a pass, despite the Tetris Effect taking place right there in their offices. “I don’t think Brøderbund is going to publish it,” wrote Mechner in disgust. “The knaves.” A Brøderbund executive, seeing his programming staff so consumed by the game, had allegedly called it “a game only programmers could like.”

In the end, Stein wound up inking a deal in June of 1987 with the British publisher Mirrorsoft, a well-funded operation owned by the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell. Through a Byzantine array of tax dodges involving a charitable trust based in Lichtenstein — the Maxwell business empire was built on the most ethically shaky of foundations, as would become clear when it collapsed in scandal a few years later — Maxwell also owned a controlling interest in the American publisher Spectrum Holobyte, an up-and-comer best known for their complicated, very un-Tetris-like military simulations. Mirrorsoft, who had no presence in North America, brokered a deal to give Spectrum Holobyte publication rights across the pond. But Stein still hadn’t secured the Tetris rights from the Russians; he had sold two separate publishers a game he didn’t yet own. Don’t worry, he assured them; the deal was all but done. But the reality was that a deal with the Russians seemed farther away rather than nearer with each passing week.

Any dreams Pajitnov might have had of profiting from Tetris had been strangled. His managers had gotten word of what was going on with his game, and had taken over the negotiations, such as they were. As an employee of the Moscow Computer Center, Pajitnov was informed, any and all software he created there belonged to the Soviet state. “Nobody gave a shit about my small game,” says Pajitnov — other than, apparently, to make sure he didn’t make any money off it. “Games were absolutely alien to their nature.” The dialog with Stein proceeded at the speed of government. Desperate to get a firm yes, frustrated by the noncommittal and poorly translated replies he continued to receive to his telexes, Stein secured a visa and visited Moscow personally at last. There he encountered a scenario that seemed to confirm every Western stereotype about life in the Soviet Union. In a chilly, undecorated room containing only a single huge table and about fifty uncomfortable chairs arrayed around it, he confronted Alexey Pajitnov, little more than an interested observer at this point, and the half a dozen or so bureaucrats who now controlled Tetris‘s fate. Always more noted for his pugnaciousness in business than his charm, Stein misjudged the power dynamic in the room and played everything wrong. He tried to butter up Pajitnov, the least empowered person there, saying that “in our country the most important person is the one who designs the game. I’m here to listen to his wishes because if we don’t sign a contract, it is he who will suffer.” Not only did this alienate the bureaucrats, who had little interest in attributing credit for what they regarded as the property of the Soviet state, it also had the opposite of the intended effect on Pajitnov. He saw Stein’s words for the clumsy pandering they were, and took an immediate dislike to him that would never abate.

A frustrated Stein flew home no closer to a deal than before, even as the planned release date inched closer. He decided that if the Russians continued to prove difficult he’d just let the game come out anyway. What could do they do about it, trapped behind the Iron Curtain as they were? In the meanwhile, his negotiating tactics didn’t exactly smack of good faith. He offered them what sounded like a preposterously generous royalty of 75 percent — but the fine print revealed that this was 75 percent of the game’s profits after everyone else had taken their cuts, not 75 percent of gross sales. At another point, he offered to pay them in Commodore 64 computers instead of cash, a scheme ripe for accounting tricks on his side. The Russians may not have known much about the videogame business, but one thing life in the Soviet Union inculcated in everyone was a keen instinct for the double-cross. Liking Stein less and less, they dragged their feet more and more.

When a final impassioned letter to the Russians fell on the usual deaf ears in December — he asked for “a simple letter stating that you approve the terms under which we have signed this contract with Mirrorsoft,” but got no such thing — Stein decided to lie to his other partners about the real state of affairs. He told Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, who had already missed the Christmas buying season and were making their impatience known in no uncertain terms, to go ahead and release their versions of Tetris, telling them that he now owned all the rights. Maybe, he thought, the Soviets would get serious about negotiating at some point, and they could make a retroactive deal. If not… well, they’d had their chance. And anyway, taking 100 percent of the profits that came back to Andromeda for himself was a lot better than taking just 25 percent.

Alongside rewriting the game for several popular Western computers, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte solved the marketing problem brilliantly. They asked themselves what was the most salient point about the game, the thing you’d be most likely to mention first when describing it to a friend. For all the brilliance of the game itself, the answer was of course its origin in the Soviet Union of all places. That’s how they should market it — by playing up its exotic origins in the Mirror World for all they were worth. They designed a commie-red box for the game, with the name written in Cyrillic script, the final character drawn in the form of a hammer and sickle. They replaced the original game’s silence with a soundtrack of Russian folk songs. They replaced its blank backgrounds with iconic Russian and Soviet imagery, some of it ripped straight from the headlines; the imagery included the brave (and probably mentally ill) West German activist Mathias Rust landing his private plane in Red Square, an incident which had garnered huge international attention just the previous May. Timeless though Tetris is as a piece of game design, its first commercial incarnation is as of-its-time as a game can be.

Fortunately, its time was a heady time indeed. Since Pajitnov had programmed his first version of the game, the world had changed dramatically. The Cold War was thawing; Glasnost and Perestroika were the new order of the day. A few years earlier, no publisher would have dared release a game in a box that looked like this one, for fear of being run out of business on a rail as fifth columnists in league with what Ronald Reagan liked to call the Evil Empire. Now, with fear of the Mirror World in the West being replaced by a friendlier but no less abiding sort of curiosity, the Soviet angle was the perfect marketing coup.

The Soviet hockey team on the ice in the Amiga version of Tetris.

Spectrum Holobyte in the United States promoted the game with more energy and enthusiasm than Mirrorsoft in Britain. They spared no expense in emphasizing their theme of cross-cultural communication. Following an appearance at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Tetris made a more lavish public bow that same January of 1988 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, the site where the United Nations charter had been signed in 1945. Spectrum Holobyte invited the ambassador to San Francisco’s Soviet consulate to attend the unveiling. On the trade-show circuit, the game was presented by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev lookalikes.

Robert Stein’s instinct that Tetris could be huge was proved correct. At the 1988 Software Publishers Association Excellence in Software Awards, the game won virtually every category conceivably open to it: “Best Action/Strategy Program,” “Best Entertainment Program,” “Best Consumer Program,” “Best Original Game Achievement.” Yet such recognition among insiders was far from the greatest of Tetris‘s achievements. Spectrum Holobyte had recognized early the potential of Tetris for opening gaming up to a whole new demographic. In a telling demonstration that they expected it to be played in offices at least as often as it was in bedrooms, they had built a “boss key” into the IBM PC version of the game: a hotkey which instantly paused the game and replaced it on the screen with an innocuous-looking spreadsheet, just the thing for when the manager came around peering into people’s cubicles.

Spectrum Holobyte’s expectations weren’t disappointed. The perfect exemplar of a casual game many years before the so-called casual market became a recognized part of the industry, Tetris appealed to people who could never have imagined playing a computer game before encountering it. It garnered glowing write-ups in places where few computer games had ever ventured before, such as the lifestyle sections of newspapers like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. It was in fact the latter that first coined one of the most potent Tetris memes: that it might just be a plot on the part of the old Soviet hardliners to ruin the productivity of the West, their revenge for losing the Cold War. Knowing good marketing copy when they saw it, Spectrum Holobyte soon worked this angle as well into their presentations and advertisements. Ditto the description of Tetris as “the Rubik’s Cube of software,” which drew a line between the last great Eastern European puzzle phenomenon to strike the West and this latest example of Eastern deviousness.

It all paid off splendidly where it really mattered. The Spectrum Holobyte version of Tetris alone sold over 100,000 copies in its first year, a substantial success by the standards of the time. More remarkably, its sales actually increased rather than decreased over time; its second year brought a figure of 150,000.

For all that, though, sales of the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte releases were but the merest shadow of what was still to come. The business of selling Tetris, already a complicated tangle of personalities and cultures, was about to get a lot more complicated for everyone concerned.

(Sources: the books The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993 by Jordan Mechner, Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray, Freax: A Brief History of the Computer Demoscene by Tamás Polgár, Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff, and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; the documentary film Ecstasy of Order; STart of June 1990; Compute! of April 1990; Your Computer of June 1982; Popular Computing Weekly of March 15 1984; Computer Gaming World of September 1993; Compute! of June 1988; The Boston Globe of January 30 1990; The Los Angeles Times of September 24 1992. Online sources include Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia postmortem at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Vadim Gerasimov’s Tetris Story,” and Jagger Gravning’s “The Man Who Made Tetris.” Once again and more than ever, thank you to Peter Sovietov for being my advisor, translator, and spirit guide to Russian and Soviet computing.)


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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 2: From Mainframes to Micros

The BESM-6

Seen from certain perspectives, Soviet computer hardware as an innovative force of its own peaked as early as 1968, the year the first BESM-6 computer was powered up. The ultimate evolution of the line of machines that had begun with Sergei Lebedev’s original MESM, the BESM-6 was the result of a self-conscious attempt on the part of Lebedev’s team at ITMVT to create a world-class supercomputer. By many measures, they succeeded. Despite still being based on transistors rather than the integrated circuits that were becoming more and more common in the West, the BESM-6’s performance was superior to all but the most powerful of its Western peers. The computers generally acknowledged as the fastest in the world at the time, a line of colossi built by Control Data in the United States, were just a little over twice as fast as the BESM-6, which had nothing whatsoever to fear from the likes of the average IBM mainframe. And in comparison to other Soviet computers, the BESM-6 was truly a monster, ten times as fast as anything the country had managed to produce before. In its way, the BESM-6 was as amazing an achievement on Lebedev’s part as had been the MESM almost two decades earlier. Using all home-grown technology, Lebedev and his people had created a computer almost any Western computer lab would have been proud to install.

