Soviet Computer Technology
A Summary by Michael E. Marotta
aus: Loompanics Catalog 88
The USSR spends billions of dollars importing technology from the West. According to the CIA they go through independent agents. They pay with letters of credit deposited with the agent's bank.(1)
"The USSR spends billions of dollars importing technology from the West."
They want technology that can be applied to military efforts. They also buy "dual purpose" items. For instance, a device to test integrated circuits is a tool that can be used for military projects, even though it is not inherently a weapons system. In addition to equipment and materials, they also acquire documents. Many have come from the US Department of Commerce which operates the National Technical Information Service.(2)
The USSR is quite possibly ahead of the USA in designs and theories: They lag in applications and engineering.(3) This is because their society is based on stealing from the able to provide for the needy. This means that smart people go in for those things that cannot be expropriated. Chess masters keep their assets in their heads.
It is easy for the USSR to keep up with the West by acquiring current technology. The Reds cannot easily "leapfrog" the West. They cannot develop NEW technology.4 This' is because they lag behind America in personal computers.
The KGB is actively recruiting Americans to give (or sell) them information about computer design. They supposedly have 300 people in Moscow who evaluate this information.(5) What they do with this information is not easy to figure out. Obviously, they do not produce personal computers.
Yevgeny P. Velikhov is in charge of trying to make the USSR computer literate. He knows the score full well. He admits that the Soviets are "five to seven years behind the West." In fact, he owns an IBM-PC.(7) Velikhov is a top scientist with direct access to the highest Soviet officials. If he owns an IBM-PC, you can bet that there is no equivalent machine produced in the USSR.
Some kinds of personal computing devices are made in the USSR. They cost about $500 to S750.(8,9) These computers are about like American varieties from the early 1980s. They have random access memories (R.A.M) of 32 kilobytes. They plug into a TV set.'(10)
"Even if the USSR catches up instantly to where we are right now, today, they will fall behind by sunrise tomorrow. Americans invent new tools every day." (11)
In all, the Soviets have produced perhaps more than 50,000 personal computers." In America, there are about 25 million homes with computers.(12) There are many reasons for this and chief among them is that America is still primarily a trade oriented nation. Very few computers are actually made in America. We import chips, disk drives, monitors, and so on. But the USSR jealously guards its hard currency. They are very cautious about buying 4,000 PC clones from Yamaha of Japan.(13) Buying 10,000 IBM PCs could take forever. (14)
Even if they avoid buying from the West, the USSR will continue to import much from its satellites. Disk drives are made in East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria.(15) The USSR has an abysmal record for manufacturing computers. Consider the story of the Agat computer.
Dr. Leo Bores of Scottsdale, Arizona, is a surgeon who specializes in myopia. He uses methods developed in the USSR and has strong ties with colleagues there. He evaluated the Soviet "Agat" computer for Byte magazine. (16)
The Agat was an Apple II clone. Instead of a single board, it used several chip modules. The Agat used Cyrillic letters. However, these characters were created with the Apple Tool Kit. When Dr. Bores first "boot strapped" the Agat, it ran with the Russian alphabet. But when he restarted the machine, it came up with a garbled American character Set. (17)
"The KGB is actively recruiting Americans to give (or sell) them information about computer design."
The ROM (read only memory) still had Steve Wozniak's name in memory. (18) (Steve Wozniak, with Steve jobs, founded the Apple Computer Corporation. Wozniak wrote the system software.)
Eventually, the computer was discontinued. One reason offered was that the Reds ran out of parts. (19) It is also likely that the $17,000 price tag helped sink the marketing effort. (20,21)
This was not the first time the Reds have copied Western technology. The ES1055, made in East Germany, is a cloned IBM 370. The IBM 370 was introduced over 15 years ago. The ES-1055 is the usual choice for Soviet factory managers. (22)
The Soviets have also built copies of the Digital Equipment Corporation PDP11. Like the Agat/Apple, this is a downgrade of the equipment we know in America. (The PDP11 was replaced by the DEC VAX line 10 years ago.) The PDP11 was controlled by the LSI-II integrated circuit "computer on a chip." Since the Soviets cannot produce a large scale integrated chip, they implemented the LSI-II as a set of chips on a board. (23)
"The USSR has an abysmal record for manufacturing computers."
When the USSR chose to clone the Intel 8080 microprocessor and its support chips, they even kept the model numbers. The 8080 is called the K5801K80, the Intel 8224 clock driver is the Soviet K5801K24; the 8259 interrupt controller is called a K5801K59 in the USSR - (24) it is important to bear in mind that even in 1984, this chip set was not popular in America. Microcomputer manufacturers were already using the faster Intel 8088 and 8086 chips.
