A Look Back At The USSR Computer Industry

According to [Asianometry], in 1986 the Soviet Union had about 10,000 computers. At the same time, the United States had 1.3 million! The USSR was hardly a backward country — they’d launched Sputnik and made many advances in science and mathematics. Why didn’t they have more computers? The story is interesting and you can see it in the video below.

Apparently when news of ENIAC reached the USSR, many dismissed it as fanciful propaganda. However, there were some who thought computing would be the future. Sergey Lebedev in Ukraine built a “small” machine around 1951. Small, of course, is relative since the machine had 6,000 tubes in it. It performed 250,000 calculations for artillery tables in about 2 and half hours.

The success of this computer led to two teams being asked to build two different machines. Although one of the machines was less capable, the better machine needed a part they could only get from the other team which they withheld, forcing them to use outdated — even then — mercury delay lines for storage.

The more sophisticated machine, the BESM-1, didn’t perform well thanks to this substitution and so the competitor, STRELA, was selected. However, it broke down frequently and was unable to handle certain computations. Finally, the BESM-1 was completed and was the fastest computer in Europe for several years starting in 1955.

By 1959, the Soviets produced $59 million worth of computer parts compared to the US’s output of around $1 billion.  There are many reasons for the limited supply and limited demand that you’ll hear about in the video. In particular, there was little commercial demand for computers in the Soviet Union. Nearly all the computer usage was in the military and academia.

Eventually, the Russians wound up buying and copying the IBM 360. Not all of the engineers thought this was a good idea, but it did have the advantage of allowing for existing software to run. The US government tried to forbid IBM from exporting key items, so ICL — a UK company — offered up their IBM 360-compatible system.

The Soviets have been known to borrow tech before. Not that the west didn’t do some borrowing, too, at least temporarily.

58 thoughts on “A Look Back At The USSR Computer Industry

    1. hm, didn’t watch the video,… will do, but i really miss a word or two about ternary computing. especially because ternary is inherent in dialectics ( the ideology and philosophy of the udssr ). most of todays computations would benefit from a balacend ternary representation of numbers.

  1. copied technology is great because, for example, it lets them stand on the shoulders of the excellent work IBM did without b being beholden to the absolute garbage that IBM does.

    that is to say, “keep the good and toss the rest” has to start with opportunistically grasping what you can reach.

    1. It’s sort of the give a man a fish vs. the teach a man to fish. When you copy a system you can understand the system well enough (you have to) but you don’t get the experiences of building it, knowing what is a good approach moving forward, what the pitfalls of the past were you should avoid, you have the skills to build what you have but lack many skills to move forward. Although the Russians did pretty will with the AA-12.

      1. After a certain level of technological advancement, you can’t really expect someone to just inspire an alternative.

        Silicon in particular has grown so complex, even the copyright holders don’t understand the full design, just reusing whatever works

        Its not like the Soviet tractors and urban development where entirely original either.

  2. The reason is that the soviet union, and communism in general, is much less efficient than open market capitalism.

    Basically, any attempt to control or manage human production comes down to a “guess” on the part of the controllers, and this is often wrong and almost never optimal. Free market capitalism allows anyone to make that same guess, and the ones who guess wrong go out of business, but the ones who guess right become successful.

    Take a moment to google “GDP per capita” for Russia and note that the US produces about 6x the wealth, per person, as Russia.

    Historically speaking, overly controlled ventures have always failed. A good example is the attempts at a Georgia settlement by Oglethorpe (ca. 1732) which was planned down to the final detail and never exceeded 6,000 residents. After 20 years of attempts the settlement failed, was abandoned, all bans and prohibitions were lifted, and the settlement thereafter grew to over 160,000.

    Despite the best of intentions, history is littered with the failed attempts to plan out human endeavors, many of which precede the writings of Karl Marx. When taken in total, the failures make a strong argument against overreaching control of human activity. It seems that the best course of action a government can take is to make laws protecting the rights of the people, and then get out of the way.

    To be fair, unrestricted capitalism has faults that need to be reined in; for example, selling harmful products shouldn’t be allowed. If you can set up a system of rules that protects people from the harms of capitalism, and if that system is flexible enough to detect new harms when they arise, then capitalism is wildly more efficient than communism.

    1. “Take a moment to google “GDP per capita” for Russia and note that the US produces about 6x the wealth, per person, as Russia.”