At the same time, though, the Soviet computer industry’s greatest achievement to date was, almost paradoxically, symbolic of all its limitations. Sparing no expense nor effort to build the best computer they possibly could, Lebedev’s team had come close to but not exceeded the Western state of the art, which in the meantime continued marching inexorably forward. All the usual inefficiencies of the Soviet economy conspired to prevent the BESM-6 from becoming a true game changer rather than a showpiece. BESM-6s would trickle only slowly out of the factories; only about 350 of them would be built over the course of the next 20 years. They became useful tools for the most well-heeled laboratories and military bases, but there simply weren’t enough of them to implement even a fraction of the cybernetics dream.

A census taken in January of 1970 held that there were just 5500 computers operational in the Soviet Union, as compared with 62,500 in the United States and 24,000 in Western Europe. Even if one granted that the BESM-6 had taken strides toward solving the problem of quality, the problem of quantity had yet to be addressed. Advanced though the BESM-6 was in so many ways, for Soviet computing in general the same old story held sway. A Rand Corporation study from 1970 noted that “the Soviets are known to have designed micro-miniaturized circuits far more advanced than any observed in Soviet computers.” The Soviet theory of computing, in other words, continued to far outstrip the country’s ability to make practical use of it. “In the fundamental design of hardware and software the Russian computer art is as clever as that to be found anywhere in the world,” said an in-depth Scientific American report on the state of Soviet computing from the same year. “It is in the quality of production, not design, that the USSR is lagging.”

One way to build more computers more quickly, the Moscow bureaucrats concluded, was to share the burden among their partners (more accurately known to the rest of the world as their vassal states) in the Warsaw Pact. Several members states — notably East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary — had fairly advanced electronics industries whose capabilities in many areas exceeded that of the Soviets’ own, not least because their geographical locations left them relatively less isolated from the West. At the first conference of the International Center of Scientific and Technical Information in January of 1970, following at least two years of planning and negotiating, the Soviet Union signed an agreement with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria,  Hungary, Poland, and Romania to make the first full-fledged third-generation computer — one based on integrated circuits rather than transistors — to come out of Eastern Europe. The idea of dividing the labor of producing the new computer was taken very literally. In a testimony to the “from each according to his means” tenet of communism, Poland would make certain ancillary processors, tape readers, and printers; East Germany would make other peripherals; Hungary would make magnetic memories and some systems software; Czechoslovakia would make many of the integrated circuits; Romania and Bulgaria, the weakest sisters in terms of electronics, would make various mechanical and structural odds and ends; and the Soviet Union would design the machines, make the central processors, and be the final authority on the whole project, which was dubbed “Ryad,” a word meaning “row” or “series.”

The name was no accident. On the contrary, it was key to the nature of the computer — or, rather, computers — the Soviet Union and its partners were now planning to build. With the BESM-6 having demonstrated that purely home-grown technology could get their countries close to the Western state of the art but not beyond it, they would give up on trying to outdo the West. Instead they would take the West’s best, most proven designs and clone them, hoping to take advantage of the eye toward mass production that had been baked into them from the start. If all went well, 35,000 Ryad computers would be operational across the Warsaw Pact by 1980.

In a sense, the West had made it all too easy for them, given Project Ryad all too tempting a target for cloning. In 1964, in one of the most important developments in the history of computers, IBM had introduced a new line of mainframes called the System/360. The effect it had on the mainframe industry of the time was very similar to the one which the IBM PC would have on the young microcomputer industry 17 years later: it brought order and stability to what had been a confusion of incompatible machines. For the first time with the System/360, IBM created not just a single machine or even line of machines but an entire computing ecosystem built around hardware and software compatibility across a wide swathe of models. The effect this had on computing in the West is difficult to overstate. There was, for one thing, soon a large enough installed base of System/360 machines that companies could make a business out of developing software and selling it to others; this marked the start of the software industry as we’ve come to know it today. Indeed, our modern notion of computing platforms really begins with the System/360. Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum calls it IBM’s Manhattan Project. Even at the time, IBM’s CEO Thomas Watson Jr. called it the most important product in his company’s already storied history, a distinction which is challenged today only by the IBM PC.

The System/360 ironically presaged the IBM PC in another respect: as a modular platform built around well-documented standards, it was practically crying out to be cloned by companies that might have trailed IBM in terms of blue-sky technical innovation, but who were more than capable of copying IBM’s existing technology and selling it at a cheaper price. Companies like Amdahl — probably the nearest equivalent to IBM’s later arch-antagonist Compaq in this case of parallel narratives — lived very well on mainframes compatible with those of IBM, machines which were often almost as good as IBM’s best but were always cheaper. None too pleased about this, IBM responded with various sometimes shady countermeasures which landed them in many years of court cases over alleged antitrust violations. (Yes, the histories of mainframe computing and PC computing really do run on weirdly similar tracks.)

If the System/360 from the standpoint of would-be Western cloners was an unlocked door waiting to be opened, from the standpoint of the Soviet Union, which had no rules for intellectual property whatsoever which applied to the West, the door was already flung wide. Thus, instead of continuing down the difficult road of designing its high-end computers from scratch, the Soviet Union decided to stroll on through.

An early propaganda shot shows a Ryad machine in action.

There’s much that could be said about what this decision symbolized for Soviet computing and, indeed, for Soviet society in general. For all the continuing economic frustrations lurking below the surface of the latest Pravda headlines, Khrushchev’s rule had been the high-water mark of Soviet achievement, when the likes of the Sputnik satellite and Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space had seemed to prove that communism really could go toe-to-toe with capitalism. But the failure to get to the Moon before the United States among other disappointments had taken much of the shine off that happy thought.1 In the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, which began with Khrushchev’s unceremonious toppling from power in October of 1964, the Soviet Union gradually descended into a lazy decrepitude that gave only the merest lip service to the old spirit of revolutionary communism. Corruption had always been a problem, but now, taking its cue from its new leader, the country became a blatant oligarchy. While Brezhnev and his cronies collected dachas and cars, their countryfolk at times literally starved. Perhaps the greatest indictment of the system Brezhnev perpetuated was the fact that by the 1970s the Soviet Union, in possession of more arable land than any nation on earth and with one of the sparsest populations of any nation in relation to its land mass, somehow still couldn’t feed itself, being forced to import millions upon millions of tons of wheat and other basic foodstuffs every year. Thus Brezhnev found himself in the painful position, all too familiar to totalitarian leaders, of being in some ways dependent on the good graces of the very nations he denigrated.

In the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev, bold ideas like the dream of cybernetic communism fell decidedly out of fashion in favor of nursing along the status quo. Every five years, the Party Congress reauthorized ongoing research into what had become known as the “Statewide Automated Management System for Collection and Processing of Information for the Accounting, Planning, and Management of the National Economy” (whew!), but virtually nothing got done. The bureaucratic infighting that had always negated the perceived advantages of communism — as perceived optimistically by the Soviets, and with great fear by the West — was more pervasive than ever in these late years. “The Ministry of Metallurgy decides what to produce, and the Ministry of Supplies decides how to distribute it. Neither will yield its power to anyone,” said one official. Another official described each of the ministries as being like a separate government unto itself. Thus there might not be enough steel to make the tractors the country’s farmers needed to feed its people one year; the next, the steel might pile up to rust on railway sidings while the erstwhile tractor factories were busy making something else.

Amidst all the infighting, Project Ryad crept forward, behind schedule but doggedly determined. This new face of computing behind the Iron Curtain made its public bow at last in May of 1973, when six of the seven planned Ryad “Unified System” models were in attendance at the Exposition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. All were largely hardware- and software-compatible with the IBM System/360 line. Even the operating systems that were run on the new machines were lightly modified copies of Western operating systems like IBM’s DOS/360. Project Ryad and its culture of copying would come to dominate Soviet computing during the remainder of the 1970s. A Rand Corporation intelligence report from 1978 noted that “by now almost everything offered by IBM to 360 installations has been acquired” by the Soviet Union.

Project Ryad even copied the white lab coats worn by the IBM “priesthood” (and gleefully scorned by the scruffier hackers who worked on the smaller but often more innovative machines produced by companies like DEC).

During the five years after the Ryad machines first appeared, IBM sold about 35,000 System/360 machines, while the Soviet Union and its partners managed to produce about 5000 Ryad machines. Still, compared to what the situation had been before, 5000 reasonably modern machines was real progress, even if the ongoing inefficiencies of the Eastern Bloc economies kept Project Ryad from ever reaching more than a third of its stated yearly production goals. (A telling sign of the ongoing disparities between West and East was the way that all Western estimates of future computer production tended to vastly underestimate the reality that actually arrived, while Eastern estimates did just the opposite.) If it didn’t exactly allow Eastern Europe to make strides toward any bold cybernetic future — on the contrary, the Warsaw Pact economies continued to limp along in as desultory a fashion as ever — Project Ryad did do much to keep its creator nations from sliding still further into economic dysfunction. Unsurprisingly, a Ryad-2 generation of computers was soon in the works, cloning the System/370, IBM’s anointed successor to the System/360 line. Other projects cloned the DEC PDP line of machines, smaller so-called “minicomputers” suitable for more modest — but, at least in the West, often more interesting and creative — tasks than the hulking mainframes of IBM. Soviet watcher Seymour Goodman summed up the current situation in an article for the journal World Politics in 1979:

The USSR has learned that the development of its national computing capabilities on the scale it desires cannot be achieved without a substantial involvement with the rest of the world’s computing community. Its considerable progress over the last decade has been characterized by a massive transfer of foreign computer technology. The Soviet computing industry is now much less isolated than it was during the 1960s, although its interfaces with the outside world are still narrowly defined. It would appear that the Soviets are reasonably content with the present “closer but still at a distance” relationship.

Reasonable contentment with the status quo would continue to be the Kremlin’s modus operandi in computing, as in most other things. The fiery rhetoric of the past had little relevance to the morally and economically bankrupt Soviet state of the 1970s and 1980s.