The Intel 8080 computers and the PDP-11 ran from disk drives. The Soviet versions used paper tape.(25) Paper tape went out for American professionals in 1974. Hobbyists stopped using it before 1980.
If technology existed in a vacuum, the Soviets might actually be able to harness computer power for themselves. The fact is that to have technology you have to have freedom. Take away freedom and technology fails.
Some Soviet factory managers do not want computers because this makes it hard to falsify figures. (26)
The error here is the same as the assertion that the Nazi State was "efficient." Centralized states have their own internal contradictions. You must fear those above you. You must deceive. Errors made at the top level affect the whole country. The fact is that the USSR cannot make effective use of computers.
"Yevgeny P. Velikhov is in charge of trying to make the USSR computer literate. He knows the score full well. He admits that the Soviets are 'five to seven years behind the West.'"
The USSR fears their underground. The dissidents in the USSR duplicate essays by hand; they type cartbon copies. With personal computers and dot matrix printers at their disposal, the underground would really give the Soviet State something to worry about. This has already happened in Poland. (27)
Yet, the USSR is caught between a rock and a hard place. If they deny their people access to computers, they maintain control and lose technology. If they go for computer literacy, they risk a rampant spread of new ideas via a technology which invariably outstrips attempts to control it. The Reds may believe that they can have high technology and keep their centralized state. This is doubtful. (28,29,30)
There is a long-term trend toward global communication. Historically, Russia has had only brief periods of Westernization. They even maintain railroads with track gauge different from other countries to ensure their isolation. However, this is the age of television, not railroads.
People in East Europe receive Western television. The USSR now produces some Video tape cameras and players. (31) When computers and television merge the results can only be called "radical."
Joel Schatz has a project called Ark. He makes it possible for people from the USA and the USSR to communicate via slow scan television and computer. Elements in both governments fear him. Americans cannot be allowed to discover that most people in Russia like living there, The people in the USSR cannot be allowed to learn that most Americans live like kings. (32)
"In all, the Soviets have produced perhaps more than 50,000 personal computers."
Schatz suffered a series of bureaucratic hassles. He had to run interference for himself dealing with the governments of the USA, USSR, Britain, and Turkey. He triumphed. On New Year's Eve 1985/1986 he finally got his linkup to work. This was the first effort of what Schatz likes to call "Two Track Diplomacy." Scientists from the USSR and USA discussed peaceful uses of outer space and celebrated the 25th anniversary of the laser. (33)
The next stage is for teens from the Soviet Union and America to use slow scan television and computers to discuss alcoholism. (34) Bear in mind that officials from the US and their clones in the USSR put up obstacles. Schatz just works that much harder.
This "two track diplomacy" also can be found on the PeaceNet computer bulletin board. You can access PeaceNet via Telenet (a long-distance packet carrier that you dial locally). PeaceNet (Host 408346) serves dozens of leftwing and alternative sociat action groups. The Central American Resource Network, the Beyond War Foundation, and others, give Americans access to people that the American government has built a "Berlin Wall" around.
The USA, NATO and Japan have decided not to export high-tech devices like the IBM-PC/XT and PC/AT to the USSR. However, it is legal to export 8-bit computers like the TRS-80, VIC-20, Apple 11 or "plain vanilla" IBM PC. (35) This, despite the fact that the Apple II can be modified to control missile firing.(36) Of course, this "modification" is easy to accomplish.
"The computer revolution in America came from dropouts, weirdos and nerds. Until the USSR can tolerate these people, they will never capture the power of the computer."
There are at least a million people in America who could program an Apple II to run a coordinate output device. There are so many systems analysts in America that estimates from seven sources range from 370,000 to 2.9 million. And there are still those 25 million home computers.
Consider that the 8-bit computers like the Apple II are now obsolete in America. You can buy a TI-99 or VIC-20 for bargain basement prices. Today's home computers (Macintosh, Atari ST, Amiga, etc.) are all 16-bit machines. They are not available to the USSR. Yet, the 8-bit machines will serve Soviet young people quite well. If the USSR wants a computer literate society, they should buy all the outdated 8-bit machines in America.
"Catching up to the West" is relative. It is quite true that the USSR as a nation cannot meet the standards common in America as a nation. However, it is a grave error to assume that the USSR has no hackers, (37,38,39)
First of all, the modifications made to the Apple to produce the Agat were done by somebody in the USSR. Even if they have "very few" computers, they still have thousands upon thousands of computers. If you have computers, you have computer nerds: hackers.
