How the USSR missed the IT revolution.
Episode 1: Cybernetics

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Despite its rep­u­ta­tion as a sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal super­pow­er, the Soviet Union missed every phase of the 20th century’s infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy rev­o­lu­tion. Although the col­lapse of the USSR is often explained in pure­ly polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic terms, in many ways, it was its tech­no­log­i­cal back­ward­ness that bridged the polit­i­cal root caus­es and its eco­nom­ic decay. Here, we attempt to illus­trate this using the exam­ple of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, which has a tech­no­log­i­cal lag dat­ing back to the 1950s, i.e., the very begin­ning of the industry.

The revolution

Universal elec­tron­ic com­put­ers are being cre­at­ed in the world since the late 1930s. German engi­neer Konrad Zuse then took the lead with machines Z1 (1938) and Z3 (1941). Based on electro­mechan­i­cal relays, they were orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped to meet the cal­cu­la­tion needs of mil­i­tary air­craft design­ers. Toward the end of WWII, Zuse built the Z4, which he mirac­u­lous­ly man­aged to save dur­ing the defeat of Germany and leased to the ETH Zurich in 1950.

In the USA, com­put­ers first appeared in the 1940s, and they are also used only for spe­cif­ic tasks in radi­olo­ca­tion, astron­o­my and nuclear weapons research. They were per­ceived as exot­ic equip­ment for spe­cial appli­ca­tions. In 1943, Thomas Watson, CEO of IBM, a com­pa­ny that man­u­fac­tured tab­u­la­tors (punched-chart data pro­cess­ing devices), said: “I think there is a world mar­ket for maybe five computers.”

However, by the ear­ly 1950s, things had changed. In 1948, Norbert Wiener pub­lished the book Cybernetics, which intro­duced the new sci­ence of con­trol in liv­ing and tech­ni­cal sys­tems. The under­stand­ing began to emerge that com­put­ers could per­form much more than just labor-inten­sive cal­cu­la­tions, and could be adapt­ed to all fields of human life. Intelligent machines loomed in the dis­tant, semi-fan­tas­ti­cal future.

In 1949, the British com­pa­ny Ferranti launched the world’s first com­mer­cial series-pro­duc­tion com­put­er, Mark 1. Interestingly, the project brought togeth­er Conway Berners-Lee, one of the com­put­er devel­op­ers, and Mary Woods, a pro­gram­mer whose son Tim Berners-Lee lat­er cre­at­ed the World Wide Web. UNIVAC I, the first uni­ver­sal com­mer­cial com­put­er in the United States, was launched in 1951. During the 1952 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, it was used to pre­dict the out­come. In 8 years, 46 machines of this type were built. Computer began to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the world.

The Soviet Union had no time for com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy dur­ing wartime. In 1948, how­ev­er, work on the devel­op­ment of Soviet com­put­ers was begun at the glob­al lev­el and at sev­er­al cen­ters at con­cur­rent­ly. Among these cen­ters was the Special Design Bureau No. 245 (SKB-245), estab­lished in Moscow by the USSR Council of Ministers. Also, worth men­tion­ing is the group of Acad. Sergei Lebedev in Kiev, which cre­at­ed the first pure­ly elec­tron­ic com­put­er in con­ti­nen­tal Europe (MESM, 1950). Within a few years, the USSR already had a num­ber of its own first gen­er­a­tion (i.e. tube based) com­put­ers. Some of them were seri­al­ly pro­duced and used for sci­en­tif­ic, indus­tri­al and mil­i­tary purposes.

A small delay at the start appears to have been neu­tral­ized, and the coun­try has all chances of gain­ing ground among the lead­ers of the com­put­er race. In spite of the rec­og­nized use­ful­ness of com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy, cyber­net­ics ideas were not accept­ed in the USSR. They are seen as a claim by “tech­ni­cians” to direct­ly par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion, and thus as an ide­o­log­i­cal threat to the Communist Party’s monop­oly. Additionally, some of Wiener’s ideas seemed anti-Marxist. For exam­ple, his claim that infor­ma­tion to be nei­ther mat­ter nor ener­gy, but rather an inde­pen­dent enti­ty, appeared to be con­trary to the Soviet manda­to­ry mate­ri­al­is­tic ideology.


We need to make a small digres­sion here. Everyone knows that genet­ics and cyber­net­ics were declared “bour­geois pseu­do­sciences” in the late Stalinist Soviet Union. However, this hap­pened to them in very dif­fer­ent ways. The “pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic” sta­tus of genet­ics was the result of an intra-aca­d­e­m­ic strug­gle for influ­ence. Lysenko’s sup­port­ers made unre­al­is­tic promis­es to Soviet offi­cials and elim­i­nat­ed sci­en­tif­ic rivals, whilst hid­ing behind ide­o­log­i­cal rhetoric.

