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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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. ↩