Urban Explorers Reveal A Treasure Trove Of Soviet Computing Power

It’s probably a dream most of us share, to stumble upon a dusty hall full of fascinating abandoned tech frozen in time as though its operators walked away one day and simply never returned. It’s something documented by some Russian urban explorers who found an unremarkable office building with one of its floors frozen sometime around the transition from Soviet Union to Russian Federation. In it they found their abandoned tech, in the form of a cross-section of Soviet-era computers from the 1970s onwards.

As you might expect, in a manner it mirrors the development of civilian computing on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain over a similar period, starting with minicomputers the size of several large refrigerators and ending with desktop microcomputers. The minis seem to all be Soviet clones of contemporary DEC machines. with some parts of them even looking vaguely familiar. The oldest is a Saratov-2, a PDP/8 clone which we’re told is rare enough for no examples to have been believed to have survived until this discovery. We then see a succession of PDP/11 clones each of which becomes ever smaller with advancements in semiconductor integration, starting with the fridge-sized units and eventually ending up with desktop versions that resemble 1980s PCs.

While mass-market Western desktop machines followed the path of adopting newer architectures such as the Z80 or the 8086 the Soviets instead took their minicomputer technology to that level. It would be interesting to speculate how these machines might further have developed over the 1990s had history been different. Meanwhile we all have a tangible legacy of Soviet PDP/11 microcomputers in the form of Tetris, which was first written on an Elektronika 60.

We know that among our readers there is likely to be a few who encountered similar machines in their heyday, and we hope they’ll share their recollections in the comments. Meanwhile we hope that somehow this collection can be preserved one day. If your thirst for dusty mincomputers knows no bounds, read about the collectors who bought an IBM machine on eBay and got more than they bargained for.

Via Hacker News.

DVK-1 desktop computer, «Переславская неделя» / В. С. Спиридонов  CC-BY-SA 3.0.

45 thoughts on “Urban Explorers Reveal A Treasure Trove Of Soviet Computing Power

  1. In terms of CISC implementation, PDP-11 was far more advanced than x86 architecture. Internally it more resembled Python’s bytecode than assembly. It’s such a shame that we’ve moved from elegant architectures like this into just bashing RISC instructions in ARM chips.

    1. And that is where you are wrong. x86 is extensible…. whereas the PDP-11 instruction set is a dead language since about 30 years. It didn’t even really live on in DEC’s later architectures either.

      Any feature you can imagine has been added to x86 as well as depreciated over time as instruction set extensions has fallen out of use. x86 isn’t even CISC anymore internally and hasn’t been for 20+ years its either RISC or VLIW or a hybrid of those.

      1. The PDP-11 architecture was expandable, and once the Soviets had successfully cloned the LSI-11 chipset, they gradually modified and rationalised the design much as the x86-related chips were in the US.

  2. Hey… I built a 9-track tape drive emulator for my communist iron curtain pdp clone (coral 4030). Search hackaday blog for “the pertec whisperer”. I am specialized in cold-starting soviet monsters so if anyone needs my magic skills, get some beers and call for me.

  3. moldy trash at this point :(
    DVK-3 has modern looking 3.5 floppy fitted, someone still used those museum pieces in 1990s. Wiki claims USSR was still manufacturing them up to the fall of 1991. Madness, imagine using ~200KB 10MHz PDP-11 while kids are playing on Amigas at home one country over.

      1. There’s a recurring 4chan thread that asks when should microcomputer tech have been frozen in development. most agree at pentium level but there’s some like myself that say the world would be a better place if all hardware used TTL logic chips. Think about it, no gigawatts of energy wasted on digital video, kill drones, spyware and drm.

      2. But the people using Apollo/SGI/Sun/Next had a leg up on those using PDP 11s. Ralph MIrebs livejournal has a note about running DVK-3 at university to distribute code to a network of Spectrums, in 1993 … Meanwhile WWW was invented in 1991 on the Next, and Linus released first build of Linux using his home 386.
        Iron curtain was truly brutal to technology progress.

        1. > running DVK-3 at university to distribute code to a network of Spectrums, in 1993

          It’s unlikely that it was Spectrums. Spectrum clones in Russia was mostly DIY and small business area. And they have no peripherals for some kind of networking. More probably it was something like BK0010/0011 – spectrum-like PDP/11 based on russian single-chip PDP/11 processor. Or something similar keybord-size with same architecture.

          1. Quick google found a list of 37 different Spectrum clones manufactured in USSR, most using USSR or DDR Z80 clone chips.

