If you are old enough, like me, to remember the Cold War before the days of glasnost and perestroika, you will also recall that one of the strategic weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that it was forced to steal and copy advanced western technologies, seemingly unable to invent them itself.
In many cases that was plainly true – spies stole the secrets of the Manhattan Project to give Stalin his atomic bomb (though Soviet scientists devised H-bomb mechanisms independently).
But in the case of computing, the decision to copy the west was a deliberate and conscious one, taken despite real skill and specialism existing inside the Soviet Union. A while back I wrote about how Soviet computer scientists appeared to be some years ahead of the west in the study of certain algorithms that are important for operating system management. In hardware it was not that the Soviets had a lead – but the first electronic computer on continental Europe was build in the Soviet Union and was based on independent research – but they certainly had real know-how. What killed that was a decision by the Soviet leadership to copy out-of-date IBM machines instead of continuing with their own research and development.
All this is recounted, in novelised form, in the brilliant Red Plenty. The book highlights the role of Sergey Alekseevich Lebedev, the Ukrainian known as “the Soviet Turing“. Like Turing, Lebedev was taken from his work (as an electrical/electronic engineer rather than a mathematician) by the war and played an important role in Soviet tank design. Afterwards he returned to his studies with a vengeance and by the mid-fifties he was building some of the world’s fastest and, arguably, the best engineered, computer systems – the so-called MESM (a Russian acronym for “Small Electronic Calculating Machine”.)
Yet today he does not even appear to rate an entry in Wikipedia.
The Soviet computer industry was not just killed by poor decisions at the top, but by the nature of the Soviet system. Without a market there was no drive to standardise or commoditise computer systems and so individual Soviet computers were impressive but the “industry” as a whole was a mess. Hopes that computers could revolutionise Soviet society also fell flat as the centralised planning system ran out of steam. Switching to copying IBM seemed like a way of getting a standardised system off the shelf, but it was a blow from which Soviet computing never recovered.
- “Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect – in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 – and…” (caterpillarcowboy.com)
- The Universe, the Cold War, and Dialectical Materialism (physicsforme.wordpress.com)