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The Tangled History of Soviet Computer Science (nautil.us)
68 points by BIackSwan on Apr 9, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 34 comments

I'm puzzled this article has "history" in the title. It would be more appropriately called "a few funny fiction stories and some cheap spin-doctoring on soviet computer science." Somehow it does not mention this guy, who could be called Soviet von Neumann:


On the other hand it does not mention von Neumann either, it talks about Norbert Wiener, whose theories have doubtful contribution to computer science. The critical articles about his theories in Soviet media were pretty ridiculous, but hardly had any effect on the development of computers or control theory in SU. The author mentions nobody else relevant to the subject:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrey_Ershov https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgy_Adelson-Velsky https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexey_Lyapunov https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%BE%D1%81%D0%BF%D0%B5...

Perhaps the author took inspiration for his article from the worst examples of Soviet propaganda. Twisting the facts, mixing them with fiction in such a way that is hard to tell one from another.

Article doesn't have "history" in it's title, HN submission has. Title on site is "How the Computer Got Its Revenge on the Soviet Union".

> some cheap spin-doctoring on soviet computer science this article is actually reworked version of "Gerovitch, Slava. "InterNyet: why the Soviet Union did not build a nationwide computer network." History and Technology 24.4 (2008): 335-350." which has a lot of reference and citations. And article main subject is not history of computer science in USSR, it's about problems of creating huge computer networks in particular political-ideological environment.

I don't see how this attempt of informing about attempts of creating Internet in USSR diminishes achievements of great Scientists that you've mentioned. It mentions "MESM", which was created by Lebedev, it's certainly close enough without changing the subject of article.

> Twisting the facts, mixing them with fiction in such a way that is hard to tell one from another. Where exactly fact twisting is in the article?

[0] http://web.mit.edu/slava/homepage/articles/Gerovitch-InterNy...

There's a great novel, _Red Plenty_, by Francis Spufford, that touches on Soviet computing in the 50s and 60s as part of a broader exploration of Soviet economic planning. I wish more people would read it. It's a weird hybrid of reportage and fiction -- and almost seems science fictional in its world building. Here's a link to the Guardian's review: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/08/red-plenty-fran...

Red Plenty is fantastic. Well worth reading.

There was a virtual seminar at the Crooked Timber group blog which is worth reading if you enjoyed the book: http://crookedtimber.org/category/red-plenty-seminar/

I didn't read the article, but I just wanted to take the occasion to remind people that the Soviets also built ternary computers:


This article is really a rather sloppy piece that contributes little to our understanding of what should be fascinating to this community: alternative histories and possibilities of the computer. For example, how cybernetics and "use of the computer" are used almost interchangeably. A critique of cybernetics, which is in fact somewhere in-between a political program and philosophical system, can in no way be equated with a critique of the computer. In fact, a critique of cybernetics as at once idealist (vs materialist) and mechanistic (vs organic/vitalist) is a very sensible philosophical critique and in no way a contradictory legacy of mere soviet ideology, however philosophically problematic the latter may itself be. Many of the decisions to avoid anthropomorphizing the computer are similar to arguments put forth by Djikstra for perspective.

Historically, how is it even possible that this article doesn't mention someone like Sergei Lebedev, a celebrated Soviet scientist, who had a working computer by the 50s which had been in development since the mid-to-late 40s? Or a figure like Victor Shestakov who independently made many of the same innovations as Claude Shannon? As a community, I think we should be very interested in other ways the computer could have been---at the level of use, hardware and software---thus histories like this or the Japanese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_generation_computer should be fascinating, even if one finds much about the Soviet Union problematic to say the least.

On the cybernetics point, I would also highly recommend reading Bogdanov's science fiction novel Red Star, written in 1908 (obviously in-between the two revolutions, so technically pre-Soviet, but he was important in defining many philosophical and technical programs in the Soviet Union, notably space flight), for a fascinating account of a utopian intertwining of statistics, computer-like devices, and the life of a planet. Absolutely materialist and organic/vitalist rather than idealist and mechanistic!

As a follow-up, I highly recommend http://monoskop.org/Computing_and_cybernetics_in_CEE#Episode... as a much more detailed account of the history of Soviet hardware and thought about computing, including even the relation to cybernetics.

Yes! Thank you for mentioning, I am floored at how little attention this gets...

A lot of computers using different numbering systems were built. Binary took over mainly because the required hardware was the simplest.