      The choice of randomly selected stats rather undermines your thesis. Why is GDP per capita an important metric – how does it specifically support your thesis? Even if it were, doesn’t a sensible comparison dictate that the make-up of the populations share the same demographic distributions, economic structures and so on? The number of uncontrolled variables between any pair of randomly selected countries are so vast in number as to make this a meaningless comparison on its own.

      (I have a real beef with people picking random statistics to support an argument without suitable justification. Hopefully the HaD audience is more discerning than most when it comes this sort of thing).

      1. My thesis was that communism is less efficient than capitalism for building wealth, so choosing the wealth generated per person under the two regimes is the right one to use for comparison. Per person, people under a communist regime produce less wealth than people under freer, more capitalistic regimes.

        I thought it was rather obvious, but I’m willing to learn.

        Rather than say “you can’t do that” with no justification, tell us why wealth per person is not the right statistic, and what statistics *can* we use for comparison?

        I’d be interested to hear of any statistics that show Communism is more efficient than Capitalism, if you can find any.

        And also, as everyone knows, lots and lots of internet trolls defend communism all over the internet with specious arguments like the one you use. Many of these trolls live under communist regimes, and are paid by the regime to save face on the international stage.

        Give us a response with some substance. Let’s hear your argument, so that the discerning audience can decide for themselves.

        1. GDP measures the movement of money, not productivity. It doesn’t differentiate for instance whether money is changing hands in pointless financial games, or actually producing something useful.

          The Soviets had different metrics of measuring real productivity, such as tonne-kilometers for measuring how efficiently distribution works. The problem was that the five year plans were complete fantasy and everybody falsified the records to meet the impossible targets.

          1. And secondly, it’s pointless to measure productivity in GDP and compare to a different country when the money is artificially valued on both sides of the equation.

            You could attempt to use GDP-PP for a comparison, but that’s also forgetting that the Soviet economy had price controls and the money was not actually worth the money.

          2. But why compare with the US not Brazil. At the time of the revolution Russia was level with Brazil. Fifty years later it was well ahead of Brazil.

        2. I’m not sure if any of these would “show Communism is more efficient”, but they may make for a more objective comparison. Things like:
          – Literacy
          – Equality (wealth or/and literacy delta between sex, race, age, etc.)
          – Medical access
          – Homelessness
          – Number of computers

          Possibly consider (long term) rate-of-change of those metrics to see if things are improving or getting worse with time.

          Not hear to argue fore or against either system.

          P.s.: You do come across as distinctly anti-communist, and probably not really looking to objectively comparing the two systems.

          1. “Equality” is not a valuable metric nor even a worthy goal or good aim. A country full of poverty can score high on the “equality” index. The problem was never income inequality per se, but poverty and the misuse of financial wealth for corrupt ends and tyrannical political control. So you’re better off trying to somehow capture those (poverty should be relatively easy).

            Ironically, socialism (the USSR was a socialist state; communism has never existed) is marked by high inequality where high ranking party members live like rich capitalists while everyone else is poor or at least of much lesser means.

      2. Correct! He should have just focused on how many of their own citizens communist regimes purge/execute. See Kolyma gulag, Holodomor (the part played by American journalist Walter Duranty is fascinating), etc. Then you can segue to useful idiots/innocents/simpletons – a whole language shift with an amazing background. Enjoy!

      3. “ doesn’t a sensible comparison dictate that the make-up of the populations share the same demographic distributions, economic structures and so on”

        No. Comparisons are not limited to entities that are similar. In fact, comparing wildly dissimilar systems can be very useful, and we should do it with gusto.

    2. “To be fair, unrestricted capitalism has faults that need to be reined in;”

      Neither system is “good”, perhaps.

      Capitalism, at it’s core, is exploitation of man by man himself. Economy is always a win/loose relationship. If one place is prosperous, it’s on the cost of another place. It’s a give/take situation. Resources, wealth is moved around, not increasd. Infinite market growth is an illusion, too. Resources on earth aren’t infinite.

      Communism isn’t “good” either, because it’s generalizating people. Forcing them into roles.
      Not respecting the needs of the individual.
      However, it acted as a counter part to capitalism, also.
      Since the Soviet Union is gone, we nolonger have an alternative. People born in 21th century nolonger can self-reflect as well thus. Capitalism is taken for granted nowadays. There nolonger are two or multiple systems fighting for the people. Because the rivalry is gone, we don’t see alternatives anymore, of which some might be positive even.