Even in this gray-toned atmosphere, however, the old Russian intellectual tradition remained. Many of the people designing and programming the nation’s computers barely paid attention to the constant bureaucratic turf wars. They’d never thought that much about philosophical abstractions like cybernetics, which had always been more a brainchild of the central planners and social theorists than the people making the Soviet Union’s extant computer infrastructure, such as it was, work. Like their counterparts in the West, Soviet hackers were more excited by a clever software algorithm or a neat hardware re-purposing than they were by high-flown social theory. Protected by the fact that the state so desperately needed their skills, they felt free at times to display an open contempt for the supposedly inviolate underpinnings of the Soviet Union. Pressed by his university’s dean to devote more time to the ideological studies that were required of every student, one young hacker said bluntly that “in the modern world, with its super-speedy tempo of life, time is too short to study even more necessary things” than Marxism.

Thus in the realm of pure computing theory, where advancement could still be made without the aid of cutting-edge technology, the Soviet Union occasionally made news on the world stage with work evincing all the originality that Project Ryad and its ilk so conspicuously lacked. In October of 1978, a quiet young researcher at the Moscow Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences named Leonid Genrikhovich Khachiyan submitted a paper to his superiors with the uninspiring — to non-mathematicians, anyway — title of “Polynomial Algorithms in Linear Programming.” Following its publication in the Soviet journal Reports of the Academy of Sciences, the paper spread like wildfire across the international community of mathematics and computer science, even garnering a write-up in the New York Times in November of 1979. (Such reports were always written in a certain tone of near-disbelief, of amazement that real thinking was going on in the Mirror World.) What Khachiyan’s paper actually said was almost impossible to clearly explain to people not steeped in theoretical mathematics, but the New York Times did state that it had the potential to “dramatically ease the solution of problems involving many variables that up to now have required impossibly large numbers of separate computer calculations,” with potential applications in fields as diverse as economic planning and code-breaking. In other words, Khachiyan’s new algorithms, which have indeed stood the test of time in many and diverse fields of practical application, can be seen as a direct response to the very lack of computing power with which Soviet researchers constantly had to contend. Sometimes less really could be more.

As Khachiyan’s discoveries were spreading across the world, the computer industries of the West were moving into their most world-shaking phase yet. A fourth generation of computers, defined by the placing of the “brain” of the machine, or central processing unit, all on a single chip, had arrived. Combined with a similar miniaturization of the other components that went into a computer, this advancement meant that people were able for the first time to buy these so-called “microcomputers” to use in their homes — to write letters, to write programs, to play games. Likewise, businesses could now think about placing a computer on every single desk. Still relatively unremarked by devotees of big-iron institutional computing as the 1970s expired, over the course of the 1980s and beyond the PC revolution would transform the face of business and entertainment, empowering millions of people in ways that had heretofore been unimaginable. How was the Soviet Union to respond to this?

Alexi Alexandrov, the president of the Moscow Academy of Sciences, responded with a rhetorical question: “Have [the Americans] forgotten that problems of no less complexity, such as the creation of the atomic bomb or space-rocket technology… [we] were able to solve ourselves without any help from abroad, and in a short time?” Even leaving aside the fact that the Soviet atomic bomb was itself built largely using stolen Western secrets, such words sounded like they heralded a new emphasis on original computer engineering, a return to the headier days of Khrushchev. In reality, though, the old ways were difficult to shake loose. The first Soviet microprocessor, the KP580BM80A of 1977, had its “inspiration” couched inside its very name: the Intel 8080, which was along with the Motorola 6800 one of the two chips that had launched the PC revolution in the West in 1974.

Yet in the era of the microchip the Soviet Union ran into problems continuing the old practices. While technical schematics for chips much newer and more advanced than the Intel 8080 were soon readily enough available, they were of limited use in Soviet factories, which lacked the equipment to stamp out the ever more miniaturized microchip designs coming out of Western companies like Intel.

One solution might be for the Soviets to hold their noses and outright buy the chip-fabricating equipment they needed from the West. In earlier decades, such deals had hardly been unknown, although they tended to be kept quiet by both parties for reasons of pride (on the Eastern side) and public relations (on the Western side). But, unfortunately for the Soviets, the West had finally woken up to the reality that microelectronics were as critical to a modern war machine as missiles and fighter planes. A popular story that circulated around Western intelligence circles for years involved Viktor Belenko, a Soviet pilot who went rogue, flying his state-of-the-art MIG-25 fighter jet to a Japanese airport and defecting there in 1976. When American engineers examined his MIG-25, they found a plane that was indeed a technological marvel in many respects, able to fly faster and higher than any Western fighter. Yet its electronics used unreliable vacuum tubes rather than transistors, much less integrated circuits — a crippling disadvantage on the field of battle. The contrast with the West, which had left the era of the vacuum tube behind almost two decades ago, was so extreme that there was some discussion of whether Belenko might be a double agent, his whole defection a Soviet plot to convince the West that they were absurdly far behind in terms of electronics technology. Sadly for the Soviets, the vacuum tubes weren’t the result of any elaborate KGB plot, but rather just a backward electronics industry.

In 1979, the Carter Administration began to take a harder line against the Soviet Union, pushing through Congress as part of the Export Administration Act a long list of restrictions on what sorts of even apparently non-military computer technology could legally be sold to the Eastern Bloc. Ronald Reagan then enforced and extended these restrictions upon becoming president in 1981, working with the rest of the West in what was known as the Coordination Committee on Export Controls, or COCOM — a body that included all of the NATO member nations, plus Japan and Australia — to present a unified front. By this point, with the Cold War heading into its last series of dangerous crises thanks to Reagan’s bellicosity and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States in particular was developing a real paranoia about the Soviet Union’s long-standing habits of industrial espionage. The paranoia was reflected in CIA director William Casey’s testimony to Congress in 1982:

The KGB has developed a large, independent, specialized organization which does nothing but work on getting access to Western science and technology. They have been recruiting about 100 young scientists and engineers a year for the last 15 years. They roam the world looking for technology to pick up. Back in Moscow, there are 400 to 500 assessing what they might need and where they might get it — doing their targeting and then assessing what they get. It’s a very sophisticated and far-flung organization.

By the mid-1980s, restrictions on Western computer exports to the East were quite draconian, a sometimes bewildering maze of regulations to be navigated: 8-bit microcomputers could be exported but 16-bit microcomputers couldn’t be; a singe-user accounting package could be exported but not a multi-user version; a monochrome monitor could be exported but not a color monitor.

Even as the barriers between East and West were being piled higher than ever, Western fascination with the Mirror World remained stronger than ever. In August of 1983, an American eye surgeon named Leo D. Bores, organizer of the first joint American/Soviet seminar in medicine in Moscow and a computer hobbyist in his spare time, had an opportunity to spend a week with what was billed as the first ever general-purpose Soviet microcomputer. It was called the “Agat” — just a pretty name, being Russian for the mineral agate — and it was largely a copy — in Bores’s words a bad copy — of the Apple II. His report, appearing belatedly in the November 1984 issue of Byte magazine, proved unexpectedly popular among the magazine’s readership.

The Agat computer

The Agat was, first of all, much, much bigger and heavier than a real Apple II; Bores generously referred to it as “robust.” It was made in a factory more accustomed to making cars and trucks, and, indeed, it looked much as one might imagine a computer built in an automotive plant would look. The Soviets had provided software for displaying text in Cyrillic, albeit with some amount of flicker, using the Apple II’s bitmap-graphics modes. The keyboard also offered Cyrillic input, thus solving, after a fashion anyway, a big problem in adapting Western technology to Soviet needs. But that was about the extent to which the Agat impressed. “The debounce circuitry [on the keyboard] is shaky,” noted Bores, “and occasionally a stray character shows up, especially during rapid data entry. The elevation of the keyboard base (about 3.5 centimeters) and the slightly steeper-than-normal board angle would cause rapid fatigue as well as wrist pain after prolonged use.” Inside the case was a “nightmarish wiring maze.” Rather than being built into a single motherboard, the computer’s components were all mounted on separate breadboards cobbled together by all that cabling, the way Western engineers worked only in the very early prototyping stage of hardware development. The Soviet clone of the MOS 6502 chip found at the heart of the Agat was as clumsily put together as the rest of the machine, spanning across several breadboards; thus this “first Soviet microcomputer” arguably wasn’t really a microcomputer at all by the strict definition of the term. The kicker was the price: about $17,000. As that price would imply, the Agat wasn’t available to private citizens at all, being reserved for use in universities and other centers of higher learning.

With the Cold War still going strong, Byte‘s largely American readership was all too happy to jeer at this example of Soviet backwardness, which certainly did show a computer industry lagging years behind the West. That said, the situation wasn’t quite as bad as Bores’s experience would imply. It’s very likely that the machine he used was a pre-production model of the Agat, and that many of the problems he encountered were ironed out in the final incarnation.