Could you please elaborate? I came here to mention that the Soviets built the earliest "balanced Ternary" computers, which is like binary but with a negative digit, which can be much better in high precision arithmetic.

Sorry, elaborate on what exactly?

I'd love to know why exactly ternary was chosen. I wondered if it might have had some political motivation; maybe a rejection of the dualist philosophies of the running-dog capitalists, in favour of the technically superior Marxist-Leninist 'third way' ... ?

I think it's because electric charge comes in positive and negative varities. Together with no charge at all, ternary isn't that crazy of an idea. You might even get 50% more storage for the same amount of hardware?

What do you think of Chua's work on memristors?

Love to hear relationship between governments and cybernetics in those days. Like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn.

The document counts toward the end is mindboggling. And the brezhnev story is delicious.

Oh, never knew about Cybersyn, awesome discovery sir!

Imagine if Cybersyn had access to IoT technologies.

it does. its called GOOG AMAZN amongst others and gathering data for


short story long: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6EBpLfLHCA&index=1&list=PLC...

> FTFA: "The project consisted of four modules: an economic simulator [...]"

We have sophisticated physics simulators nowadays but no economic simulator to be found. It's almost as if all those economic formulae are a giant pretense and can't really provide a concrete explanation of how things work as required by algorithms (and people, but you can always fool people - you just can't fool computers).

All the hedge funds and banks are trying to run economics simulators. We are just much more aware of the limitations, and deal in probability distributions rather than concrete forecasts.

There was an attempt made to build an economic simulator (really a special purpose analogue computer using water as the working medium) in the 1940s in New Zealand [1]. Terry Pratchett played with the concept in one of his books [2].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MONIAC_Computer

[2] Making Money (2007)

Economic simulation is probably just below weather prediction... not really possible.

That's what I am arguing. :)

But your comparison is unfair. It's not about weather prediction, I have no comments about that. But can't we simulate it? Yes we can, I play GTA, sometimes it's raining and my car skids more. That's weather simulation. Where's the economic simulation where I make interest rates negative and ...(fill in the blanks - who knows?)... that's why a simulator would really come in handy.

The difference between physics and economics is physics can use its formulae to simulate what it claims to explain, while economics can't. That makes me think those two sets of formulae are not of the same breed.

GTA is a real time crippled approximation of physics, far from a simulation. Maybe economics have no 'one true' model from which equations can be derived, but even if there were such equations, the complexity wouldn't be manageable unless you reduce the precision to the point it's unreliable for real world usage.

> GTA is a real time crippled approximation of physics, far from a simulation.

Far? Cars skid in the water. They have different weights. The engine being on the front or on the back makes a difference in how the car drives. They have different acceleration speeds, different traction, and so on. It's pretty good, so I wouldn't call it "crippled".

However, economics can't even make a simulator as good as GTA is for physics. That is pathetic and a testament to its quackery.

This reads like an Adam Curtis documentary (a good thing), and several of the episodes of more famous documentaries touch upon some of the themes here.

The episode of "Pandora's Box" called "The Engineer's Plot" describes the rise of cybernetic thinking in the Soviet Union--less so the early resistance to it. It describes some of the insane rituals that developed out of the entrenched management hierarchies that computing was grafted on to. It effectively shows the endgame of the Soviet cybernetic experiment.

More recently, the episode "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts" of the documentary series "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" describes the development of cybernetics in the US and the resistance to it from environmentalists (outside the scope of the article). It gives portraits of some of the main characters this article talks about, though.


Mirror for anyone who's getting an error

The nomenklatura would invent the most ridiculous arguments ("Condemned as a capitalist tool") to avoid any criticism, to suit their planned programs, corruption, and unjustified spendings.

replacing class-conscious workers and human soldiers—who could choose not to fight for the bourgeoisie—with obedient robots.

The correctness of politics aside and in regard to labor economics, that wasn't a particularly inaccurate prediction of the computing technology's arc under the pressure of capitalism's logic.

This might be surprising but planned programs of the pesky corrupted nomenklatura sometimes used some science and computing as well. Look at this guy:


He received Nobel prize and (horror!) Stalin prize for his work in mathematics and using mathematics for evil planning of economic programs.

"(horror!) Stalin prize" "using mathematics for evil planning of economic programs" I hope this is ironic.

Yeah, reminds me of USA spying on everyone "to prevent terrorist attacks".

Here is another article on the history of Soviet computing:


Anybody see parallels between this and Stem cell research?

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