Soviet hackers are called "Sinclairists" (after the machines built by the British industrialist, Clive Sinclair). The Timex Sinclair was sold in America around 1980. It ran on just four chips and weighed less than half a kilogram. There are other Sinclair computers, mostly sold in the Old World.
"If technology existed in a vacuum, the Soviets might actually be able to harness computer power for themselves. The fact is that to have technology you have to have freedom."
You can bet that there are talented young Soviets who spend their time writing their own programs. These hackers have little opportunity for the kind of "hooliganism" that plagues the USA. In America, you can gain unauthorized access to a computer because we have the world's best telephone system. In the USSR, the phone lines can't support data grade communication. (40) They stopped using direct dial long-distance calling in 1982. The KGB found it hard to monitor such phone calls. (41)
But this is a two-way street. American hackers who access a wide variety of computers learn to deal with many kind, of software. They develop savvy that can hardly be transcribed any more than you can't learn to swim by reading a book. They also learn a lot about computer security. As they assume positions in business and government, they transfer this arcane knowledge to their new responsibilities.
Even if the USSR catches up instantly to where we are right now, today, they will fall behind by sunrise tomorrow. Americans invent new tools every day.
Take Run Length Limited. It's a wav to store 30 megabytes on a 20 megabyte disk drive. New a year ago, it is common today.
"With personal computers and dot matrix printers at their disposal, the underground would really give the Soviet State something to worry about. This has already happened in Poland."'
"Goal-Seeker" is an add-on that works with several common spreadsheets. You put in the figures you want to have for the result and the program juggles the spreadsheet to make the numbers come out right. (Just what every Soviet factory manager needs!) This program is a "shareware" product created by a hacker, it is available for less than $10. There are over 800 such software packages for IBM PC-type machines. Hundreds more exist for Apple, Commodore and most other computers.
In about two years the 5 1/4 inch diskette will be as old-fashioned as the 8 inch diskette is today. The 3.5 inch diskette is coming. There are portable computers that will use 2.5 inch diskettes. Two years from now, the Soviets will still be trying to get 1-2 megabytes on a 5 1/4 inch diskette (standard with the IBM-PC/AT). We will be putting twice that much on a floppy half that size.
Non-von is short for non-von Neumann (after Dr. John von Neumann who, in the late 1940s, outlined digital computer principles). Instead of being one-instruction-at-a-time processors, they are parallel devices. These new computers process several instructions at the same time. Biochips are on the horizon. Based on living materials, these chips can be used for non-von computers and to run prosthetic devices. (42)
When Dr. Bores investigated the Agat, he used Locksmith 5.0, a program to copy protected disks.(43) Locksmith is now available for the IBM-PC. Locksmith also has dozens of competitors. There are similar programs for other computers, such as Kracker Jack for the Commodore 64.
"'People in East Europe receive Western television. The USSR now produces some video tape cameras and players. When computers and television merge the results can only be called 'radical."
There's a program called -PRD+- (Productivity Plus). It lets you define keys and sets of keys for writing text. For instance, you can program "asap" to give you the phrase "as soon as possible." You can define "mom" to mean the three lines in your mother's name, address, city, state and zip. Using a routine like this, you can type up to 150 words per minute.
And yet, for all of our prowess, there are signs that the computer revolution is slowing down. The Intel 80386 chip (used in the IBM Personal System 2) has bugs. Over 100,000 were installed that wouldn't do 32-bit arithmetic.(44) This could be an indication of what happens when entrepreneurs become corporate directors. When "three men in a garage" become a "publicly owned" corporation, something is bound to go wrong.
"The computer is a tool for personal freedom. Like gold money, the computer cannot be made to serve its destroyers."
About 15 years ago, two young computer nerds in Britain developed a programming language that is well suited to defining facts and rules about complicated systems. It was ignored in America until 1985 when Japan's Ministry of Industry announced that the Prolog language from Clocksin and Mellish would be part of their "Fifth Generation" effort.
"This underscores one of several deficiencies in Soviet computer policy. They identify with our imperialist institutions."
Fortunately, America is not saddled with a centralized economy. Now we have several versions of Prolog on the market including one for about $100 (Borland's "Turbo Prolog") and a "Public domain" Prolog for $10.
This article has mentioned the Intel processor family several times. Actually, hardcore hackers consider the Intel chips "brain-damaged" (even when they work right). "Real programmers" use Motorola 68000-based machines like the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh.
This underscores one of several deficiencies in Soviet computer policy. They identify with our imperialist institutions. They want to emulate IBM. But the computer revolution did not come from IBM. The computer revolution in America came from dropouts, weirdos and nerds. Until the USSR can tolerate these people, the), will never capture the power of the computer.