For all the engineering challenges, the most important factor impeding truly personal computing in the Soviet Union was more ideological than technical. As so many of the visionaries who had built the first PCs in the West had so well recognized, these were tools of personal empowerment, of personal freedom, the most exciting manifestation yet of Norbert Wiener’s original vision of cybernetics as a tool for the betterment of the human individual. For an Eastern Bloc still tossing and turning restlessly under the blanket of collectivism, this was anathema. Poland’s propaganda ministry made it clear that they at least feared the existence of microcomputers far more than they did their absence: “The tendency in the mass-proliferation of computers is creating a variety of ideological endangerments. Some programmers, under the inspiration of Western centers of ideological subversion, are creating programs that help to form anti-communistic political consciousness.” In countries like Poland and the Soviet Union, information freely exchanged could be a more potent weapon than any bomb or gun. For this reason, photocopiers had been guarded with the same care as military hardware for decades, and even owning a typewriter required a special permit in many Warsaw Pact countries. These restrictions had led to the long tradition of underground defiance known euphemistically simply as “samizdat,” or self-publishing: the passing of “subversive” ideas from hand to hand as one-off typewritten or hand-written texts. Imagine what a home computer with a word processor and a printer could mean for samizdat. The government of Romania was so terrified by the potential of the computer for spreading freedom that it banned the very word for a time. Harry R. Meyer, an American Soviet watcher with links to the Russian expatriate community, made these observations as to the source of such terror:

I can imagine very few things more destructive of government control of information flow than having a million stations equivalent to our Commodore 64 randomly distributed to private citizens, with perhaps a thousand in activist hands. Even a lowly Commodore 1541 disk drive can duplicate a 160-kilocharacter disk in four or five minutes. The liberating effect of not having to individually enter every character every time information is to be shared should dramatically increase the flow of information.

Information distributed in our society is mainly on paper rather than magnetic media for reasons of cost-effectiveness: the message gets to more people per dollar. The bottleneck of samizdat is not money, but time. If computers were available at any cost, it would be more effective to invest the hours now being spent in repetitive typing into earning cash to get a computer, no matter how long it took.

If I were circulating information the government didn’t like in the Soviet Bloc, I would have little interest in a modem — too easily monitored. But there is a brisk underground trade in audio cassettes of Western music. Can you imagine the headaches (literal and figurative) for security agents if text files were transported by overwriting binary onto one channel in the middle of a stereo cassette of heavy-metal music? One would hope it would be less risk to carry such a cassette than a disk, let alone a compromising manuscript.

If we accept Meyer’s arguments, there’s an ironic follow-on argument to be made: that, in working so hard to keep the latest versions of these instruments of freedom out of the hands of the Soviet Union and its vassal states, the COCOM was actually hurting rather than helping the cause of freedom. As many a would-be autocrat has learned to his dismay in the years since, it’s all but impossible to control the free flow of information in a society with widespread access to personal-computing technology. The new dream of personal computing, of millions of empowered individuals making things and communicating, stood in marked contrast to the Soviet cyberneticists’ old dream of perfect, orderly, top-down control implemented via big mainframe computers. For the hard-line communists, the dream of personal computing sounded more like a nightmare. The Soviet Union faced a stark dilemma: embrace the onrushing computer age despite the loss of control it must imply, or accept that it must continue to fall further and further behind the West. A totalitarian state like the Soviet Union couldn’t survive alongside the free exchange of ideas, while a modern economy couldn’t survive without the free exchange of ideas.

Thankfully for everyone involved, a man now stepped onto the stage who was willing to confront the seemingly insoluble contradictions of Soviet society. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the eighth and, as it would transpire, the last man to hold that title. He almost immediately signaled a new official position toward computing, as he did toward so many other things. In one of his first major policy speeches just weeks after assuming power, Gorbachev announced a plan to put personal computers into every classroom in the Soviet Union.

Unlike the General Secretaries who had come before him, Gorbachev recognized that the problems of rampant corruption and poor economic performance which had dogged the Soviet Union throughout its existence were not obstacles external to the top-down collectivist state envisioned by Validimir Lenin but its inevitable results. “Glasnost,” the introduction of unprecedented levels of personal freedom, and “Perestroika,” the gradual replacement of the planned economy with a more market-oriented version permitting a degree of private ownership, were his responses. These changes would snowball in a way that no one — certainly not Gorbachev himself — had quite anticipated, leading to the effective dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War before the 1980s were over. Unnerved by it all though he was, Gorbachev, to his everlasting credit, let it happen, rejecting the calls for a crackdown like those that had ended the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 in such heartbreak and tragedy.

The Elektronika BK 0010

Very early in Gorbachev’s tenure, well before its full import had even started to become clear, it became at least theoretically possible for the first time for individuals in the Soviet Union to buy a private computer of their own for use in the home. Said opportunity came in the form of the Elektronika BK-0010. Costing about one-fifth as much as the Agat, the BK-0010 was a predictably slapdash product in some areas, such as its horrid membrane keyboard. In other ways, though, it impressed far more than anyone had a right to expect. The BK-0010, the very first Soviet microcomputer designed to be a home computer, was a 16-bit machine, placing it in this respect at least ahead of the typical Western Apple II, Commodore 64, or Sinclair Spectrum of the time. The microprocessor inside it was a largely original creation, borrowing the instruction set from the DEC PDP-11 line of minicomputers but borrowing its actual circuitry from no one. The Soviets’ struggles to stamp out the ever denser circuitry of the latest Western CPUs in their obsolete factories was ironically forcing them to be more innovative, to start designing chips of their own which their factories could manage to produce.

Supplies of the BK-0010 were always chronically short and the waiting lists long, but as early as 1985 a few lucky Soviet households could boast real, usable computers. Those who were less lucky might be able to build a bare-bones computer from schematics published in do-it-yourself technology magazines like Tekhnika Molodezhi, the Soviet equivalent to Popular Electronics. Just as had happened in the United States, Britain, and many other Western countries, a vibrant culture of hobbyist computing spread across the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations. In time, as the technology advanced in rhythm with Perestroika, these hobbyists would become the founding spirits of a new Soviet computer industry — a capitalist computer industry. “These are people who have felt useless — useless — all their lives!” said American business pundit Esther Dyson after a junket to a changing Eastern Europe. “Do you know what it is like to feel useless all your life? Computers are turning many of these people into entrepreneurs. They are creating the entrepreneurs these countries need.” As one glance at the flourishing underground economy of the Soviet Union of any era had always been enough to prove, Russians had a natural instinct for capitalism. Now, they were getting the chance to exercise it.

In August of 1988, in a surreal sign of these changing times, a delegation including many senior members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences — the most influential theoretical voice in Soviet computing dating back to the early 1950s — arrived in New York City on a mission that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years before. To a packed room of technology journalists — the Mirror World remained as fascinating as ever — they demonstrated a variety of software which they hoped to sell to the West: an equation solver; a database responsive to natural-language input; a project manager; an economic-modelling package. Byte magazine called the presentation “clever, flashy, and unabashedly commercial,” with “lots of colored windows popping up everywhere” and lots of sound effects. The next few years would bring several ventures which served to prove to any doubters from that initial gathering that the Soviets were capable of programming world-class software if given half a chance. In 1991, for instance, Soviet researchers sold a system of handwriting recognition to Apple for use in the pioneering Apple Newton personal digital assistant. Reflecting the odd blend of greed and idealism that marked the era, a Russian programmer wrote to Byte magazine that “I do hope the world software market will be the only battlefield for American and Soviet programmers and that we’ll become friends during this new battle now that we’ve stopped wasting our intellects on the senseless weapons race.”

As it would transpire, though, the greatest Russian weapon in this new era of happy capitalism wasn’t a database, a project manager, or even a handwriting-recognition system. It was instead a game — a piece of software far simpler than any of those aforementioned things but with perhaps more inscrutable genius than all of them put together. Its unlikely story is next.

(Sources: the academic-journal articles “Soviet Computing and Technology Transfer: An Overview” by S.E. Goodman, “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network.” by Slava Gerovitch, “The Soviet Bloc’s Unified System of Computers” by N.C. Davis and S.E. Goodman; the January 1970 and May 1972 issues of Rand Corporation’s Soviet Cybernetics Review; The New York Times of August 28 1966, May 7 1973, and November 27 1979; Scientific American of October 1970; Bloomberg Businessweek of November 4 1991; Byte of August 1980, April 1984, November 1984, July 1985, November 1986, February 1987, October 1988, and April 1989; a video recording the Computer History Museum’s commemoration of the IBM System/360 on April 7 2004. Finally, my huge thanks to Peter Sovietov, who grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1980s and the Russia of the 1990s and has been an invaluable help in sharing his memories and his knowledge and saving me from some embarrassing errors.)

  1. Some in the Soviet space program actually laid their failure to get to the Moon, perhaps a bit too conveniently, directly at the feet of the computer technology they were provided, noting that the lack of computers on the ground equal to those employed by NASA — which happened to be System/360s — had been a crippling disadvantage. Meanwhile the computers that went into space with the Soviets were bigger, heavier, and less capable than their American counterparts. 



A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 1: Calculators and Cybernetics

Back in my younger days, when the thought of sleeping for nights on end in campground tents and hostel cots awakened a spirit of adventure instead of a premonition of an aching back, I used to save up my vacation time and undertake a big backpacker-style journey every summer. In 2002, this habit took me to Russia.

I must confess that I found St. Petersburg and Moscow a bit of a disappointment. They just struck me as generic big cities of the sort that I’d seen plenty of in my life. While I’m sure they have their unique qualities — even I couldn’t fail to notice a few such qualities1 — much of what I saw there didn’t look all that distinct from what one could expect to see in any of dozens of major European cities. What I was looking for was the Russia — or, better said, the Soviet Union — of my youth, that semi-mythical Mirror World of fascination and nightmare.

I could feel myself coming closer to my goal as soon as I quit Moscow to board the Trans-Siberian Railroad for the long, long journey to Vladivostok. As everyone who lived in Siberia was all too happy to tell me, I was now experiencing the real Russia. In the city of Ulan-Ude, closed to all outsiders until 1991, I found the existential goal I hadn’t consciously known I’d been seeking. From the central square of Ulan-Ude, surrounded on three sides by government offices still bearing faded hammers and sickles on their facades, glowered a massive bust of Vladimir Lenin. I’d later learn that at a weight of 42 tons the bust was the largest such ever built in the Soviet Union, and that it had been constructed in 1971 as one of the last gasps of the old tradition of Stalinist monumentalism. But the numbers didn’t matter on that scorching-hot summer day when I stood in that square, gazing up in awe. In all my earlier travels, I’d never seen a sight so alien to me. This was it, my personal Ground Zero of the Mirror World, where all the values in which I’d been indoctrinated as a kid growing up deep in the heart of Texas were flipped. Lenin was the greatest hero the world had ever known, the United States the nation of imperialist oppression… it was all so wrong, and because of that it was all so right. I’ve never felt so far from home as I did on that day — and this feeling, of course, was exactly the reason I’d come.

