Why the Soviet Computer Failed: detailed visual essay misses answering its own question

“Why the Soviet Computer Failed” (Asianometry, 8 July 2022)

A very interesting visual essay, illustrated with archived photographs drawn from various sources, this Asianometry video delves into the history of computer development in the Soviet Union from the 1940s to the early 1990s (when the USSR broke up) to find out why computer manufacturing failed in that country and the consequences this failure had for Soviet science and technology, and ultimately for Soviet industry and economy. In 1953, the year of Josef Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union was apparently the world’s third most proficient computing power. The Soviets went on to launch satellites in space, put a dog in space in the late 1950s and in 1961 put a man (Yuri Gagarin) in space. Yet by the time Gagarin went up in space, the United States had already begun moving far ahead of the Soviets in computer technology innovations and the gap between the two countries kept on increasing. By the 1980s the gap was so huge, it was permanent and no matter how hard they tried to catch up, the Soviets could not do so in spite of the fact that Communist ideology emphasised scientific and industrial progress, Soviet schools and universities emphasised the study of hard sciences and engineering, and the Soviets had some of the best scientists, physicists and mathematicians in the world.

Narrated in breathless style by Asianometry host / author Jon Y, the video excels in describing and explaining the details of what the Soviets did to catch up with the US and other Western nations: they bought Western computers to study them and by reverse-engineering them, learned how they were put together and what components the computers needed; they did try inventing their own technologies rather than simply duplicate what Westerners were doing and then adapt the duplications to their own needs; and on occasions, the Soviets did innovate original hardware and software such as the famous Tetris game, invented in 1984 by Alexei Pajitnov. While the video concentrates on what the Soviets did and managed to produce, it does not really answer the question of why ultimately the Soviet computing industry failed to catch up with the West (including Japan). The answers are to be found in the nature of Soviet society with its emphasis on a planned economy with all major economic and funding decisions made by politicians far removed from those who would use computers (that is, the end users) in their day-to-day work, research or studies. The stimulus for computer development in the Soviet Union did not come from the people who needed to use the computers; it only came about when politicians and bureaucrats realised that they had to invest in computer development in order to keep pace with the West, and by then the Soviets were far behind. Significantly in the West, the major impetus for computer development was to be found in the trend towards personal computers, or computers that could be used by individuals, households and small businesses, not necessarily by large organisations – but the centralised nature of the Soviet economy, with top-down decision-making and decrees dominant over the needs of individuals, households and private businesses, meant that responding to those needs by developing and marketing products designed to meet those needs was slow and cumbersome.

There are other issues involved that, put together with the structure and ideological nature of Soviet society and economy, exacerbated the problem: the over-dependence on importing and copying Western computer hardware and software technology; the resort to piracy which led to Western nations putting limits on what computer technology they would export to the Soviets (and to the CIA putting bugs into pirated software that would cause the software and ultimately the hardware to malfunction); and the rivalry among Soviet bureaucrats and the ministries they headed that affected funding and resourcing for computer technology research and development, leading to overlapping and duplication of research efforts in individual ministries when they should have been pooling their resources and sharing staff and information. The Cold War and Western concern with the Soviet treatment of dissidents like Andrei Sakharov led the West either to limit or even deny computer hardware sales in the form of sanctions to the USSR.

The video serves as an interesting and detailed aid to a general discussion of the history of Soviet computer development but viewers will still need to do their own research to answer the question of how and why Soviet computer development failed in the way it did.