      Socialism at its core, was a good idea, but it’s hard to realize yet. In the vision of Star Trek, it’s possible because human needs are satisfied. And because human society has come together as a whole. People want to be a positive contribution to society. Hunger, poverty is gone, living space is readily available. Thanks in parts to the removal of money as a driving force and the use of synthesizers (replicators).

      Anyway, it’s perhaps good to not divide the world in black and white.
      Maybe a mixture of different concepts or “systems” has a future.

      Because, reducing people to workers is a shame.
      We work to live, but don’t live to work.

      Civilizations thousands of years ago did understand this. Hopefully, we will re-learn this one day.

      Thinking of economy and markets is a kid’s play. It’s time we as a society grow up and go beyond this.

      PS: I suppose the ideas of Karl-Marx were either misunderstood or often turned upside down on purpose. He had the vision of a society that was fair and compassionate, yet some regimes did take his ideas to his advantage. Sad story.

        1. The occult divides souls into two types, those who are service to self (STS) dark triad types and those who are service to others (STO) altruists/ charitables. capitalism and communism both seem to favour the STS.

      1. >Socialism at its core, was a good idea

        It was completely nonsensical – it sits on a philosophical foundation that is liable to get things horribly wrong. See Karl Popper’s criticism on the subject.

        1. Sop does pure free-market capitalism. As Communism requires all actors to exhibit perfect altruism and contribute regardless of reward, Capitalism requires all actors to make perfect choices based on a full understanding of all factors involved. That the field of ‘marketing’ exists is a demonstration that that assumption is a failure in practice.

      2. “People want to be a positive contribution to society.”

        There’s the problem right there. How many people do we come across each day that have this mindset? It seems to me most people would rather attack their neighbor than help them. What’s the saying, something like “every nation has the government that they deserve”. I think lots of people would like to sink this ship, even though they’re on it.

        1. “It seems to me most people would rather attack their neighbor than help them”

          Here’s how I think materialist philosophy answers that. The reason many people are so competitive and hostile towards their neighbor is exactly due to the material conditions of capitalism that *promotes* these values.

          For example, in the same way, the material conditions of feudalism played a role in defining men-women relationship for centuries and establishing inequalities that has taken capitalism centuries to even try to address.

          But because the material conditions of capitalism enabled for example the woman to become a worker instead of being “at home”, it redefined the men-woman relationship, especially after WW1, WW2, where women became workers in great scale.

    3. I mostly agree with you, having lived in socialism before. Bureaucracy and various limitations imposed on private endeavors were probably biggest problems, together with arbitrary government goals for whatever they decided to accomplish ( build a useless canal between 2 frozen rivers in the far north, for example).

      But modern capitalism is heavily regulated and skewed. Bureaucracy is stifling, private rights and endeavors are more and more limited, arbitrary government goals are more and more prevalent, ideology trumps reason … you see where this is going, right?

      1. The irony is that the modern capitalist corporations we’re all complaining about are a creature of the state. Corporate personhood, limited liability etc. exist only as they are defined to exist by laws, so much of the problems we’re facing are directly caused by governments writing laws that favor rich tycoons – which they often are themselves. This is not a feature of “capitalism”, it is better known as crony capitalism.

        1. Yes. It might have started with taxation, which gives government more money and power over time, as taxes are increased? And as we all know, power corrupts. And the trend seems to be that we are sliding into more and more taxation with less and less representation …

          Not to mention ideological dogmas that defy logic (and questioning them is forbidden). They were prevalent in socialism, and now they are becoming prevalent in the mainstream Western society. So differences blur over time.

    4. You are mixing Russia and Soviet Union, that are different entities. Russia is a liberal and capitalistic country.
      Continental China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and the economi it’s still thriving.

