Computing in Russia

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

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 aboutthose 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 ina 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 machine.

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 coding.

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 Moscow.

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 East.

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 Europe.

In 1999 the small computer chip company Transmeta in the Silicon Valley madethe 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 away!

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.

The author of the review thanks Ingeborg Rocker, who helped writing the article in English.