[spectre] Review of Computing in Russia [from ArtMargins]

Inke Arns inke at snafu.de
Mon Jan 26 21:32:01 CET 2004

[from ArtMargins http://www.artmargins.com/ , Greetings, Inke]

Computing in Russia

Georg Trogemann et al. History of Computer Devices in Russia. 
Braunschweig: Vieweg, 2001

Phillip Von Hilgers (Berlin)

2001 was the great moment of a space odyssey and a computer 
called "HAL." For everyone who likes facts as much as fiction, the 
year also offered the book Computing in Russia.

Its proper subtitle could read: "Who is afraid of minicomputers that 
could easily fill your apartment?" Books that claim to grapple with 
computers while addressing a wide range of readers are not that 
uncommon. Soon most of them may even deserve the attribute 
"very sexy."

Writing about the development of computers implies today 
reflection on video editing, image manipulation, text processing, 
music production and consumption, to mention a few.

There are as many books on computing, as there are innumerable 
ways to mix computer aesthetics with cultural realms, previously 
clearly differentiated.

But Computing in Russia is not about those issues. The book 
mainly focuses on the strange time when computers were 
expected to do just one thing: to calculate in Russia.

Maybe this is quite jejune subject matter and frankly, the great 
diversity of offered facts are not always easy to handle. It requires 
time to find central statements in the book's collection, which is 
quite diverse in style.

Furthermore the publication's layout is unappealing; Occasionally, 
up to 127 characters are cramped into one single line - a format 
seemingly more suitable for "read heads" then for "reading heads."

The publication's layout seems to mimic the old punch-tape it 
shows as an interest. On the other hand, one of the helpful devices 
both books and computers have in common, an index, is 
unfortunately missing.

Nevertheless with this publication, wiseacres and reviewers reach 
their limits since it conveys information mentioned nowhere else.

In this sense the introduction states that ten years earlier, the book 
could not have been written, since during that time most of the 
archives were still inaccessible.

Likewise ten years later, a comparable project would have missed 
those last voices who recounted matters that never entered any 
archive catalogue.

With Computing in Russia a parallel history surfaced for all those 
whose attention had previously been focused solely on the 
computer development in the USA and Western Europe.

Even for Eastern Europeans involved with technology, the book 
offers in many respects - as I was told - an unknown history of 
computing in Russia.

Thanks to the initiative of a Russian German editor team consisting 
of Georg Trogemann, Alexander Y. Nitussov, and Wolfgang Ernst, 
Computing in Russia was published.

Each team member's respective research interests in either 
computer sciences, media archaeology, or engineering clearly 
place a sense of bias within the book's content.

Regardless of Western influences and the use of the English 
language, the book is clearly dominated through contributions by 
Russian computer pioneers.

One of those early computer experts, Zinoviy L. Rabinovich, came 
all the way from Kiev to Berlin to introduce Computing in Russia on 
the occasion of the Transmediale.

Rabinovich criticized that the word "Russia" no longer seemed an 
appropriate component for the title, since in the Ukraine, rather 
than Russia, the first European electronic digital computer booted 
and the development of "Russian computing" started.

Perhaps "Computing in the era of the Soviet Union" could be a 
more appropriate title for the book.

However, it was certainly the editors' right choice to emphasis 
computer systems rather than political systems,since self-
sufficient, computers - preoccupied with nothing other than 
calculation - were still awaiting their political legitimization.

It is erroneous to believe that digital computers emerged out of a 
clearly circumscribed field of applications required by the military or 
the economy.

New technologies and their applications may - if at all - only be 
judged in comparison to those applications of existing technologies.

At the zero hour, a computer's analog machine still solved 
mathematical equations far better than any digital computer could 
have even promised at that time.

Consequently only the way of principle counted: aiming to achieve 
the same result with entirely different methods.

In this early state of computing, speed and reliability mattered little. 
The zero hour of computation was less a moment for political 
powers than for obsessions.

Digital computers did not come into existence in a Moscow 
research lab upon request of the central political committee, but in 
a monastery ruin in Kiev.

After the October revolution, the monastery had been turned into a 
psychiatric clinic, whose inmates were all killed during the German 
occupation in World War II.

Afterwards it served as a military hospital, until it was heavily 
damaged in "the battles for Kiev" in 1944.

Given the poor condition of the building nobody thought to use it 
until 1948. Only a few men and women then moved into the better-
preserved part, in which over the next two years the lights were 
never switched off again.

At exactly this spot - as Boris N. Malinovskiy mentioned in his 
contribution - became the "birthplace of the MESM", Europe's first 
operating electronic digital computer.

Strictly speaking, MESM was not yet a computer but a model of a 
computer. Alan Turing had already clarified in 1936 that the 
boundaries between models and computers could hardly be drawn 
since a universal discrete machine can imitate (model) any other 

In times, when money and materials were precious and the entire 
project was in danger of failure due to its model status, the 
acronym MESM was quickly and easily reinterpreted for official 
funding applications.

