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Secrets of Communist computing

How the USSR's thirst for computing power led to its downfall

cc031Cold War paranoia may have brought the world to the brink of destruction, but it sparked an era of invention on both sides of the pond. In September 1950, fearing that Soviet computing trailed America by 15 years, Director of the Moscow Institute of Precise Mechanics and Computer Technology Mikhail Lavrent'ev outlined the problem in a speech to colleagues. The Russians understood what worked, but they had only produced a handful of primitive analogue devices. New digital number-crunching systems gave their scientists the opportunity to make huge leaps forward, but at what cost?


This is the story of the machines they created, and how the technologies intended to boost Communism played a key part in toppling the Soviet state.Building digital computers in Soviet post-war Russia was a dangerous business. To protect himself and his staff from criticism that could end in them being sent to labour camps, Russian computer pioneer Sergei Lebedev of the Kiev Electro-Technical Institute declared that the computers they wanted to build would carry out only ideologically correct calculations. Described as 'the Soviet Alan Turing', Lebedev had been thinking about how to build a computer since 1948, and by the end of 1949 he had the basic principles down on paper. In a climate of deep suspicion, Lebedev assembled a team of 12 designers and 15 technicians at a disused monastery at Feofania, near Kiev, and gave it the seemingly ironic name 'Secret Laboratory Number One'.

The team's first machine was called MESM, which was short for 'Small Electronic Counting Machine' in Russian. It contained over 6,000 vacuum tubes and had its own small power station to overcome local supply difficulties.
Running at just 3kHz, however, its performance was pretty woeful. Rostislav Chernjak is one of the few remaining members of the team that started work on the project. He spoke about the many difficulties involved in getting MESM running in a Radio 4 interview recorded in 2005.

"On the second floor was the laboratory and a larger room where we assembled the computer," Chernjak explained. "It needed seven kilowatts of power so it was very hot and we needed some cooling. We demolished a wall to make the room bigger but that wasn't enough – so we took the roof off."

That step must have solved the problem, because MESM ran its first test program on 6 November 1950. To make sure that it was working properly, two mathematicians were told to solve the same problem as the machine. MESM's results differed from those produced by the mathematicians.

The story goes that Lebedev stayed up all night trying to find out what was wrong with MESM – but by the following morning, he'd realised that the machine was right and that both mathematicians had made exactly the same mistake. MESM finally went into service on Christmas Eve 1951, making it the first stored-program digital computer within the Eastern Bloc.

The machine quickly began receiving a stream of secretive visitors who were keen to perform mysterious calculations. Thanks to the end of the Cold War, we can now piece together just what those calculations were.

The weapons race According to sociologist Slava Gerovitch, writing in the April 2001 edition of the journal Social Studies Of Science, atomic weapons were the most potent symbol of power in the post-war years, and Stalin demanded the biggest and best to wave in the faces of the West.

Atomic weapons physics devours computing time even today. Back in the '50s, physicists realised that they could create truly gigantic explosions using an atomic bomb to fuse together hydrogen atoms into a thermonuclear reaction. Also needed was a missile that was capable of firing such weapons into space and accurately dropping them on US targets.

The physics of intercontinental ballistics was in its infancy, but it was already ravenously number-hungry.

At the time, the only Russian source of computing power was Secret Laboratory Number One. Lebedev's team worked feverishly to create better machines that could accurately solve the calculations required to build such weapons.
Their next result was the BESM series. Completed in 1953, BESM-1 was the fastest computer anywhere in continental Europe. It handled 39-bit floating point numbers and had four magnetic tape units capable of storing 30,000 words each. Disk storage consisted of rotating magnetic drums storing 5,120 words each.

Also in 1953 came the massive, elegant but very underpowered Strela mainframe. Designed and built by the Moscow Plant of Computing-Analytical Machines, it occupied 300m2 of floor space and boasted 43-bit binary floating point notation. However, the system was extremely power-hungry. The CPU alone drew 75kW of power, with the cooling system and peripherals doubling that amount.

Despite executing a mere 2,000 instructions per second, the first Strelas went into service at Moscow's Design Bureau Number 1 of the Third Chief Directorate. They worked on problems relating to target destruction probability and detonation efficiency of fragmentation warheads. Eventually, all seven Strelas were shipped to the Russian Academy of Sciences' Division of Applied Mathematics, where they worked in parallel on nuclear and ballistic missile calculations.

But the scarcity of computer time was leading civilian scientists into conflict with their military counterparts. In 1955, the Computation Centre of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow became the first non-military computer bureau in Russia. Civilian researchers were allowed to run non-classified programs on its machines. At least, that was the original idea.

It turned out that nuclear weapons researchers (led by Igor Kurchatov) and missile and spacecraft designers (led by Sergei Korolev) monopolised resources. In James Hartford's book Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon, Cosmonaut Gregori Grechko recalled fighting for computer time:

"Kurchatov's people used it in the daytime, and during the night Korolev's people [used it]. And for all the rest of Soviet science: maybe five minutes for the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, maybe half an hour for the chemical industry."