I’m a child of the 1980s, the last decade during which the Soviet Union was an extant power in the world. The fascination which I still felt so keenly in 2002 had been a marked feature of my childhood. Nothing, after all, gives rise to more fascination than telling people that something is forbidden to them, as the Kremlin did by closing off their country from the world. Certainly I wasn’t alone in jumping after any glimpse I could get behind the Iron Curtain.

Thus the bleakly alluring version of Moscow found in Martin Cruz Smith’s otherwise workmanlike crime novel Gorky Park turned it into a bestseller, and then a hit film a couple of years later. (I remember the film well because it was the first R-rated movie my parents ever allowed me to see; I remember being intrigued and a little confused by my first glimpse of bare breasts on film — as if the glimpse behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t attraction enough!) And when David Willis, an American journalist who had lived several years in Moscow, purported to tell his countrymen “how Russians really live” in a book called Klass, it too became a bestseller. Even such a strident American patriot as Tom Clancy could understand the temptation of the Mirror World. In Red Storm Rising, his novel of World War III, straitlaced intelligence officer Robert Toland gets a little too caught up in the classic films of Sergei Eisenstein.

The worst part of the drive home was the traffic to the Hampton Roads tunnel, after which things settled down to the usual superhighway ratrace. All the way home, Toland’s mind kept going over the scenes from Eisenstein’s movie. The one that kept coming back was the most horrible of all, a German knight wearing a crusader’s cross tearing a Pskov infant from his mother’s breast and throwing him — her? — into a fire. Who could see that and not be enraged? No wonder the rabble-rousing song “Arise, you Russian People” had been a genuinely popular favorite for years. Some scenes cried out for bloody revenge, the theme for which was Prokofiev’s fiery call to arms. Soon he found himself humming the song. A real intelligence officer you are … Toland smiled to himself, thinking just like the people you’re supposed to study … defend our fair native land … za nashu zyemlyu chestnuyu!

“Excuse me, sir?” the toll collector asked.

Toland shook his head. Had he been singing aloud? He handed over the seventy-five cents with a sheepish grin. What would this lady think, an American naval officer singing in Russian?

Those involved with computers were likewise drawn to the Mirror World. When Byte magazine ran a modest piece buried hundreds of pages deep in their November 1984 issue on a Soviet personal computer showing the clear “influence” of the Apple II, it became the second most popular article in the issue according to the magazine’s surveys. Unsurprisingly in light of that reception, similar tantalizing glimpses behind the Iron Curtain became a regular part of the magazine from that point forward. According to the best estimates of the experts, the Soviets remained a solid three years behind the United States in their top-end chip-fabrication capabilities, and much further behind than that in their ability to mass-produce dependable computers that could be sold for a reasonable price. If the rudimentary Soviet computers Byte described had come from anywhere else, in other words, no one would have glanced at them twice. Yet the fact that they came from the Mirror World gave them the attraction that clung to all glimpses into that fabled land. For jaded veterans grown bored with an American computer industry that was converging inexorably from the Wild West that had been its early days toward a few standard, well-defined — read, boring — platforms, Soviet computers were the ultimate exotica.

Before the end of the 1980s, an odd little game of falling blocks would ride this tidal wave of Soviet chic to become by some measures the most popular videogame of all time. An aura of inscrutable otherness clung to Tetris, which the game’s various publishers — its publication history is one of the most confusing in the history of videogames — were smart enough to tie in with the sense of otherness that surrounded the entirety of the Soviet Union, the game’s unlikely country of origin, in so many Western minds. Spectrum Holobyte, the most prominent publisher of the game on computers, wrote the name in Cyrillic script on the box front, subtitled it “the Soviet Challenge,” and commissioned background graphics showing iconic — at least to Western eyes — Soviet imagery, from Cosmonauts in space to the “Red Machine” hockey team on the ice. As usual, Nintendo cut more to the chase with their staggeringly successful Game Boy version: “From Russia with Fun!”

Tetris mania was at its peak as the 1990s began. The walls were coming down between West and East, both figuratively and literally, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s impossibly brave choice to let his empire go — peacefully. Western eyes peered eagerly eastward, motivated now not only by innocent if burning curiosity but by the possibilities for tapping those heretofore untapped markets. Having reached this very point here in this blog’s overarching history of interactive entertainment and matters related, let’s hit pause long enough to join those first Western discoverers now in exploring the real story of computing in the Mirror World.

In the very early days of computing, before computer science was a recognized discipline in which you could get a university degree, the most important thinkers in the nascent field tended to be mathematicians. It was, for instance, the British mathematician Alan Turing who laid much of the groundwork for modern computer science in the 1930s, then went on to give many of his theories practical expression as part of the Allied code-breaking effort that did so much to win World War II. And it was the mathematics department of Cambridge University who built the EDSAC in 1949, the first truly programmable computer in the sense that we understand that term today.

The strong interconnection between mathematics and early work with computers should have left the Soviet Union as well-equipped for the dawning age as any nation. Russia had a long, proud tradition of mathematical innovation, dating back through centuries of Czarist rule. The list of major Russian mathematicians included figures like Nikolai Lobachevsky, the pioneer of non-Euclidean geometry, and Sofia Kovalevskaya, who developed equations for the rotation of a solid body around a fixed axis. Even Joseph Stalin’s brutal purges of the 1930s, which strove to expunge anyone with the intellectual capacity to articulate a challenge to his rule, failed to kill the Russian mathematical tradition. On the contrary, Leonid Kantorovich in 1939 discovered the technique of linear programming ten years before American mathematicians would do the same, while Andrey Kolmogorov did much fundamental work in probability theory and neural-network modeling over a long career that spanned from the 1920s through the 1980s. Indeed, in the decades following Stalin’s death, Soviet mathematicians in general would continue to solve fundamental problems of theory. And Soviet chess players — the linkage between mathematics and chess is almost as pronounced in history as that between mathematics and computers — would remain the best in the world, at least if the results of international competitions were any guide.

But, ironically in light of all this, it would be an electrical engineer named Sergei Alexeevich Lebedev rather than a mathematician who would pioneer Soviet computing. Lebedev was 46 years old in 1948 when he was transferred from his cushy position at the Lenin State Electrical Institute in Moscow to the relative backwater of Kiev, where he was to take over as head of the Ukraine Academy’s Electrotechnical Institute. There, free from the scrutiny of Moscow bureaucrats who neither understood nor wanted to understand the importance of the latest news of computing coming out of Britain and the United States, Lebedev put together a small team to build a Small Computing Machine; in Russian its acronym was MESM. Unlike the team of scientists and engineers who detonated the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb in 1949, Lebedev developed the MESM without the assistance of espionage; he had access to the published papers of figures like Alan Turing and the exiled Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann, but no access to schematics or inside information about the machines on which they were working.

Lebedev had to build the MESM on a shoestring. Just acquiring the vacuum tubes and magnetic drums he needed in a backwater city of a war-devastated country was a major feat in itself, one that called for the skills of a junk trader as much as it did those of an electrical engineer. Seymour Goodman, one of the more notable historians of Soviet computing, states that “perhaps the most incredible aspect of the MESM was that it was successfully built at all. No electronic computer was ever built under more difficult conditions.” When it powered up for the first time in 1951, the MESM was not only the first stored-program computer in the Soviet Union but the first anywhere in continental Europe, trailing Britain by just two years and the United States by just one — a remarkable achievement by any standard.

Having already shown quite a diverse skill set in getting the MESM made at all, Lebedev proved still more flexible after it was up and running. He became the best advocate for computing inside the Soviet Union, a sort of titan of industry in a country that officially had no room for such figures. Goodman credits him with playing the role that a CEO would have played in the West. He even managed to get a script written for a documentary film to “advertise” his computer’s capabilities throughout the Soviet bureaucracy. In the end, the film never got made, but then it really wasn’t needed. The Soviet space and nuclear-weapons programs, not to mention the conventional military, all had huge need of the fast calculations the MESM could provide. At the time, the nuclear-weapons program was using what they referred to as calculator “brigades,” consisting of 100 or more mostly young girls, who worked eight-hour shifts with mechanical devices to crank out solutions to hugely complicated equations. Already by 1950, an internal report had revealed that the chief obstacle facing Soviet nuclear scientists wasn’t the theoretical physics involved but rather an inability to do the math necessary to bring theory to life fast enough.

Within months of his machine going online, Lebedev was called back to Moscow to become the leader of the Institute for Precision Mechanics and Computing Technology — or ITMVT in the Russian acronym — of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There Lebedev proceeded to develop a series of machines known as the BESM line, which, unlike the one-off MESM, were suitable for — relatively speaking — production in quantity.

But Lebedev soon had rivals. Contrary to the image the Kremlin liked to project of a unified front — of comrades in communism all moving harmoniously toward the same set of goals — the planned economy of the Soviet Union was riddled with as much in-fighting as any other large bureaucracy. “Despite its totalitarian character,” notes historian Nikolai Krementsov, “the Soviet state had a very complex internal structure, and the numerous agents and agencies involved in the state science-policy apparatus pursued their own, often conflicting policies.” Thus very shortly after the MESM became operational, the second computer to be built in the Soviet Union (and continental Europe as well), a machine called the M-1 which had been designed by one Isaak Semyenovich Bruk, went online. If Lebedev’s achievement in building the MESM was remarkable, Bruk’s achievement in building the M-1, again without access to foreign espionage — or for that matter the jealously guarded secrets of Lebedev’s rival team — was equally so. But Bruk lacked Lebedev’s political skills, and thus his machine proved a singular achievement rather than the basis for a line of computers.