The term Model turned into "Malaya" ("Small") and ever since then 
MESM turned into the abbreviation for Small Electronic Calculating 
Machine (Malaya Elekronnaya Schetnaya Mashina).

One of the most outstanding pioneers was the Russian computer 
engineer Sergey Alexeevich Lebedev who developed the 
architecture of the MESM and significantly propelled computer 
development in the Soviet Union.

Stories are told that during the threat of air raids, when all lights 
had been down and Lebedev was forced to interrupt his work on an 
analog anti-aircraft device, he sat down equipped with a candle, 
paper and pencil in a windowless toilet in Moscow exploring binary 

As soon the war was over he began to materialize his concepts; it 
was particularly his office light that was never turned off in the 
monastery in Kiev.

Lebedev died in 1970 just some months after the highest political 
administration had declared the IBM 360 model as the mandatory 
standard for all Russian computers and had consequently dropped 
most Russian developments.

Perhaps it is the irony of history that the minister responsible for 
the decision belonged to the first few people who were involved with 
computer technologies during their academic career. After the 
decision, the minister took his leave.

The book unfolds the history of computer developments in Russia 
through retrospective reports from computer experts and brief 
biographies of key players.

This approach has advantages and disadvantages as overlaps and 
redundancies occur. Questions linking the different ramified areas 
of application are rare and if present, they most likely appear in the 
introduction or in the last part of the book when visions of highly 
connected systems become their own history.

The last part of the book is concerned with the Russian cybernetic 
movement in correlation with the general significance of computer 
technology. In the post-Stalin area obviously Marxism, natural 
sciences and humanities clashed in questioning the possible 
sense and use of a cybernetic "Überbau."

It is quite interesting that the thesis of cybernetics merely settled 
as it spread exclusively in the closed circle of those who were 
involved in developing technologies of military significance and 
gained access to foreign literature.

This was all in all a double-edged situation since many scientists 
used the governmental shield as a think tank for shaping a "world 
design," which was thought to cover over the prevailing Marxian one.

Anyhow it is striking that exceptional mathematicians and 
computer design engineers like Viktor M. Glushkov und Bashir I. 
Rameyev, were initially suffering reprisals through the Soviet state, 
since they - or at least their parents - were classified as public 
enemies until they were allowed to obtain leading positions 
supervising highly sensitive military projects.

Anyone not entirely familiar with the conditions in the USSR during 
that time may wonder if such practices were also common in other 
fields or whether they were exceptional for computer sciences.

Had the party apparatus to tolerate and support unliked scientists 
just because the Cold War and ambitious space flight programs 
required computers, and were controlled and developed by only a 
few scientists?

The Russian Jewish Mathematician Boris Gnadenko implied this 
issue, suggesting that his reason to study mathematics was not 
the love for the subject, but the mental leeway mathematics offered 
as it remained incomprehensible and hence uncontrollable for most 
of the party officials.

Perhaps, in this context, it is important to know that Gnadenko had 
personally suffered Stalin's terror, until he replaced Lebedev, the 
leader of the computer development in Kiev, and got a call to 

It certainly would have been interesting to hear more about the 
relationships between applied and theoretical computer science in 
the Soviet Union - since it was there that, to the greatest extent, 
the thinkable and the feasible were approximated together closer 
than anywhere else.

Even western scholars were already aware of the long tradition of 
theoretical computer science in Russia.

Just to recall, it was Markov junior, who re-coined the word 
"algorithm" and wrote the first theory about it; and it was 
Kolmogorov, who founded with complexity theory the champion 
league for mathematics and computer science.

Unfortunately hardly any word is mentioned in this book about the 
rare encounters between Western and Russian scientists.

It is for example known that Nobert Wiener and Claude Shannon 
(USA), Karl Steinbuch (Germany) or Jacques Riguet (France) visit 
their colleagues in Moscow.

Equally unmentioned is the legendary conference on algorithms in 
1979, for which a few but illustrious figures, like Donald Knuth and 
Steven C. Kleene, pilgrimaged to Khorezm in Usbekistan, just to 
compare notes with their Russian colleagues about "algorithms in 
the homeland of Al-Khorezmi."

Khorezm is at once the birthplace and part of the name of the 11th-
century Arabian mathematician Al-Khorezmi, from whom the word 
"algorithm" was originally derived.

Certainly, the book's introductory statements convincingly suggest 
that technologies do not develop strictly linearly and that the aim of 
their progressiveness can often only be claimed retrospectively.

Nevertheless all the things moving the world technologically have 
always at least been invented twice.

