From the perspective of someone too young to remember the days of the U.S.S.R., the cold war was a pretty strange time. It was a period marked by rampant paranoia, fear of nuclear annihilation, and a rivalry of ideals. The competitiveness between the democratic ideals in the west and the communist ideals in the east provoked a period of substantial technological development, with each side attempting to outdo eachother to prove the superiority of their ideology. Great strides were taken on both sides with the development of nuclear technology, aerospace, automation, and computers.
It was this rivalry that saw the U.S.S.R. launch the first satellite into space, followed by the first human in orbit. They had their sights aimed at the moon, but in 1969, the Americans beat them to it. There are many reasons for the turnabout, but one particularly compelling explanation points to the area where the Soviets truly struggled to keep pace: computing.
THE DAWN OF THE COMPUTER AGE
It wasn’t easy, but in 1951, The MESM was powered up for the first time. Lagging behind Britain’s first system by two years, the MESM was an amazing achievement, regardless. Designed by Sergei Lebedev, it was constructed without the aid of western contemporaries. Lebedev also didn’t have a great deal of resources due to the damage to the country’s infrastructure caused by the war, so the system was cobbled together using whatever could be found. The MESM was a singular achievement, though, meant to prove the viability of the technology. It was therefore followed by the BESM, which continued on the legacy in a more easily produced format.
Elsewhere, Isaak Bruk was developing a rival to Lebedev’s achievement, the M-1; the second computer in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the M-1 didn’t have the same impact as the MESM, not just due to its timing, but also because Bruk wasn’t capable of the same political maneuvering as Lebedev.
This was followed by the Union’s third system, the Strela (Arrow). This system was developed by Yuri Bazilevskii in 1954. The Strela proved to be a much more capable rival to the BESM, both finding themselves funded by competing factions. Initially, the Strela appeared to be the superior system, performing admirably in its early trials, being built for simple mass production, and looking aesthetically pleasing. However, it was also intensely unreliable, failing frequently and frustrating the scientists and engineers that worked on them. Only seven were produced, eventually giving way to the BESM’s domination.
It was a fairly bright start to the Soviet’s computing industry. There was even talk of having the country’s infrastructure connected through a network of these machines, an early imagining of the internet. However, the Soviet bureaucracy kept these dreams from becoming a reality. By the time the 1960’s rolled around, Soviet computers and transistor were lagging well behind their western counterparts. Production was another issue; by the mid-60’s, there were only an estimated 1000 computers operating in the U.S.S.R. compared to the U.S.A.’s 30,000.
IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM
In 1968, Sergei Lebedev powered up the BESM-6, a super computer built to rival those created in the West. Given how far behind the Soviets were in the computer technology race, the BESM-6 is remarkable in the way that it was actually able to come close to the power found in Western super computers. However, when it came time to actually roll these systems off the assembly line, this great achievement also helped illustrate the weakness of the Soviet economy. The machines were produced in a trickle, which greatly limited the impact of the BESM-6.
In order to address the problems with production, the USSR decided to distribute the manufacture of certain parts to other members of the Warsaw Pact. They also decided not continue with developing their own hardware, which still lagged behind that of the West, and simply opted to clone existing hardware; specifically the IBM System/360. The cloned system became the Ryad, and it was followed years later by a clone of the System/370, predictably called the Ryad-2.
The 1970’s were largely dominated by these knockoff systems. Both software and hardware was essentially lifted wholesale from IBM, bringing the Soviet computer industry back up to par with their rivals. These systems were a much better fit for the Soviet’s means of production and economy, and more of them were able to get into the hands of the engineers who needed them.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
In 1979, two years after the Trinity marked the rise of the microcomputer, the American Government enacted a number of restrictions on what could be exported to the members of the Warsaw Pact. Of these were limitations when it came to computer hardware. Despite these restrictions, the microcomputers of the 80’s were still finding their ways into Soviet hands, and it was only a matter of time before they were reverse engineered and released to the public.
Among these was the Agat, a clone of the Apple II, but reportedly bigger, heavier, and less comfortable to use. Released around 1983, it was priced at $17,000, possibly as an intentional attempt to keep it out of the hands of private citizens. In the East, this meant that the microcomputer would have a slow start.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took the reigns and put in place the policy of Glastnost, which freed public access to information. More affordable computers began landing in the hands of private citizens. The Elektronika BK-0010 was one such system; a 16-bit system that was both impressive and deficient in equal measures. Perhaps what was most surprising about it was that its main microprocessor wasn’t directly stolen from any existing processor. Clones of systems like the ZX Spectrum would start showing up throughout the late 80’s, but at least at the start, there was some innovation.
THE FALL OF THE WALL
The rest is history. In 1989, the Berlin War was torn down, marking the end of the cold war. In 1991 Soviet Union was formally dissolved. The Russian market was finally open to capitalist corporations and western computers came flooding in. The world was no longer split into two, and the development of computer systems didn’t have to progress separately, nor did it have to rely on espionage to level the playing field. This outcome was positive on more than one level, as it allowed Russia to establish itself as a first-rate source of software. I mean, for better or worse. On one hand, we have Tetris and Kaspersky, and on the other hand, we have the pre-eminent source of spam emails and the alleged meddling of the 2016 American Presidential Election.