      The difference is between democratic regimes and authoritarian regimes, where if the former case it’s easy to change a moron leader, in the latter requires in most cases the use of a lot of lethal force, causing in the mentime a lot of damage to the country.
      In authoritarian regimes the leader group, fearing palace cospiracy, tends to stop, or even dispose of, other possible brilliant people, and the result is that there isn’t people that could succeed. See what happened in Soviet Union especially with Satalina and Breznev, or for China what happened under Mao

  3. “in 1986 the Soviet Union had about 10,000 computers. At the same time, the United States had 1.3 million!”
    I doubt these numbers. Even before 1986 the Soviets produced or had access to clones of western chips. IBM had a sales office in Moscow since the early 1970s and it was easy to circumvent CoCom restrictions. So these 10k computers are maybe the systems known to US espionage back then.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think this is right at all. Perhaps it’s just the number of mainframes or other large systems, and probably not the complete number either. By 1986 there were minicomputers, home computers and kits, personal computers (although mostly used as multi-user workstations in small lab/class environments) and so on. Computer games were published/distributed in magazines, and Pajitnov wrote Tetris for E-60 in 1984.

    2. Ah yes…

      The agreement which allowed the USA to sell high tech to the Soviets while banning the sale of contraceptive drugs and condoms to ‘black’ African nations.

    3. Really strange numbers. Apple II sold a million units in 1983, so the total for US seems low. By 1986 there were classrooms with Apple II clones in most schools in Bulgaria (not USSR, but close by)

      1. As someone who grew up in the USA, in a poor-income county of a mid- to upper-income state, we only had access to computers in our common library and computer lab in high school as of the year 2000, computers in lower grades both in public and private schools in my area seemed uncommon. I’d like to see a reference proving your assertion is true, that Bulgaria really had that many school computers, considering that both our assertions are anecdotal.

  4. The article is definitely wrong with both IBM 360 and Shuttle. ES EVM line had a very different architecture and underlying tech, it’s just been made compatible with IBM S/360. Same with Shuttle/Buran, a copy was considered early by the designers, but they ended up with a fundamentally different vehicle anyway.

  5. 1986, 1.5 million computers in the US ???? There were more Commodore Vic 20s than that ???
    (discontinued January 1985, 2.5 Million manufactured. although some went overseas )

    1. Yeah, throw your brother under the bus!

      What would your golf pro Uncle Ted or your other uncle, Andy (the singer) think about you doing that!

  6. The only answer to the whole communism – capitalism debate is the evolution of a third option, which will also promise a shed load of computers – EVERYWHERE. You all know what I’m talking about …. but ….. shhhhhhh ….. dont tell anybody!

  7. Yup, computers has definitely came a long way from decades ago. The amount of processing power that we use back in the day is just a tiny fraction from what powers a desktop these days.

    Such an evolution!

  8. No, it is absolutely a feature of capitalism. The core mechanic of capitalism is increasing one’s wealth by any means necessary. Which means acquiring as much capital as possible and defending it with whatever means necessary.

    You could tear down all of the state apparatuses except those necessary to maintain capitalism, and a regulatory state would STILL appear because 1) regulations are in the best interests of the wealthiest people in the society, to stomp out competition and defend their wealth, and also 2) regulation is in the best interests of the public, due to capitalism being absolutely brutal without regulations.

    1. Don’t forget that the Capita in Capital is Latin for ‘head’.. Essentially Capitalism is the post Mercantile (state associated private industry) philosophy designed to excuse slavery

      Supposedly Communism is meant to maintain ‘Community Interest’ and Socialism ‘Social Interest’ as well.. But find me a benevolent dictator that I can use as a control group for my totally scientific studies of the whims of the rich and their manipulation of the poor

  9. Enters the pedant, to say: the USSR’s system wasn’t communist, that was just the claimed eventual end state. As a practical matter, it was rule by committee, which is to say that it was analogous to a very large privately held corporation. The saving grace of OECD economies was/is that if – say – GE does a really crappy job allocating resources, a competitor will come along and eat their lunch. Capital hasn’t also been happy with the amount of work going into this virtuous cycle, hence the degree of rent seeking you see nowadays.

    Re GDP, as was pointed out, a GDP-to-GDP comparison with the US/Japan/Germany/UK et al wasn’t valid, because so much of the USSR’s output went into military systems. Military investment is a rather unique economic good: when national survival is on the line, it’s worth every ruble. But its utility quickly drops off for circumstances short of that.

    Back on the OT, in retrospect, yes, copying the IBM 360 (and the PDP 11 microcode) turned out to be sub-optimal. Not because it was a bad idea in itself (recalling my MSEE colleagues decades back singing the song of “always go off-the-shelf” for sub assemblies if available), but because they wasted the opportunity presented by using a known working baseline.

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