While the West had Babbage and Hollerith and their punch card 
devices, Russia had Semen N. Korsakov and his machine proving 
philosophical ideas.

While the USA had Claude Shannon and his algebra for logical 
circuits, the USSR had Shestakov and his research.

While Washington had von Neumann and his computer 
architecture, Moscow had Lebedev and his computer designs.

While AT&T had Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain and 
their development of the transistor, Russia almost failed to 
recognize Vadim Lashkarev.

While the West had Norbert Wiener and his cybernetics, Russia 
had Nikolay A. Bernstein and his bio-cybernetics; while the USA 
had Koopmann's linear programming, the USSR had Leonid V. 
Kantorovich's theory of optimum allocation of resources.

The list could be continued. The book's contributors eventually 
emphasize that Russian scientists were, in most of the mentioned 
cases, a step ahead.

Nevertheless history does not honor the first operating systems, 
but rather those, which never stop operating.

Throughout the book the thesis is propelled that, with the decision 
to develop IBM-360 compatible computer designs, the general 
purpose standard in the USA, the decline of the superpower USSR 
was already programmed in 1970.

We learn all about the apparent problems regarding the adaptation 
to the US standard; even though western computer hardware was 
quite easily obtainable, it nevertheless, disclosed almost nothing 
about how it was manufactured, regardless how far its logical 
structure was dismantled.

Indeed, regarding the hardware for the special-purpose-computers 
used by the military, the Soviets were certain about their systems' 
equality or superiority to those of the Americans.

But also field diverse computer designs led to diverse incompatible 
software libraries. The decision for IBM compatibility intended to 
tap the enormous amount of existing, predominating US software, 
since it easily passes borders.

The further development of Russian computer hardware - as some 
of the contributions have suggested - stagnated increasingly.

By the end of the 1960s the Russians lagged behind the western 
electric circuit technology for six to seven years with the great 
transition from transistors to integrated circuits still ahead.

At this point the parallel world ends.

Russia was forced to break new ground: Instead of betting on the 
proficiency of highly elaborate circuits, one began to bet on the 
proficiency of programmers.

A great number of programmers, simply unaffordable under the 
economic condition in the USA, began to reconstruct structures in 
micro code (roughly speaking in software), since they were no 
longer reliably implementable in hardware.

It almost seems paradoxical, that a centrally planned economy 
was incapable of producing standardized hardware, and yet ran 
highly sophisticated software solutions - initially written for various 
computers - on one single machine.

A nation, whose maxim was the belief in a dialectic materialism, 
paradoxically began to transcend technologically.

Just as computers allowed this fancy trick, to achieve, as the 
computer designer Yaroslav A. Khategurov notes, the 
"independence of the precision of their calculations comes from the 
precision with which they were manufactured." Nevertheless, this 
technique had its price: computational time.

Given this development, it seems regrettable that Computing in 
Russia discusses the history of computing beginning with the 
abacus at great length while it ignores the most recent history. The 
following brief depiction could perhaps make up for its exclusion.

Lebedev's lifework, the institute including its computer models both 
named after Europe's greatest summit, the mountain Elbrus, was 
turned into a private company in the beginning of the 1990s.

Its lead was taken over by Boris Babaian, who, since his 
supercomputer Elbrus 3, was considered the Seymour Cray of the 

Some of Intel's greatest competitors and allies hastened to Elbrus 
in Moscow. They had heard about Elbrus' technologies, which 
merely redeemed with logic and compilers the slowness of 
performance and incompatibilities, both consequences of a less 
advanced and inconsistent semiconductor production in Eastern 

In 1999 the small computer chip company Transmeta in the Silicon 
Valley made the computer-aided World prick up their ears: Dave 
Ditzel, who had been for sometime in Babaian's school, wanted to 
join the spirit of Moscow with the manufacturing skills of the USA 
on one single chip.

The very long instruction word became a magic word; it is a highly 
nested optimized command with relatively simple circuits designs.

An Intel compatible chip with unknown potentials and Linus 
Thorvaldsen being a member of the company with the know-how of 
an open-source operation system; the mono-culture in terms of 
microcomputers from the 1980s onwards could have been blown 

As a matter of fact, the Trasmeta chip was sufficiently saving 
energy, but its performance remained, until today, sub-optimal.

Consequently Babaian still owes us his Elbrus processor, which 
could have destabilized the alliance of the two remaining super 
powers - Intel and Microsoft.

After all, it was Babaian, who arranged for the picture of Mount 
Elbrus - which Lebedev crested in his youth - to be hoisted on top 
of Mount McKinley: the Mountain in Alaska in whose sign Intel 
manufactured its Pentium chip expanding their world wide market 
leadership to a quasi monopoly.

Computing in Russia is a highly informative book about the 
architecture of Russia computer systems and therefore about the 
architecture of a country. The history as told in this book still 
concerns Europe.

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