Soviet Scientific Failures: Computer Industry

Figure 1.-- Another example is the Nintendo hand-held game "Octopus" (1983) (figure 1). Here Nu did not even bother to change the Octopus when they released the Soviet version (1989). Put your cursor on the image to see the pirate Soviet version. The name was "Tainy Okeana" (Secrets of the Ocean). Of coiurse no royalties were ever paid to Nitendo.

A fascinating topic is the Soviet Union did not develop a world class computer industry. If ever a country needed computers it was the Soviet Union as it was running a planned economy. This is particularly interesting because mathematics is such a key element in computer technology and the Soviet Union had world class mathematicians. Many countries did not have the capability of building a computer industry. The Soviet Union was not one of them. Russia had the technical capability, in fact probably more technically capable individuals than America. So the question of why it did not occur is a very interesting one.

Factors Impeding Computer Developmet

There appear to be several factors impeding the development of a Soviet computer industry.

Copying Foreign Technology

A Russian reader has forwarded this assessment. The USSR in the 1950s-60s had a good scientific and technological base to develop it's own computer science. As I remember, a computer BESM-VI created under guidance of professor Lebedev gained a gold medal on the world exhibition in Bruxelles. But later communists began to demand a lot of computers for army needs. And the young Soviet computer science couldn't yet supply a mass production of computers. Then the Central Committee decided to cancel the Soviet computer program and to steal American computers (1972). The plan was to copy American computers and mass produce them. It was a deadly shot for the Soviet Union's own computer science and technology. Canceled science programs, closed institutes, fired scientists and so on. Soviet agents surepticiously purchased American computers. The United States restricted sales of technology to the Sovet Union that had military potential. several U.S. computer models (IBM System /360 /370, DEC PDP-4/PDP-11 etc) were obtained through South Africa and other intermediary countries. In Warsaw Pact countries IBM copies were called "SM" and DEC copies were called "ES". So, since 1972 all Soviet digital electronics were, in fact, ilegal copies of Western (mostly American) production. For example, Soviet copy of "Apple II" was called "Agat", Soviet copy of "Yamaha MSX II" was called "Korvet", Soviet copy of "Sinclair ZX Spectrum" was called "Delta" and so on. Usually those copies, compared with their prototypes were of poor quality, roughly made and totally incompatible. Soviet engineers had great difficulty producing functioning copies of the Intel 8080 Central Processing chip (Soviet name KP580BM80A), but they could not make at all a working copy of a Zilog Z-80 CP chip. I think it must be a painful, but useful lesson for everybody. If you decline to support a science and technology infrastructure in your own country and begin to exploit stolen technologies (it is so easy, isn't ?) - a degradation will be the result."

Limits on Personal Freedom

We doubt if Soviet officials really wanted a lot of personal computers (PCs) floating around the country. What they wanted was the large main frames that had military applications. Thus there was little interest in building PCs. It is my understanding that even plain old typewriters had to be registered! Copy machines were carefully watched over. Computers provided a way of allowing people to develop and exchange ideas much more effectively than typewriters and copy machines. Main frame were made in small numbers and access could be carefully controlled. PCs on the other hand wee probably viewed with considerable suspicion. And in America it was the PC that played a huge role in the development of computer technology.

Free Market Forces

Free market forces are another important fctor. This is important because it was the mass sales of computers that played a role in financing the research that so advanced the industry in America. The profits and incentives attracted entrepreneurs and innovative developers. And private individuals could run with their ideas without getting approval of government officials.


Computers were at first decveloped by large corportations such as IBM, Sperry Rand, and others. Large corporations (just like Soviet state agencies) are often unwilling to innovate. Note that many of the major compaies today (Appel, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and others) are startup companies founded in the 1980s. And there are many much more recent startups (Google, Red Hat, RIMM, and others.) They picked up on technology that the larger established companies were not willing to commit capital to develop. This was an possibility that was nit available in the Soviet Union.

Childrens Games

This oprating of Wesern technology not only occurred in main frame computers, but also in consumer electronics. Wjile the Soviets were suspious of PCs, electronic gameswere considered safe. And they were very popular with boys and continue to be. Note he boys in a Moscow private school. We note virtually exact copies of these campes produced in Japan and the West appearing in the Soviet Union. Nintendo/Disney released a hand-held game "Mickey Mouse" game (1981). We see a pirated Soviet copy (1986). It was produced under the Soviet trade name "Nu, pogodi!" (Just you wait!). The Soviet copy replaced Mickey & Minnie with Wolf and Hare, heroes of the popular Soviet cartoon serial. The game itself was identical. Another example is the Nintendo hand-held game "Octopus" (1983) (figure 1). Here Nu did not even bother to change the Octopus when they released the Soviet version (1989). Te name was "Tainy Okeana" (Secrets of the Ocean). Of coiurse no royalties were ever paid to Nitendo.

Russia Today

A question here. The Soviet Union disappeared in 1992. Actually computers only began to change America in the 1990s. During the 80s in my agency went to a computer office in our agency. for computer services. If I recall correctly we got our first PC in 1986 and we only got individual computers in our work stations about 1992. Why now with the evil old Communists gone is not a computer industry developing in Russia. I just read that the Central Bank gave IBM a big contract. All of the major countries around the world have important computer companies. Why is one not developing in Russia? My point of course is that there was something more involved than just the decision to copy/steal technology that is still impeding the development of world class indusry in Russia.


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Created: 9:37 AM 2/12/2009
Last updated: 9:37 AM 2/12/2009