Transnational Cold War Computer Science: The Akademgorodok Computer Center

A review of A House with the Window to the West: The Akademgorodok Computer Center (1958-1993), by Ksenia Tatarchenko.

As conventional wisdom would have it, communism was incapable of adapting to the demands of the Information Age. Most accounts of the Cold War-era computing revolution are predictably lopsided, but was the emergence of contemporary computer technology even as much of a single-handedly American endeavor as is often suggested? When Soviet developments warrant attention, structural deficiencies such as poor incentives, inadequate infrastructure, shoddy training, or corruption are standard explanations for a fateful East-West innovation gap. But is the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union truly attributable to a failure to integrate epoch-altering lessons in timely fashion? Was the Iron Curtain as impermeable in the context of the emergent discipline of Computer Science as the popular imagery of political and military standoff might suggest? Ksenia Tatarchenko presents an alternative perspective on the history of computing that starts in a Siberian “science city,” following networks and individuals across temporal, political, and disciplinary boundaries. In her telling, Soviet specialists not only generated a viable path for the integration of computing into their socialist society, but did so in far closer dialog with the international scientific community than has previously been imagined.

At the core of the dissertation is the history of a single institution—the Akademgorodok Computer Center—over more than three decades from its inception to the early post-Soviet era. The primary vehicle for that narrative is what Tatarchenko calls “a triple biographical approach” (p. 27) built around key specialists affiliated with the center. Themselves giants of Soviet mathematics, computing and science administration, their stories weave readily into the collectives, concepts, and culture that surrounded them. The interdisciplinary and techno-futurist ambitions of these main protagonists combine with an eclectic source base and methodological toolkit to place this work at a productive crossroads of multiple academic conversations. These include a spatially and culturally-contingent sociology of science; an important debate about the relationship between expert knowledge and power in the Soviet Union and other modern societies; competing emphases on hardware-driven and programming development in the history of computing; and many social, cultural, and intellectual aspects of late Soviet life just beginning to garner academic attention.

Following an introduction that positions the study within these overlapping literatures, the first chapter finds a fitting setting for a story of post-Stalinist scientific development: the construction site of the headquarters for the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ newly founded Siberian Branch near Novosibirsk. Arguing for the entanglement of scientific practice and its social context, Tatarchenko locates Akademgorodok at the confluence of local, national, and international trends, transformations within Soviet society, and the emergence of “modern Big Science” (p. 28). She builds on and challenges previously published work on Akademgorodok, particularly that of Paul Josephson and Ivan Kuznetsov. In the classic English-language study of the Siberian “science city,” Josephson depicts the initial utopian aspirations of an intellectual haven dragged down by the inevitable shortcomings of an inflexible system (New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). While that argument attempts to encompass the swing from high aspirations to imperfections, this study provides a more dispassionate approach to shifts in political patronage and the relationship between science and 1960s Soviet society. Presented as a process of simultaneous actual and mythologized place-making from its inception, Akademgorodok was a new mix of familiar organizational forms accessible to the imaginations of its creators amidst the conditions and ambitions of Khrushchev-era reforms. If Akademgorodok was for Soviet science—as the dissertation title suggests—a somewhat oddly located “window to the west,” the role of pioneering Peter the Great in its dramatic opening was played by Mikhail Lavrentiev. Climbing trees to survey the future site, living with his wife in a former forest ranger’s quarters, and enacting in that space the kind of tight link between social and intellectual life that characterized the nascent town’s early days, the academician cut a youthful and dynamic figure. While enthusiasm and personal networks hit limits early on, they also left an imprint on the life and physical environment of the city, from the director-dominated institutes linked by unplanned foot-worn pedestrian pathways, to impromptu gatherings defying rigid social distinction. Tatarchenko is careful to temper the idyllic imagery with the national and even international scientific and administrative ambitions of Lavrentiev and his allies. Akademgorodok was “simultaneously a reflection of the scientists’ ideal and a pragmatic calculation” (p. 48), one that entailed and relied upon an ever closer (not more distant as others suggest) link to Moscow.