This is one lesson the Reds will never allow themselves to learn - even America hasn't learned it. The computer revolution came about because there are no government regulations on computing. ANYONE can be a programmer, simply by claiming to be one. Kids too young to be legally employed have earned hefty incomes from writing software - Several of the most profitable "Adventure" games were created by a housewife with two babies.
"If the USSR wants a computer literate society, they should buy all the outdated 8-bit machines in America."
These kinds of graphics oriented games led to cheap CAD (computer aided design) drafting systems. The USSR managed to slip 40 Tektronix workstations out of West Germany.45
Meanwhile, you can buy powerful CAD software for any home computer for less than $100- (PC Sig has a four-disk set for $24.)
The Soviet Union's efforts to acquire Western Technology usually support military goals. Yet the USSR has failed to utilize the greatest military weapon in America: the videogame. The Reds may have a few of the "Battle Zone" tank game. We have thousands being used everyday by would-be armor soldiers. Millions of American kids have played "Star Wars" and "Mach U." Of course, military applications are just the tip of the iceberg.
In a world where information is wealth, the Soviet Union is poor. America has thousands of computer bulletin board services. The BBS fever has even infected our own government. You can linkup with the Department of Commerce's microcomputer support group at (301) 948-5718. The private databases (CompuServe, Dialog, Nexis, etc.) tower above the government's and are themselves eclipsed by the thousands of hobbyist bulletin boards. Typical of these is the John Galt Line, at (305) 235-1645.
The Soviet Union can never catch up to America in computer technology. If they dismantled their state, they might achieve the technological prowess of Brazil by the year 2000. The computer is a tool for personal freedom. Like gold money, the computer cannot be made to serve its destroyers.
This article was made possible by database searches on the InfoTrac and CLSI public library systems and also [Quest from the Computer information Service (CompuServe) of Columbus, Ohio, which of course would have been impossible in the USSR. Also, the Central Intelligence Agency was kind enough to honor a Freedom of Information Act request within 30 days. The Soviet Embassy Press Attache took several months to suggest that I shop at any of three recommended bookstores.
1. Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology. an Update, Central Intelligence Agency, 1985.
3. Electronics Research and Technology in the USSR, Emmanuel Piore, Central Intelligence Agency, 1976.
4. Op. Cit
5. Ibid- (cf ref 23, this figure is quoted as 400 to 500).
6. "Computer Gamesman," Joyce Barnathan, Newsweek, Nov. 18, 1985.
8. "Soviets Launch Computer Literacy Drive," Constance Holden, Science, Jan. 10, 1986.
9. "Computer Gamesman.'
10. OP. cit.
12. "Moscow Faces the New Age," Mark Whitaker, et al., Newsweek, Aug. 18, 1986.
13. "Soviets Launch Computer Literacy Drive."
14. "U.S. Computers May Enroll in Moscow U, Mark D'Anastasio, et al., Business Week, Feb 4, 1985.
15. OP. cit.
16. "Agat: A Soviet Apple II Computer," Dr. Leo D. Bores, Byte, Nov. 1984.
18. "The State of Computer Technology in the Soviet Union, Durk Pearson, transcribed remarks from The Future of Freedom Conference, Nov. 1986.
19. "Soviets Launch Computer literacy Drive."
20. Op. cit.
21. "Agat: A Soviet Apple H Computer."
22. "The Great Soviet Computer Screw-up," Daniel Seligman, Fortune, July 8, 1985.
23. "Soviet Microprocessors and Microcomputers," Ruth Heuertz, A~Ie, Apr. 1984.
26. Op. cit.
27. "Moscow Faces the New Age."
29. "The Great Soviet Computer Screw-up."
30. "Soviets Launch Computer Literacy Drive."
31. "Moscow Faces the New Age."
32. "Slow Scan to Moscow," Adam Hochschfld, Mother Jones, June, 1986.
35. "War by Microcomputer," Time, July 30, 1984.
37. "Computer Garnesman."
38. "The State of Computer Technology in the Soviet Union."
39. "Soviets Launch Computer literacy Drive."
41. "Moscow Faces the New Age."
42. Advanced Computers: Parallel and Biochip Processors, Norman W. Lord, et al., Ann Arbor Science, 1985.
43. "Agat: A Soviet Apple II Computer."
44. "Intel's chips have bugs," Fortune, June 8, 1987.
45. "How those computers got to Moscow," Frederic A. Miller, et al., Business Week, Oct. 27, 1986.
Soviet Computer Technology