A much more dangerous rival  was a computer called Strela, or “Arrow,” the brainchild of one Yuri Yakovlevich Bazilevskii in the Special Design Bureau 245 — abbreviated SKB-245 in Russian — of the Ministry of Machine and Instrument Construction in Moscow. The BESM and Strela projects, funded by vying factions within the Politburo, spent several years in competition with one another, each project straining to monopolize scarce components, both for its own use and, just as importantly, to keep them out of the hands of its rival. It was a high-stakes war that was fought in deadly earnest, and its fallout could be huge. When, for instance, the Strela people managed to buy up the country’s entire supply of cathode-ray tubes for use as memory, the BESM people were forced to use less efficient and reliable mercury delay lines instead. As anecdotes like this attest, Brazilevskii was every bit Lebedev’s equal at the cutthroat game of bureaucratic politicking, even managing to secure from his backers the coveted title of Hero of Socialist Labor a couple of years before Lebedev.

The Strela computer. Although it’s hard to see it here, it was described by its visitors as a “beautiful machine in a beautiful hall,” with hundreds of lights blinking away in impressive fashion. Many bureaucrats likely chose to support the Strela simply because it looked so much like the ideal of high technology in the popular imagination of the 1950s.

During its first official trial in the spring of 1954, the Strela solved in ten hours a series of equations that would have taken a single human calculator about 100,000 days. And the Strela was designed to be a truly mass-produced computer, to be cranked out in the thousands in identical form from factories. But, as so often happened in the Soviet Union, the reality behind the statistics which Pravda trumpeted so uncritically was somewhat less flattering. The Strela “worked very badly” according to one internal report; according to another it “very often failed and did not work properly.” Pushed by scientists and engineers who needed a reliable computer in order to get things done, the government decided in the end to go ahead with the BESM instead of the Strela. Ironically, only seven examples of the first Soviet computer designed for true mass-production were ever actually produced. Sergei Lebedev was now unchallenged as the preeminent voice in Soviet computing, a distinction he would enjoy until his death in 1974.

The first BESM computer. It didn’t look as nice as the Strela, but it would prove far more capable and reliable.

Like so much other Soviet technology, Soviet computers were developed in secrecy, far from the prying eyes of the West. In December of 1955, a handful of American executives and a few journalists on a junket to the Soviet Union became the first to see a Soviet computer in person. A report of the visit appeared in the New York Times of December 11, 1955. It helpfully describes an early BESM computer as an “electronic brain” — the word “computer” was still very new in the popular lexicon — and pronounces it equal to the best American models of same. In truth, the American delegation had fallen for a bit of a dog-and-pony show. Soviet computers were already lagging well behind the American models that were now being churned out in quantities Lebedev could only dream of by companies like IBM.

Sergei Lebedev’s ITMVT. (Sorry for the atrocious quality of these images. Clear pictures of the Mirror World of the 1950s are hard to come by.)

In May of 1959, during one of West and East’s periodic periods of rapprochement, a delegation of seven American computer experts from business and government was invited to spend two weeks visiting most of the important hubs of computing research in the Soviet Union. They were met at the airport in Moscow by Lebedev himself; the Soviets were every bit as curious about the work of their American guests as said Americans were about theirs. The two most important research centers of all, the American delegation learned, were Lebedev’s ITMVT and the newer Moscow Computing Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which was coming to play a role in software similar to that which the ITMVT played in hardware. The report prepared by the delegation is fascinating for the generalized glimpses it provides into the Soviet Mirror World of the 1950s as much as it is for the technical details it includes. Here, for instance, is its description of the ITMVT’s physical home:

The building itself is reminiscent more of an academic building than an industrial building. It is equipped with the usual offices and laboratory facilities as well as a large lecture hall. Within an office the decor tends to be ornate; the entrance door is frequently padded on both sides with what appeared to be leather, and heavy drapery is usually hung across the doorway and at the windows. The ceiling height was somewhat higher than that of contemporary American construction, but we felt in general that working conditions in the offices and in the laboratories were good. There appeared to be an adequate amount of room and the workers were comfortably supplied with material and equipment. The building was constructed in 1951. Many things testified to the steady and heavy usage it has received. In Russian tradition, the floor is parqueted and of unfinished oak. As in nearly every building, there are two sets of windows for weather protection.

The Moscow Computing Center

And here’s how a Soviet programmer had to work:

Programmers from the outside who come to the [Moscow] Computing Center with a problem apply to the scientific secretary of the Computing Center. He assigns someone from the Computing Center to provide any assistance needed by the outside programmer. In general an operator is provided for each machine, and only programmers with specific permission can operate the machine personally. Normally a programmer can expect only one code check pass per day at a machine; with a very high priority he might get two or three passes.

A programmer is required to submit his manuscript in ink. Examples of manuscripts which we saw indicated that often a manuscript is written in pencil until it is thought to be correct, and then redone in ink. The manuscript is then key-punched twice, and the two decks compared, before being sent to the machine. The output cards are handled on an off-line printer.

Other sections describe the Soviet higher-education system (“Every student is required to take 11 terms of ideological subjects such as Marxism-Leninism, dialectical materialism, history of the Communist Party, political economy, and economics.”); the roles of the various Academies of Sciences (“The All Union Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the 15 Republican Academies of Sciences play a dominant role in the scientific life of the Soviet Union.”); the economics of daily life (“In evaluating typical Russian salaries it must be remembered that the highest income tax in the Soviet Union is 13 percent and that all other taxes are indirect.”); the resources being poured into the new scientific and industrial center of Novosibirsk (“It is a general belief in Russia that the future of the Soviet Union is closely allied with the development of the immense and largely unexplored natural resources of Siberia.”).

But of course there are also plenty of pages devoted to technical discussion. What’s most surprising about these is the lack of the hysteria that had become so typical of Western reports of Soviet technology in the wake of the Sputnik satellite of 1957 and the beginning of the Space Race which it heralded. It was left to a journalist from the New York Times to ask the delegation upon their return the money question: who was really ahead in the field of computers? Willis Ware, a member of the delegation from the Rand Corporation and the primary architect of the final report, replied that the Soviet Union had “a wealth of theoretical knowledge in the field,” but “we didn’t see any hardware that we don’t have here.” Americans had little cause to worry; whatever their capabilities in the fields of aerospace engineering and nuclear-weapons delivery, it was more than clear that the Soviets weren’t likely to rival even IBM alone, much less the American computer industry as a whole, anytime soon. With that worry dispensed with, the American delegation had felt free just to talk shop with their Soviet counterparts in what would prove the greatest meeting of Eastern and Western computing minds prior to the Gorbachev era. The Soviets responded in kind; the visit proved remarkably open and friendly.

One interesting fact gleaned by the Americans during their visit was that, in addition to all the differences born of geography and economy, the research into computers conducted in the East and the West had also heretofore had markedly different theoretical scopes. For all that so much early Western research had been funded by the military for such plebeian tasks as code-breaking and the calculation of artillery trajectories, and for all that so much of that research had been conducted by mathematicians, the potential of computers to change the world had always been understood by the West’s foremost visionaries as encompassing far more than a faster way to do complex calculations. Alan Turing, for example, had first proposed his famous Turing Test of artificial intelligence all the way back in 1950.

But in the Soviet Union, where the utilitarian philosophy of dialectical materialism was the order of the day, such humanistic lines of research were, to say the least, not encouraged. Those involved with Soviet computing had to be, as they themselves would later put it, “cautious” about the work they did and the way they described that work to their superiors. The official view of computers in the Soviet Union during the early and mid-1950s hewed to the most literal definition of the word: they were electronic replacements for those brigades of human calculators cranking out solutions to equations all day long. Computers were, in other words, merely a labor-saving device, not a revolution in the offing; being a state founded on the all-encompassing ideology of communist revolution, the Soviet Union had no use for other, ancillary revolutions. Even when Soviet researchers were allowed to stray outside the realm of pure mathematics, their work was always expected to deliver concrete results that served very practical goals in fairly short order. For example, considerable effort was put into a program for automatically translating texts between languages, thereby to better bind together the diverse peoples of the sprawling Soviet empire and its various vassal states. (Although the translation program was given a prominent place in that first 1955 New York Times report about the Soviets’ “electronic brain,” one has to suspect that, given how difficult a task automated translation is even with modern computers, it never amounted to much more than a showpiece for use under carefully controlled conditions.)

And yet even by the time the American delegation arrived in 1959 all of that was beginning to change, thanks to one of the odder ideological alliances in the history of the twentieth century. In a new spirit of relative openness that was being fostered by Khrushchev, the Soviet intelligentsia was becoming more and more enamored with the ideas of an American named Norbert Wiener, yet another of those wide-ranging mathematicians who were doing so much to shape the future. In 1948, Wiener had described a discipline he called “cybernetics” in a book of the same name. The book bore the less-than-enticing subtitle Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, making it sound rather like an engineering text. But if it was engineering Wiener was practicing, it was social engineering, as became more clear in 1950, when he repackaged his ideas into a more accessible book with the title The Human Use of Human Beings.

Coming some 35 years before William Gibson and his coining of the term “cyberspace,” Norbert Wiener marks the true origin point of our modern mania for all things “cyber.” That said, his ideas haven’t been in fashion for many years, a fact which might lead us to dismiss them from our post-millennial perch as just another musty artifact of the twentieth century and move on. In actuality, though, Wiener is well worth revisiting, and with an eye to more than dubious linguistic trends. Cybernetics as a philosophy may be out of fashion, but cybernetics as a reality is with us a little more every day. And, most pertinently for our purposes today, we need to understand a bit of what Wiener was on about if we hope to understand what drove much of Soviet computing for much of its existence.

