LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 26, No. 4 - Winter 1980
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys
Copyright © 1980 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
COMPUTING IN THE U.S.S.R.
This paper gives a brief non-technical history of computer development in the U.S.S.R. The East-West trade in computers is also examined in conjunction with human rights issues. As direct sources from the U.S.S.R. of computer information were not available, Western journals (possibly incomplete or inaccurate) were used as references.
Development in the U.S.S.R.
There was strong Communist Party opposition to computers (or cybernetics) in the 1950's. The computer was seen as a capitalist tool which displaced workers from their jobs. By the early 1960's the official attitude had changed and the field of cybernetics became an accepted academic discipline. The computing requirements of the military and space programs probably were the reasons for this change in attitude. The loss of ten years development (form the 1950's to the 1960's) left the U.S.S.R. way behind in the construction, programming and use of computers. Some reports (e.g., Rand Corporation) suggest that the current technology gap between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is still about 10 years. On the other hand, Norris reports that the gap is far less than generally believed. Some figures which may be used for comparative purposes are that the U.S. has one general purpose computer for 3000 people, whilst the U.S.S.R. average is one per 13,000.
Initial research and production in the U.S.S.R. were not coupled together, leading to a proliferation of machines, one system not compatible with another in addition to requiring separate software. Parts of one system were not interchangeable with another and spares became a problem. In the meantime the satellite countries (e.g., G.D.R.) had developed substantial computer systems of their own. Fearing that it would lose the initiative in the computer field, the U.S.S.R. forcibly formed a Communist multinational company to manufacture an integrated line of computers for the Soviet bloc. The member countries were the U.S.S.R., Bulgaria, Hungary, G.D.R., Poland and Czechoslovakia. Thus the E.S. or R.J.A.D. series (meaning integrated) was conceived. Both internally and externally the E.S. series resembles the I.B.M./360 series and the software is similar to DOS/360, an I.B.M. operating system. Rand reported considerable difficulties with E.S. due to lack of planning, late delivery and internal bickering.
The main centres for cybernetics research appear to be Moscow, Kiev and Novosibirsk. The Baltic states are minor centres for cybernetics research but are major centres of research in other fields. Overall, Soviet academic papers tend towards programming systems, mathematics and theory of computation (in other words, the theoretical). Western academic papers tend towards computer equipment and operating systems (i.e., the practical). Moreover, Western journals are highly prized. What little U.S.S.R. work is published, by the time it is, it is out of date.
The emphasis on theoretical computing is probably due to a lack of computing facilities, particularly in locations remote from major computer research centres. One area where the U.S.S.R. has achieved considerable success is with the chess-playing program called "KAISSA". For many years "KAISSA" was undefeated but in 1977 the U.S. won back the crown with their program called "DUCHESS". It may be interesting to note that the level of play achieved by these programs is master level. The possibility that a computer program could win the world title is slight; the grandmasters still outplay the best programs.
The current trend in the U.S.S.R. is towards centralised systems. Ershov, Professor of Computer Science at Novosibirsk, has claimed that "in the 1980's, a global network of computers, terminals and switching centres will be established. This network will allow an interrogation of data bases and their transmission at electronic speed". Will it be ready for 1984? Possibly. One example of such a system is for Gosplan, the general planning office located in Moscow. In his paper, Austin describes ASPER, the computer-aided planning and decision making system for Gosplan. Each of the 16 republics submit a draft of resources and enterprises to Gosplan. After computer simulation and verification by the Communist Party, the plans are transmitted to the State Planning Office in each republic. With the possibility of doing one-year plans, then one-month plans, then daily plans, power could become more centralised. However, it will be necessary for the truth to be acknowledged and used in the system, otherwise the GIGO principle will apply (Garbage In, Garbage Out).
Development in China
Up to 1960, China's computer development relied solely on Soviet aid. After the Sino-Soviet split, China was forced to rely on its internal resources. Initially, copies of Soviet computers were made, then locally designed systems were designed and manufactured. Whilst there are weak areas in their systems (e.g., disc storage), the performances appear to be adequate. China has shown little interest in importing computers, except for specific projects; e.g., oilfield management. For future large-scale computer imports, it appears that Japan will be the main supplier. Japan is already China's major trading partner.
Development in the Baltic States
There seems to be little 'Russification' of the Baltic states via the transfer of computer technology. As Western technology is more advanced, there is the tendency to adopt the English vocabulary by using either literal translations or newly created words. It appears that the Russians themselves have been 'anglicised' by computer technology.
The main programming languages (e.g., Algol and its derivative Alpha) are based on English. The main operating systems are also based on English implementations (e.g., DOS/360). Further complications occur as some of the E.S. series of computers are manufactured in satellite countries (e.g., G.D.R.). It is not difficult to see the problems that could occur when an engineer in Tallinn, reading Russian documentation, has to fix a fault in a German computer. In computing, as in poetry, a lot can be lost in the translation.
Manufacture of computers in the Baltic states is small, being limited to the production of the R.A.S.A. keyboard calculator and the Ruta M-5000 mini-computer at the Vilnius Calculating Machines Plant. A lack of computer facilities in the Baltic states has placed great emphasis on the theoretical aspects of computing.
In Estonia, legal cybernetics are studied at Tartu University, control theory at the Institute of Cybernetics, and mathematical simulation at Tallinn University.