There was no such sci­en­tif­ic split in cyber­net­ics. In a sense, cyber­net­ics was was per­su­cut­ed from out­side due to mis­un­der­stand­ing. As the Cold War inten­si­fied, work­ers on the ide­o­log­i­cal front were com­pelled to increase their crit­i­cism of bour­geois soci­ety. And just around this time, the Wiener idea of cyber­net­ics began gain­ing a lot of atten­tion. A mil­i­tary ori­en­ta­tion of most then-cur­rent com­put­er devel­op­ments, cou­pled with the philo­soph­i­cal moti­va­tions of cyber­net­ics, made the lat­ter an easy target.

In 1950, the Soviet jour­nal­ist, writer, and pro­pa­gan­dist Boris Agapov pub­lished a lengthy scold­ing arti­cle in Literaturnaya Gazeta, where he was work­ing as sci­ence edi­tor, about cap­i­tal­ists who would make robots to get rid of work­ers and mechan­i­cal sol­diers to oppress those work­ers even more. Agapov does not men­tion the word “cyber­net­ics” and admits that he knows “no details” about Norbert Wiener, but accus­es him of nar­row-mind­ed­ness and even aggres­sion. This con­clu­sion was appar­ent­ly derived from some quotes Wiener gave in a Time mag­a­zine arti­cle, which fea­tured the newest American com­put­er Harvard Mark III in an admi­ral’s uni­form on the cov­er, since it was intend­ed for the Navy.

By the way, some the­ses out­lined in that Time arti­cle seem even more rel­e­vant and per­sua­sive today than they did back then. Here are some quotes:

  • «“The sec­ond indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion,” … will deval­ue the human brain as the first indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion deval­ued the human arm,» accord­ing to Norbert Wiener.
  • «What Is Thinking? Do com­put­ers think? Some experts say yes, some say no. Both sides are vehe­ment; but all agree that the answer to the ques­tion depends on what you mean by thinking.»
  • «When a machine is act­ing bad­ly, we con­sid­er it a respon­si­ble per­son and blame it for its stu­pid­i­ty. When it’s doing fine, we say it is a tool that we clever humans built,» in ref­er­ence to the lab of Prof. Howard Aiken, design­er of Mark III.

In 1952, psy­chol­o­gist Mikhail Yaroshevsky devel­oped the sub­ject fur­ther in Literaturnaya Gazeta. His arti­cle appeared under the title “Cybernetics — the ‘sci­ence’ of obscu­ran­tists” was his arti­cle and was writ­ten in the denun­ci­a­to­ry style that was typ­i­cal of Stalin-era pub­li­ca­tions.  The arti­cle was placed on the last page of the paper, and the names of the edi­to­r­i­al board mem­bers can be seen below it. Among them were edi­tor-in-chief Konstantin Simonov, author of the famous “Kill Him!” poem which served as a con­cen­trate of wartime hatred, the already men­tioned Boris Agapov, and, for exam­ple, the writer, aca­d­e­mi­cian, and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Ukraine Alexander Korneichuk, a five-time win­ner of the Stalin Prize and lat­er six-time recip­i­ent of the Order of Lenin (the high­est Soviet state award).

Live with wolves, howl like wolves

Unlike Boris Agapov, Mikhail Yaroshevsky was a seri­ous schol­ar and taught a course on the his­to­ry of psy­chol­o­gy at Moscow State University. Yet he had suf­fered polit­i­cal repres­sion while a stu­dent. Then in 1938, he was arrest­ed on trumped-up charges of mem­ber­ship in a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion and was forced under tor­ture to sign a false con­fes­sion: that he has planned to blow up the Palace Bridge in Leningrad dur­ing the May Day demon­stra­tion and kill Andrey Zhdanov, head of the Leningrad Regional Committee of the Communist Party. The sen­tence was 10 years in a camp. But short­ly there­after, People’s Commissar Nikolai Yezhov, the orga­niz­er of Stalin’s mass repres­sions, was fired, and all those con­vict­ed on the case were amnestied. Yet the crim­i­nal case was not closed, and it hung over Yaroshevsky until 1991.

One could assume Yaroshevsky prob­a­bly paid for his free­dom by writ­ing a pro­pa­gan­da arti­cle against cyber­net­ics. However, his dis­ci­ple, Arthur Petrovsky, quotes the words in his book Psychology and Time, which demon­strate that it was writ­ten quite sin­cere­ly. Moreover, Yaroshevsky was not inclined to enter into such deals with the author­i­ties at all. During the cam­paign against “cos­mopoli­tanism,” he was required to snitch on his teacher Sergei Rubinstein, to avoid this, he aban­doned Moscow State University and the Institute of Philosophy and in two days left for Tajikistan, where he worked for 15 years in provin­cial ped­a­gog­i­cal institutes.

The most like­ly expla­na­tion is Yaroshevsky believed what he was writ­ing, and indeed thought that American sci­en­tists were invent­ing non­sense that was obvi­ous to any school­boy or news­pa­per read­er. It is pos­si­ble the pro­fes­sion­al bias affect­ed this, as he would nev­er com­pare a piece of met­al to a human being. In addi­tion, his views were influ­enced by Soviet ide­ol­o­gy, which cel­e­brat­ed the will of man and peo­ple — after all, one can­not assume that it would be replaced by con­trol­ling cyber­net­ic brain.