The Soviet government was clearly prioritising the development of weaponry over research into areas that wouldn't be of use if war did break out.

Back at the lab

Meanwhile, back at Secret Laboratory Number One, Lebedev's team were creating the BESM-2 computer, which was their first system to go into full production.

According to the Russian Virtual Computer Museum, Lebedev's team had now swollen to 150, and they were even able to export a BESM-2 to China. By the 1960s, the Soviet military had truly woken up to the computer's potential for planning, logistics, and battlefield simulation. They demanded even more number-crunching power.


SECRET WAR: The BESM-2 was an impressive machine, but it used technology that was stolen from IBM

In response, Lebedev made the first Soviet supercomputer, BESM-6, in 1967. Running at an impressive 10MHz to speed execution, the BESM-6 used cache memory to store frequently used instructions and could work on processing up to 14 instructions at once. Lebedev called this the 'principle of water pipe' – what we now call instruction pipelining. However, much of the technology used in the BESM-6 wasn't original. It was stolen from IBM.

In the 1960s, computer scientists were ordered to abandon trying to surpass Western technology from scratch. Instead, they were to simply copy whatever IBM did.

Stealing to compete

And so, with a little help from the KGB, 1968 saw the start of a project to, shall we say, 'clone' the IBM System/360. This classic, powerful and immensely popular machine helped put man on the moon.

Officially, the initial design of the Russian version of the system came from the Moscow Scientific Research Centre for Electronic Computer Machinery, but the plans for it – and even pieces of hardware to make it work – secretly found their way from the West.

The Russian System/360 clone was called the ES EVM, and it soon became widely available in Russia. In 1972, the year that the ES EVM was released, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev virtually admitted what was going on when he told a meeting of officials, "We communists have to string along with the capitalists for a while. We need their credits, their agriculture and their technology."

Theft quickly became the principal way that Russian computing kept pace with the West. In 1975, production began of a clone of the influential DEC PDP-11/40 minicomputer. Called the SM-4, it featured multiple video terminals and twin magnetic tape units – just like the real thing. The SM-4 so faithfully reproduced the original hardware that it even ran Unix, enabling it to run a wide range of stolen applications.

The successor to the SM-4 was the SM-1420. A cloned version of the DEC PDP-11/34+, it was produced in large numbers across the Soviet Union. The standard machine had 256kb of RAM, two 2.5MB removable disc packs, two magnetic tape drives and the ability to handle several video terminals. Predictably, the mid-1980s saw the first cloned Russian IBM PC, called the ES PEVM. It ran DOS and early versions of Windows.


LOOK-A-LIKE: The ES PEVM was a Russian copy of the IBM PC that could run DOS and versions of Windows

However, by now the West was onto the Soviets' little game. Game Over According to the book At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War by Thomas Reed – who at the time was a member of President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council – France shared vital intelligence with the US about Russia's technology stealing in 1981.

The French had recruited a KGB agent who was responsible for evaluating Western technology. Named 'Farewell' by his handlers, the agent had access to the KGB's Technology Directorate, which was stealing Western technology to study and copy. France revealed just how far the KGB had penetrated Western labs, companies and government agencies. Crucially, it also revealed the Directorate's technology wish list of things to obtain.

Now that the West knew about what was happening, what should they do about it? Reagan asked Bill Casey, his Director of Central Intelligence, for ideas. The plan he hatched allowed the KGB to steal whatever it liked – after certain subtle modifications had been made. From this point on, stolen microprocessors would for some reason spontaneously fail months or even years after deployment.

Stolen operating systems and applications contained time-delayed bugs that would make vital computers malfunction after months of perfect service. US intelligence also allowed the Soviets to steal faked 'secrets' about stealth and space defence technologies in an attempt to have them incorporated pointlessly into military projects.

In the early 1980s, the Russians were constructing a trans-Siberian oil pipeline, and needed an automated system to properly manage it. Softening attitudes allowed them to legitimately purchase older models of computers on the open market. They then approached the American authorities for permission to buy the necessary software. When the US refused, the KGB stole the application.

However, the software they stole had been doctored to go haywire after a while. It would open valves unexpectedly and set pressures too high for the pipeline's welds. When the explosion came, US seismologists measured the blast at three kilotons.

According to Reed's book, the Soviets were now unsure which of their key systems they could trust. During 1984 and 1985, the US consolidated their position by arresting and expelling large numbers of suspected KGB agents, effectively stemming the flow of technology and intelligence.

With domestic computers seriously underpowered, stolen Western technology randomly poisoned and President Reagan announcing his ambitious 'Star Wars' missile defence shield, the USSR now faced uncertainty as a second-class superpower.

With the country's infrastructure falling into disarray, people were beginning to voice dissent, as were politicians such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The USSR was starting to disintegrate – and decades of stealing Western technology instead of growing a native Soviet computing industry was partly responsible.