            Ralph MIrebs livejournal:
            >В далёком 1993-ем, у нас на учёбе, один преподавательский ДВК мог раздавать по сети программы для пары десятков Спектрумов терминального класса.

            Meanwhile in Poland, which managed to wiggle its way out from under Russian boot barely ~3 years prior, we got a computer lab (former wood shop) full of new 286 shitboxes in my rather average high school in 1992.

          2. It was the lowest spec you could get brand new, hence shitbox. 386 was office standard, and rich people got 486. One of the kids in my class found 486DX2/66 under the Christmas tree that year, his computer cost more than family sedan in Poland.

            Its no wonder China is so bullish on developing own semiconductor industry, with latest moves around poaching tool developers https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/China-tech/China-aims-to-shake-US-grip-on-chip-design-tools. Being cut off like Iron Curtain is a real killer.

      3. You think the children who have access to content online from their own teachers, as well as Wikipedia, Youtube, and endless educational websites aren’t any better off in terms of education than the children of the minicomputer era? Your whimsical flight through nostalgia-land has left you hypoxic.

        1. I see young generations psychologically stunted by addictive video games and cellphones. This was not the case in the 80s or before. You had to think to use computers then.

          Many adults have been made almost totally dependent on the so-called “social media”. Free thought and ability to converse has been degraded severely.

          Take a look at this:

          1. Oh please even Romans bitched about young generations. If you check history youll find countless references how Jazz makes young people stupid, how Rock and roll badly affects them and so on so on. Times change we don’t as we get older.

          2. Sure, the 70s-90s were great/fascinating and computer users of that era had to know about technology and the underlying mechanisms in order to operate their computers properly.
            And it would be really sweet if todays users would do develop such skills on their free will.

            On the other hand, the current generation has to handle a lot more of information.
            Knowledge has dramatically increased in all sorts of things and times are more fast-paced, also.

            So saying that current generation is dumped down is not quite accurate.
            In fact, most “of us” wouldn’t even graduate anymore in todays world.
            The level has dramatically increased.
            Some kids even take “stuff” or stay up all night just to be able to keep track with the material they must learn.

            PS: I apologize for my poor English, it’s not my first language.

  4. Very cool discovery. “it mirrors the development of civilian computing on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain” what an incredible mystery! And their long range bombers looked like a Boeing Superfortress. What are the chances?

      1. “management decision”

        That was the whole issue with the Soviet Union. Imagine if here, in the west, we would also have listened dutifully to our managers. We would have regressed towards the middle-ages.

        Never take for granted what your manager tells you to do. It’s the only way to progress.

    1. Deliberate decision. If you lack something copy it from best. SU lacked long range bombers so they copied it, then based on that they build their own. Lacked AA missiles copied sidewinder. Fell behind in cumputers copied IBM. DEC, Intel 8080, Zilog Z80… When you look at computer development in commie countries youll find first ones where copies of IBMthen in 60ties and early 70 it was a lot of own designs there was focus on heavy industry weapons development and computing started to fall behind so when they found out how important computing is they decided to copy.

    2. All the chances – I used to work for a while at the plant, making clones of PDP-11 and then VAX-11. The most beautiful thing was, that original DEC software was loading and running, and once I got distro of C language, I begun professional era, that is still valid and of value even today. Before that, we had to write MACRO-11 assembly for the machine, Cobol for the data processing applications. At the same time, I had second job, teaching kids how to use Apple ][ clones too. Very good time, where we were digging very fundamentals of computing. My kid wasn’t interested later in internals, they are mostly surface users of electronic gadgets nowadays. One shops, then consumes – incomparable.

    1. Yes, seeing computing history is wonderful. That said, try not to lament being “late to the party”.

      I started on IBM system/1130, 370, DEC PDP-8, PDP-11, Data General Eclipse, MV/8000, Intel 8008, 8080, Z80. All very interesting. In 1983 I wrote what I thought would be my last assembly language “tight code” in an Intel 8088 avionics cockpit comms system. Said the same thing again with an 8035-derived system in 2005. And again in 2015 with a Motorola/Freescale/NXP 68HC812. These were all wonderful projects, and wonderful experiences that I am glad to have. But none of those projects had the dynamic range or power that we have today.

      What we have today is *wonderful*. My latest purchase is an Odroid-H2, with 32 GBytes RAM, 2 Tbyte NVM/e SSD, dual gigabit Ethernet. And my mastercard didn’t hardly notice the cost. And the space… 2 Tbytes is 80,000 times the capacity of the 25 Mbyte drives that were the standard in my youth.