In Latvia, computer servicing and engineering are studied at the Riga Polytechnic and control theory at the Latvian Academy of Sciences. An ambitious system called Ekoma was set up in 1972 to provide a data base on family size, marriages, education, language, occupation and residence. The Ekoma system was the first attempt by a republic to have a separate state economic and planning system. This system appears to have been disbanded, possibly due to the development of the centralised system of Gosplan described earlier. Another achievement in Latvia made Riga the first city to be connected to the Aeroflot reservation system based in Moscow.
In Lithuania, control theory is studied at the Institute of Mathematics and Physics whilst statistical methods and game theory are studied at Vilnius University.
A limited study of the Soviet Cybernetics Review (published in the U.S.A.) shows an apparent lack of computer development in the Baltic states. Approximately one author in a hundred has a Baltic name and no computer prizes have been given to Baltic people. It is interesting to note that the satellite countries have developed considerable expertise in computer systems; e.g., teletypewriters from the G.D.R., Visual Display Units from Hungary, as well as manufacture of E.S. computers.
Both East and West have differing views. The U.S.S.R. would like to buy computer systems from the West due to internal shortages. On the other hand, the U.S.S.R. lacks hard currency and the size of the outstanding loan debt to Western countries (e.g., for wheat sales from Australia) makes it difficult to obtain further credit.
The Western view is balanced between military and commercial risk. Large computer systems sold to the U.S.S.R. for peaceful purposes (e.g., weather prediction) could be diverted to weapons development. Sales of such large systems have been blocked as adequate safeguards are impossible to enforce. Balancing this view is that refusal by the West to sell computer systems to the U.S.S.R. will encourage the U.S.S.R. to establish a more complete computer industry. This would lead to valuable jobs being lost in the U.S. where employment is expected to be the major problem over the next decade.
The black market trade still functions despite blocks by Western governments. Reports of complete computer systems being smuggled in suitcases across the border are documented fact. Smuggling and computer espionage are valuable sources of intelligence and are practiced by both East and West.
Solzhenitsyn, commenting in the U.S.A. on a Moscow Trade Show which displayed the latest in American criminological equipment, said, "This was the most recent and elaborate technology, which here, in your country, is used to catch criminals, to bug them, to identify them. This was taken to Moscow in order that the Soviet KGB agents could study it, as if not understanding what sort of criminals would be hunted by the KGB. The Soviet government was extremely interested in this technology and decided to purchase it, and your businessmen were quite willing to sell it". Shortly after these comments, the sale of crime control devices to the Soviets was blocked by the U.S. Department of Commerce to protect "the welfare of persons who seek to exercise their fundamental rights". The above quotation was taken from Smith's article on "The Kremlin Wants Our Computer".
The question of human rights is also raised by professional computer societies; e.g., the Association for Computing Machinery (A.C.M.), the largest computer society in the U.S. A paper by Dr. Grosch described the fate of Anatoly Scharansky, a 29 year old computer scientist who was arrested for being a dissident. As president of the A.C.M., Dr. Grosch wrote in protest to the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences which has academic ties with the A.C.M.
In a later paper, Dr. Grosch described his view: "The Association (A.C.M.) has a standing policy of not commenting on broad political issues (Vietnam for instance). But we are sensitive to the problems of scientific freedom and of human rights for our colleagues, and to the specific issues of publications, conferences and exchanges . . . A.C.M. is not anti-communist, it is pro-freedom".
At the A.C.M. Executive Committee meeting on August 11, 1977 in Toronto, the following statement was released to the press: "The Executive Committee unanimously voted that A.C.M. not co-operate with or co-sponsor any meeting to be held in the U.S.S.R., and to question at appropriate times A.C.M.'s participation in other international computer activities with dominant or very heavy Russian support". In due course, letters of notification were sent to the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, the U.S. State Department and the U.S.S.R. Ambassador to the U.S.
In 1975, Erslov commented, "We (the U.S.S.R.) are sure that this program of computer development can be a broad platform for intensive international co-operation in science, technology and trade". What is the position in 1978? The largest computer society in the U.S. (A.C.M.) has withdrawn contacts with the U.S.S.R., exchange of technology is small and the flow of trade is a trickle. The Soviets are forced to develop their own computer systems independently of Western technology. The Baltic states have few computer systems but the realisation of large centralised systems cannot be delayed forever. Eventually, the U.S.S.R.'s computer production will be sufficient to implement systems that can perform civilian surveillance and maintain all personal records. There is one consolation: the truth will be more widely spread, as computer systems cannot work on lies. Personal data banks exist now in the West (e.g., credit ratings). We should all be vigilant that human rights and privacy are preserved at home as well as abroad.
Austin, J. E. "Computer-Aided Planning and Decision Making in
the U.S.S.R.", Datamation, December, 1977.
Ershov, A. P. "A History of Computing in the U.S.S.R.", Datamation, September, 1975.
Glaz, U. "The Silicon Curtain", Computer Decisions, September, 1977.
Grosch, H. R. J. "No Man is an Island", Computer Decisions, September, 1977.
Nadel, L. "C.D.C. Meets the Press", Computer Decisions, September, 1977.
Morris, W. C. "High Technology Trade with the Soviets", Datamation, January, 1979.
Rand Corporation Soviet Cybernetics Review, Rand Corporation, California, U.S.A., 1972-1974.
Smith, R. E. "The Kremlin wants our Computers", Computer Decisions, September, 1977.
Szuppowicz, B. O. "China's Computer Industry", Datamation, June, 1975.