A scold­ing tone of the arti­cle reflects the mores of the era. In pub­lic speech­es, ide­o­log­i­cal doubts and objec­tions were eas­i­ly, and even with neces­si­ty, ele­vat­ed to angry attacks and polit­i­cal accu­sa­tions. Even a man who him­self faced a bogus crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion used all the same aggres­sive rhetoric as his persecutors.

Following the writ­ings by Agapov and Yaroshevsky, cyber­net­ics was trashed in pub­li­ca­tions rang­ing from pop­u­lar sci­ence mag­a­zines to the Philosophical Dictionary. Strange as it may seem, they did not affect spe­cif­ic tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments, but they did slow down attempts to envi­sion the future of com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy in depth.


Specialists instant­ly real­ized the attacks on cyber­net­ics were unfound­ed, but it took con­sid­er­able effort of sci­en­tists to remove its stig­ma of pseu­do­science. In 1952, the mil­i­tary engi­neer Anatoly Kitov defend­ed the first the­sis on pro­gram­ming in the Soviet Union, deal­ing with bal­lis­tic mis­siles con­trol. The same year, giv­en per­mis­sion to read Wiener’s “Cybernetics” in the SKB-245 closed repos­i­to­ry, Kitov was con­vinced it was not pseu­do­science and wrote a detailed arti­cle “The main fea­tures of cyber­net­ics”, in which he retold Wiener’s ideas and crit­i­cized the pseu­do­science accu­sa­tions. The arti­cle was pub­lished, how­ev­er, only three years lat­er, when such a heavy­weight like Acad. Sergei Sobolev (deputy to Acad. Igor Kurchatov, head of the Soviet atom­ic project), who super­vised the cal­cu­la­tions of radioac­tive iso­tope enrich­ment, joined as a co-author.

Cybernetics was reha­bil­i­tat­ing in 1955, when the arti­cle was pub­lished in the jour­nal Voprosy Filosofii” con­tent=“Problems of Philosophy, one of the main ide­o­log­i­cal peri­od­i­cals of the Communist Party. A fur­ther three years lat­er, Wiener’s book “Cybernetics” was final­ly trans­lat­ed and pub­lished in Russian — 10 years after the original.

Together with the coun­try, Mikhail Yaroshevsky recon­sid­ered his views on the new sci­ence. But his next arti­cle in the same Literaturnaya Gazeta, almost led to anoth­er crim­i­nal case — for divulging state secrets. A mil­i­tary pros­e­cu­tor clung to the phrase describ­ing Soviet com­put­ing machines as supe­ri­or to American ones. After being dragged from Tajikistan to Moscow, the author explained that he wrote so out of Soviet patri­o­tism, unaware of any spe­cif­ic devel­op­ments, and he was strict­ly advised to find oth­er ways to express it. As a side note, the tra­di­tion­al closed nature of Soviet tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments also hin­dered the coun­try’s lead­er­ship posi­tion, since it pre­vent­ed com­pe­ti­tion and ideas exchange.

Due to these polit­i­cal­ly pro­voked ide­o­log­i­cal mis­un­der­stand­ings, the devel­op­ment of Soviet com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy in the ini­tial peri­od was main­ly car­ried out by engi­neers and applied sci­en­tists dur­ing the ini­tial peri­od. Though they were good at solv­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lems, they lacked a com­pre­hen­sive view of the new industry’s devel­op­ment. Even if there were peo­ple in the coun­try capa­ble of embrac­ing this per­spec­tive, they were not exposed to full of full-fledged sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and their ideas were not crit­i­cal­ly eval­u­at­ed. So began the Soviet lag in infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy development.

As a result, cyber­net­ic eupho­ria did not emerge in the Soviet Union until the 1960s, after it had already most­ly sub­sided in the West. Due to the delay of the first com­put­er rev­o­lu­tion, the next, much more impor­tant and prac­ti­cal stage of the com­put­ing tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment was not real­ized in time. It is the evo­lu­tion of soft­ware devel­op­ment into a stand­alone indus­try. But that is anoth­er sto­ry, which we will dis­cuss next time.




P.S. Here are some por­traits. Above: Konrad Zuse and Sergey Lebedev — pio­neers of the com­put­er era, who worked in total­i­tar­i­an states and used to sweep away any obsta­cles on their quest to per­fec­tion. Below: Mikhail Yaroshevsky and Anatoly Kitov — two indi­vid­u­als with strong con­vic­tions and a siz­zling glance. Through the efforts of one, cyber­net­ics in the USSR was dis­cred­it­ed, and through the efforts of the oth­er, it was reha­bil­i­tat­ed. In the mid­dle: Norbert Wiener, who pre­dict­ed the future of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy until the next cen­tu­ry, despite the lack of pierc­ing eyes, but his ideas were described in 1952 by Literaturnaya Gazeta as follows:

In its con­vul­sive attempts to real­ize its aggres­sive plans, American impe­ri­al­ism throws every­thing at risk — bombs, plague fleas, and philo­soph­i­cal igno­ra­mus­es. By the efforts of the lat­ter, cyber­net­ics was con­coct­ed, a fake the­o­ry that is utter­ly hos­tile to human­i­ty and science.