      (we all know the drill… Uphill both ways in foot deep snow, and we we ENJOYED it!… :-) )

      The first live “video game”, SPACEWAR! was thousands of lines of assembly language pushing the DEC PDP-1 nearly to its limit. For fun, I implemented most of that game (lacking the shooting) in about 170 lines of JavaScript that runs in any modern browser, in a few hours. My current job is embedded data acquisition / control, and I don’t speak JavaScript fluently. That is what we have today.

      FYI, all of the testing, support, validation, etc. scripting for our projects where I work are written in Python. Again, it’s a golden age. From microcontrollers (Micropython on ARM Cortex M4) to our largest servers.

      Cool has always been and will always be found in what we do with the resources at hand.

    2. Know what? I recall seeing that low-power MSP430 chips from Texas Instruments architecturally are very similar to the PDP-11. TI has accessible Launchpad kits and add-ons to get your hands on. Funny thing is, I would be putting otherwise exhausted AA batteries to run it.

  5. A cool reminder as well as why communism is a crap system of running a society.

    While there was a highly educated population, the USSR was copying an old technology and could not even provide toilet paper while many in the west had this computing power and more for less than a month or two of take home pay of that era.

    1. Well the 1945 starting position of USA & USSR was not exactly equal, pretty sure that a democratic USA that had been invaded and seen similar Soviet type destruction and casualty figures would not have been so far ahead in IC design, compared to an untouched but communist USSR.

      1. That, and putting aside the fact that the average American reader on Hack-A-Day seemed to have been in his 20’s during the heyday of the Red Scare and leaded gasoline, and so wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between democratic socialism and communism if his life depended on it.

  6. Brings back memories of hydrographic surveying with NOAA in the late 70’s. PDP8’s were the mainstay onboard the sea going vessels. Flipping switches and feeding them paper tape was just a normal day.

  7. I worked with a PDP=8I too, back in the ’70s. Those piano key switches – you *could* enter an machine code program but you hardly ever did. You would enter a short program – pre-printed on the front panel – that loaded a simplified paper tape reader that in turn loaded the “real” paper tape reader. Then you used the reader to load the program you actually wanted to run.

    You didn’t have to do this dance very often because the memory contents survived power showdowns and restarts, since it was what was then called “core memory”, meaning “ferrite cores”.

  8. Pretty stupid to ask when it should have been “frozen”. There have been tremendous offshoot advancements and benefits from easy-access technology. Kids can perform machine learning at home now. Then again, 4chan isn’t exactly the pinnacle of mental evolution to begin with, so who’s surprised they would wonder this?

  9. In the mid 80s I was a field service tech for DEC, I worked on machines ranging from the 11/730 to the 11/780, eventually working on 8600s. Looking to make some real money, several friends from college who worked with me conspired to steal parts from our local Logistics section, which I then sold to wholesalers around the US, including one that assured me that he wasn’t concerned about serial numbers on parts as they were being sent into countries where they wouldn’t be under DEC maintenance. I took this to mean Soviet Bloc countries, although he never directly said so.

    The most popular part was the motherboard for the MicroVAX II. We quickly discovered that due to a pricing error, these boards could be purchased through Logistics for around $1,100 US, and I was selling them for $8,000 each. If only we’d discovered this pricing error earlier we never would have stolen the parts, we would have simply purchased them outright.

    Unfortunately, the FBI caught up with me, and I was charged and convicted of interstate transportation of stolen property. I agreed to cooperate with the FBI, but I concocted a story that left out my friends’ involvement, leaving me holding the proverbial bag. I was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison, and served 8, plus 5 years parole. None of my co-conspirators were ever charged, and all soon left DEC for greener pastures. They all had a dark shadow over them from their connection to me, but I’m glad that none of them were charged.

    One of the funny things about this misadventure is that about a year after my release, I was at a local university’s surplus department one morning and sitting the dock was a VAX 8550, complete with RA81 disk drives and TU80 tape drives, and other accessories. I asked about the machine and was told that they were waiting for a scrapper to pick it up, but I persuaded them to let me have it, including a letter and receipt so that my parole officer wouldn’t think that I’d stolen it. It took several trips in my van to get it all home, and several days to disassemble everything, move it all into my basement, then reassemble it all. It took up fully one half of the basement, approximately 500 Sq ft. I never did manage to get it all running, due to a lack of 3-phase power in my house, but I did use the RA and TU drives with a MicroVAX II that I bought for $35.

    When I moved out of state all the equipment was left in my basement, and eventually my sister paid a scrapper to haul it all away. It’s a real shame, because the total value of that equipment, to someone in need, was probably around $10,000 at the time it was scrapped.

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