“Cybernetics” is one of those terms which can seem to have as many definitions as definers. It’s perhaps best described as the use of machines not just to perform labor but to direct labor. Wiener makes much of the increasing numbers of machines even in his time which incorporated a feedback loop — machines, in other words, that were capable of accepting input from the world around them and responding to that input in an autonomous way. An example of such a feedback loop can be something as simple as an automatic door which opens when it senses people ready to step through it, or as complex as the central computer in charge of all of the functions of an automated factory.

At first blush, the idea of giving computers autonomous control over the levers of power inevitably conjures up all sorts of dystopian visions. Yet Wiener himself was anything but a fan of totalitarian or collectivist governments. Invoking in The Human Use of Human Beings the popular metaphor of the collectivist society as an ant colony, he goes on to explore the many ways in which humans and ants are in fact — ideally, at any rate — dissimilar, thus seemingly exploding the “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” founding principle of communism.

In the ant community, each worker performs its proper functions. There may be a separate caste of soldiers. Certain highly specialized individuals perform the functions of king and queen. If man were to adopt this community as a pattern, he would live in a fascist state, in which ideally each individual is conditioned from birth for his proper occupation: in which rulers are perpetually rulers, soldiers perpetually soldiers, the peasant is never more than a peasant, and the worker is doomed to be a worker.

This aspiration of the fascist for a human state based on the model of the ant results from a profound misapprehension both of the nature of the ant and of the nature of man. I wish to point out that the very physical development of the insect conditions it to be an essentially stupid and unlearning individual, cast in a mold which cannot be modified to any great extent. I also wish to show how these physiological conditions make it into a cheap mass-produced article, of no more individual value than a paper pie plate to be thrown away after it is used. On the other hand, I wish to show that the human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy almost half his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. Variety and possibility are inherent in the human sensorium — and are indeed key to man’s most noble flights — because variety and possibility belong to the very structure of the human organism.

While it is possible to throw away this enormous advantage that we have over the ants, and to organize the fascist ant-state with human material, I certainly believe that this is a degradation of man’s very nature, and economically a waste of the great human values which man possesses.

I am afraid that I am convinced that a community of human beings is a far more useful thing than a community of ants, and that if the human being is condemned and restricted to perform the same functions over and over again, he will not even be a good ant, not to mention a good human being. Those who would organize us according to personal individual functions and permanent individual restrictions condemn the human race to move at much less than half-steam. They throw away nearly all our human possibilities and, by limiting the modes in which we may adapt ourselves to future contingencies, they reduce our chances for a reasonably long existence on this earth.

Wiener’s vision departs markedly from the notion, popular already in science fiction by the time he wrote those words, of computers as evil overlords. In Wiener’s cybernetics, computers will not enslave people but give them freedom; the computers’ “slaves” will themselves be machines. Together computers and the machines they control will take care of all the boring stuff, as it were, allowing people to devote themselves to higher purposes. Wiener welcomes the “automatic age” he sees on the horizon, even as he is far from unaware of the disruptions the period of transition will bring.

What can we expect of its economic and social consequences? In the first place, we can expect an abrupt and final cessation of the demand for the type of factory labor performing purely repetitive tasks. In the long run, the deadly uninteresting nature of the repetitive task may make this a good thing and the source of leisure necessary for man’s full cultural development.

Be that as it may, the intermediate period of the introduction of the new means will lead to an immediate transitional period of disastrous confusion.

In terms of cybernetics, we’re still in this transitional period today, with huge numbers of workers accustomed to “purely repetitive tasks” cast adrift in this dawning automatic age; this explains much about recent political developments over much of the world. But of course our main interest right now isn’t contemporary politics, but rather how a fellow who so explicitly condemned the collectivist state came to be regarded as something of a minor prophet by the Soviet bureaucracy.

Wiener’s eventual acceptance in the Soviet Union is made all the more surprising by the Communist Party’s first reaction to cybernetics. In 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, the Party’s official Brief Philosophical Dictionary still called cybernetics “a reactionary pseudo-science originating in the USA after World War II and spreading widely in other capitalistic countries as well.” It was “in essence aimed against materialistic dialectics” and “against the scientific Marxist understanding of the laws of societal life.” Seemingly plucking words at random from a grab bag of adjectives, the dictionary concluded that “this mechanistic, metaphysical pseudo-science coexists very well with idealism in philosophy, psychology, and sociology” — the word “idealism” being a kiss of death under Soviet dogma.

In 1960, six years after the Soviets condemned cybernetics as an “attempt to transform toilers into mere appendices of the machine, into a tool of production and war,” Nobert Wiener lectures the Leningrad Mathematical Society. A colleague who visited the Soviet Union at the same time said that Wiener was “wined and dined everywhere, even in the privacy of the homes of the Russian scientists.” He died four years later, just as the influence of cybernetics was reaching a peak in the Soviet Union.

Still, when stripped of its more idealistic, humanistic attributes, there was much about cybernetics which held immense natural appeal for Soviet bureaucrats. Throughout its existence, the Soviet Union’s economy had been guided, albeit imperfectly at best, by an endless number of “five-year plans” that attempted to control its every detail. Given this obsession with economic command and control and the dispiriting results it had so far produced, the prospect of information-management systems — namely, computers — capable of aiding decision-making, or perhaps even in time of making the decisions, was a difficult enticement to resist; never mind how deeply antithetical the idea of computerized overlords making the decisions for human laborers was to Norbert Wiener’s original conception of cybernetics. Thus cybernetics went from being a banned bourgeois philosophy during the final years of Stalin’s reign to being a favorite buzzword during the middle years of Khrushchev’s. In December of 1957, the Soviet Academy of Sciences declared their new official position to be that “the use of computers for statistics and planning must have an absolutely exceptional significance in terms of its efficiency. In most cases, such use would make it possible to increase the speed of decision-making by hundreds of times and avoid errors that are currently produced by the unwieldy bureaucratic apparatus involved in these activities.”

In October of 1961, the new Cybernetics Council of the same body published an official guide called Cybernetics in the Service of Communism — essentially Norbert Wiener with the idealism and humanism filed off. Khrushchev may have introduced a modicum of cultural freedom to the Soviet Union, but at heart he was still a staunch collectivist, as he made clear:

In our time, what is needed is clarity, ideal coordination, and organization of all links in the social system both in material production and in spiritual life.

Maybe you think there will be absolute freedom under communism? Those who think so don’t understand what communism is. Communism is an orderly, organized society. In that society, production will be organized on the basis of automation, cybernetics, and assembly lines. If a single screw is not working properly, the entire mechanism will grind to a halt.

Soviet ambitions for cybernetics were huge, and in different circumstances might have led to a Soviet ARPANET going online years before the American version. It was envisioned that each factory and other center of production in the country would be controlled by its own computer, and that each of these computers would in turn be linked together into “complexes” reporting to other computers, all of which would send their data yet further up the chain, culminating in a single “unified automated management system” directing the entire economy. The system would encompass tens of thousands of computers, spanning the width and breadth of the largest country in the world, “from the Pacific to the Carpathian foothills,” as academician Sergei Sobolev put it. Some more wide-eyed prognosticators said that in time the computerized cybernetic society might allow the government to eliminate money from the economy entirely, long a cherished dream of communism. “The creation of an automated management system,” wrote proponent Anatolii Kitov, “would mean a revolutionary leap in the development of our country and would ensure a complete victory of socialism over capitalism.” With the Soviet Union’s industrial output declining every year between 1959 and 1964 while the equivalent Western figures skyrocketed, socialism needed all the help it could get.

In May of 1962, in an experiment trumpeted as the first concrete step toward socialism’s glorious cybernetic future, a computer located in Kiev poured steel in a factory located hundreds of kilometers away in Dniprodzerzhynsk (known today as Kamianske). A newspaper reporter was inspired to wax poetic:

In ancient Greece the man who steered ships was called Kybernetes. This steersman, whose name is given to one of the boldest sciences of the present — cybernetics — lives on in our own time. He steers the spaceships and governs the atomic installations, he takes part in working out the most complicated projects, he helps to heal humans and to decipher the writings of ancient peoples. As of today he has become an experienced metallurgist.

Some Soviet cybernetic thinking is even more astonishing than their plans for binding the country in a web of telecommunications long before “telecommunications” was a word in popular use. Driverless cars and locomotives were seriously discussed, and experiments with the latter were conducted in the Moscow subway system. (“Experiments on the ‘auto-pilot’ are being concluded. This device, provided with a program for guiding a train, automatically decreases and increases speed at corresponding points along its route, continually selecting the most advantageous speed, and stops the train at the required points.”) Serious attention was given to a question that still preoccupies futurists today: that of the role of human beings in a future of widespread artificially intelligent computers. The mathematician Kolmogorov wrote frankly that such computers could and inevitably would “surpass man in his development” in the course of time, and even described a tipping point that we still regard as seminal today: the point when artificial intelligence begins to “breed,” to create its own progeny without the aid of humans. At least some within the Soviet bureaucracy seemed to welcome humanity’s new masters; proposals were batted around to someday replace human teachers and doctors with computers. Sergei Sobolev wrote that “in my view the cybernetic machines are people of the future. These people will probably be much more accomplished than we, the present people.” Soviet thinking had come a long way indeed from the old conception of computers as nothing more than giant calculators.

But the Soviet Union was stuck in a Catch-22 situation: the cybernetic command-and-control network its economy supposedly needed in order to spring to life was made impossible to build by said economy’s current moribund state. Some skeptical planners drew pointed comparisons to the history of another sprawling land: Egypt. While the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt had managed to build the Pyramids, the cybernetics skeptics noted, legend held that they’d neglected everything else so much in the process that a once-fertile land had become a desert. Did it really make sense to be thinking already about building a computer network to span the nation when 40 percent of villages didn’t yet boast a single telephone within their borders? By the same token, perhaps the government should strive for the more tangible goal of placing a human doctor within reach of every citizen before thinking about replacing all the extant human doctors with some sort of robot.

A computer factory in Kiev, circa 1970. Note that all of the assembly work is still apparently done by hand.

The skeptics probably needn’t have worried overmuch about their colleagues’ grandiose dreams. With its computer industry in the shape it was, it was doubtful whether the Soviet Union had any hope of building its cybernetic Pyramids even with all the government will in the world.

In November of 1964, another American delegation was allowed a glimpse into the state of Soviet computing, although the Cuban Missile Crisis and other recent conflicts meant that their visit was much shorter and more restricted than the one of five and a half years earlier. Regardless, the Americans weren’t terribly impressed by the factory they were shown. It was producing computers at the rate of about seven or eight per month, and the visitors estimated its products to be roughly on par with an IBM 704 — a model that IBM had retired four years before. It was going to be damnably hard to realize the Soviet cybernetic dream with this trickle of obsolete machines; estimates were that about 1000 computers were currently operational in the Soviet Union, as compared to 30,000 in the United States. The Soviets were still struggling to complete the changeover from first-generation computer hardware, characterized by its reliance on vacuum tubes, to the transistor-based second generation. The Americans had accomplished this changeover years before; indeed, they were well on their way to an integrated-circuit-based third generation.  Looking at a Soviet transistor, the delegation said it was roughly equivalent to an American version of same from 1957.

But when the same group visited the academics, they were much more impressed, noting that the Soviets “were doing quite a lot of very good and forward-thinking work.” Thus was encapsulated what would remain the curse of Soviet computer science: plenty of ideas, plenty of abstract know-how, and a dearth of actual hardware to try it all out on. The reports of the Soviet researchers ooze frustration with their lot in life. Their computers break down “each and every day,” reads one, “and information on a tape lasts without any losses no longer than one month.”

Their American visitors were left to wonder just why it was that the Soviet Union struggled so mightily to build a decent computing infrastructure. Clearly the Soviets weren’t complete technological dunces; this was after all the country that had detonated an atomic bomb years before anyone had dreamed it could, that had shocked the world by putting the first satellite and then the first man into space, that was even now giving the United States a run for its money to put a man on the moon.

The best way to address the Americans’ confusion might be to note that exploding atomic bombs and launching things into space encompassed a series of individual efforts responsive to brilliant individual minds, while the mass-production of the standardized computers that would be required to realize the cybernetics dream required a sort of infrastructure-building at which the Soviet system was notoriously poor. The world’s foremost proponent of collectivism was, ironically, not all that good at even the most fundamental long-term collectivist projects. The unstable Soviet power grid was only one example; the builders of many Soviet computer installations had to begin by building their own power plant right outside the computer lab just to get a dependable electrical supply.

The Soviet Union was a weird mixture of backwardness and forwardness in terms of technology, and the endless five-year plans only exacerbated its issues by emphasizing arbitrary quotas rather than results that mattered in the real world. Stories abounded of factories that produced lamp shades in only one color because that was the easiest way to make their quota, or that churned out uselessly long, fat nails because the quota was given in kilograms rather than in numbers of individual pieces. The Soviet computer industry was exposed to all these underlying economic issues. It was hard to make computers to rival those of the West when the most basic electrical components that went into them had failure rates dozens of times higher than their Western equivalents. Whether a planned economy run by computers could have fixed these problems is doubtful in the extreme, but at any rate the Soviet cyberneticists would never get a chance to try. It was the old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. They thought they needed lots of good computers to build a better economy — but they knew they needed a better economy to build lots of good computers.

As the 1960s became the 1970s, these pressures would lead to a new approach to computer production in the Soviet Union. If they couldn’t beat the West’s computers with their homegrown designs, the Soviets decided, then they would just have to  clone them.

(Sources: the academic-journal articles “Soviet Computing and Technology Transfer: An Overview” by S.E. Goodman, “MESM and the Beginning of the Computer Era in the Soviet Union” by Anne Fitzpatrick, Tatiana Kazakova, and Simon Berkovich, “S.A. Lebedev and the Birth of Soviet Computing” by G.D. Crowe and S.E. Goodman, “The Origin of Digital Computing in Europe” by S.E. Goodman, “Strela-1, The First Soviet Computer: Political Success and Technological Failure” by Hiroshi Ichikawa, and “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network.” by Slava Gerovitch; studies from the Rand Corporation entitled “Soviet Cybernetics Technology I: Soviet Cybernetics, 1959-1962” and “Soviet Computer Technology — 1959”; the January 1970 issue of Rand Corporation’s Soviet Cybernetics Review; the books Stalinist Science by Nikolai Krementsov, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy, and From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics by Slava Gerovitch; The New York Times of December 11 1955, December 2 1959, and August 28 1966; Scientific American of October 1970; Byte of November 1984, February 1985, and October 1987.)

  1. Driving around Moscow with several other backpackers and a guide we’d scraped together enough money to hire, I noticed some otherwise unmarked cars sporting flashing lights on the roof, of the sort that the driver can reach up through the window to set in place as she drives. There were a lot of these cars, all rushing about purposefully with lights undulating like mad. Was there really that much crime in the city? Or was some sort of emergency in progress? Weird if so, as the cars with the flashing lights by no means all seemed to be headed in the same direction. Curious about all these things, I finally asked our guide. “Oh, most of those cars aren’t actually police,” she said. “If you pay the right person, you can get a light like that for your personal car. Then you don’t have to stop at the traffic lights.” I have no idea if she was telling the truth or putting one over on the naive foreigner, but I do know that this story has always struck me as the quintessential tale of Russia, home of the greatest capitalists the world has ever known. 



Memos from Digital Antiquarian Corporate Headquarters, June 2017 Edition

From the Publications Department:

Those of you who enjoy reading the blog in ebook format will be pleased to hear that Volume 12 in that ongoing series is now available, full of articles centering roughly on the year 1990. As usual, the ebook is entirely the work of Richard Lindner. Thank you, Richard!

From the Security Department:

A few days ago, a reader notified me of an alarming development: he was getting occasional popup advertisements for a shady online betting site when he clicked article links within the site. Oddly enough, the popups were very intermittent; in lots of experimenting, I was only able to get them to appear on one device — an older iPad, for it’s worth — and even then only every tenth or twelfth time I tapped a link. But investigation showed that there was indeed some rogue JavaScript that was causing them. I’ve cleaned it up and hardened that part of the site a bit more, but I remain a little concerned in that I haven’t identified precisely how someone or something got access to the file that was tampered with in the first place. If anything suspicious happens during your browsing, please do let me know. I don’t take advertisements of any sort, so any that you see on this site are by definition a security breach of some sort. In the meantime, I’ll continue to scan the site daily in healthily paranoid fashion. The last I thing I want is a repeat of the Great Handbag Hack of 2012. (Do note, however, that none of your Patreon or PayPal information is stored on the site, and the database containing commenters’ email addresses has remained uncompromised — so nothing to worry too much over.)

From the Scheduling Department:

I’ve had to skip publishing an article more weeks than I wanted to this year. First I got sick after coming home from my research trip to the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York. Then we moved (within Denmark) from Odense to Aarhus, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell most of you what a chaotic process that can be. Most recently, I’ve had to do a lot more research than usual for my next subject; see the next two paragraphs for more on that. In a couple of weeks my wife and I are going to take a little holiday, which means I’m going to have to take one more bye week in June. After that, though, I hope I can settle back into the groove and start pumping out a reliable article every week for a while. Thanks for bearing with me!

From the Long-Term-Planning Department:

I thought I’d share a taste of what I plan to cover in the context of 1991 — i.e., until I write another of these little notices to tell you the next ebook is available. If you prefer that each new article be a complete surprise, you’ll want to skip the next paragraph.

(Spoiler Alert!)

I’ve got a series in the works for the next few weeks covering the history of computing in the Soviet Union, culminating in East finally meeting West in the age of Tetris. I’m already very proud of the articles that are coming together on this subject, and hope you’re going to find this little-known story as fascinating as I do. Staying with the international theme, we’ll then turn our attention to Britain for a while; in that context, I’m planning articles on the great British tradition of open-world action-adventures, on the iconic software house Psygnosis, and finally on Psygnosis’s most enduring game, Lemmings. Then we’ll check in with the Amiga 3000 and CDTV. I’m hoping that Bob Bates and I will be able to put together something rather special on Timequest. Then some coverage of the big commercial online services that predated the modern World Wide Web, along with the early experiments with massively multiplayer games which they fostered. We’ll have some coverage of the amateur text-adventure scene; 1991 was a pretty good year there, with some worthy but largely forgotten games released. I may have more to say about the Eastgate school of hypertext, in the form of Sarah Smith’s King of Space, if I can get the thing working and if it proves worthy of writing about. Be that as it may, we’ll definitely make time for Corey Cole’s edutainment classic The Castle of Dr. Brain and other contemporary doings around Sierra. Then we’ll swing back around to Origin, with a look at the two Worlds of Ultima titles — yes, thanks to your recommendations I’ve decided to give them more coverage than I’d originally planned — and Wing Commander II. We’ll wrap up 1991 with Civilization, a game which offers so much scope for writing that it’s a little terrifying. I’m still mulling over how best to approach that one, but I’m already hugely looking forward to it.

(End Spoilers)

From the Accounting Department:

I’ve seen a nice uptick in Patreon participation in recent months, for which I’m very grateful. Thank you to every reader who’s done this writer the supreme honor of paying for the words I scribble on the (virtual) page, whether you’ve been doing so for years or you just signed up yesterday.

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See you Friday! Really, I promise this time…