A key element of that link to the national stage discussed in this first chapter is the expansion of Soviet scientific and popular media along with Akademgorodok in the Thaw era. From top administrators like Lavrentiev down to entry-level researchers, participants seemed cognizant of their role as “face and showcase” (p. 72) in a new transformative project. Their daily work—the “face”—was meaningful in enacting a technologically advanced future that would soon spread to the entire socialist society, and its presentation—the “showcase”—was a crucial element of promoting and realizing the dream. Scientists were heroes of feature films, Lavrentiev was on the pages of Pravda and Novyi Mir, and nearly every publication with any youth appeal sent a correspondent to Akademgorodok. Tatarchenko caps the city’s meteoric rise to domestic stardom with an equivalent escalation in international exchange and recognition. By the early 1960s, just as the institute buildings were being completed, Lavrentiev and his wife led a group of scientists on a delegation to Paris, and Akademgorodok hosted conferences of East German and American specialists. The window was open for the flow of scientific knowledge.

With the second chapter, Tatarchenko moves into the Akademgorodok Computer Center (hereafter ACC), specifically the programming group led by Andrei Ershov. She argues that a new professional identity emerged for Soviet computing specialists: a “hybrid” (p. 105) of establishment R&D and emergent cultural movements of the 1960s. New institutions and disciplines with corresponding budgetary, manpower, and resource allocations were no minor event in the Soviet Academy, making the Computer Center a productive place to press conclusions in previous work by Slava Gerovitch (on Soviet cybernetics) and Vladislav Zubok (on Soviet intelligentsia). That such centers, the technology, and the talent to staff them were emerging almost simultaneously with Akademgorodok adds to the excitement, just as it did to contemporary programmers’ sense of unprecedented opportunity. After citing the roots of Soviet computing—much like its Western corollary—in wartime research and cybernetic discourses, the chapter recounts the ACC’s two biggest projects of the 1960s. A major source of income as well as authority at home and abroad, Ershov’s Alpha automatic programming system relied heavily on collective input and the communal practices that encouraged it. For Tatarchenko, this includes playful and supportive behavior as well as disciplinary action invoking standardized rhetoric about socialist labor. The failure of a more ambitious, subsequent project for a time-sharing system known as AIST that would process information from multiple connected computer sources indicates the limitations of this strong collective in overcoming mercurial political patronage as well as the “technological hubris” (p. 134) familiar among the ACC’s Western contemporaries. A strong contribution to an underdeveloped space in the historiography on the late Soviet period, this chapter’s discussion of the controversy around a Komsomol group called “Fakel” comprised largely of Computer Center programmers captures the ambivalent atmosphere of state efforts to incentivize innovation in the so-called Kosygin reforms of the mid-to-late-1960s. This “grey zone that appeared between the planning and entrepreneurial aspects of the Soviet scientific economy” (p. 142) held out benefits to creative, young specialists and promised tailored programming solutions to local clients, but it also raised questions about the misuse of resources, labor, and intellectual property—all of which ultimately belonged to the state. At least as frequently, such dual use of specialized programming services stretched Computer Center staff with obligations to the military-industrial complex. Ershov and his team’s successes and reputation made their participation inevitable, and the budgetary advantages were indisputable; but tradeoffs and conflicts of interest were quick to emerge once a Radio Ministry design bureau started making overlapping demands. More than an issue of preferring Akademgorodok’s forests and interdisciplinary openness to an isolated proving ground in Kazakhstan, the subtle tug-of-war over specialist consultation is shown to have implications for the professional identity of the Soviet programmer, the incremental clarification of software’s status as socialist commodity, and the parallel, semi-civilian acculturation of technical elites on both sides of the Cold War divide. Returning to the scene of deeply integrated intellectual and cultural life through the lens of the famously indecisive intelligentsia “physicists and lyricists” debate on creativity and self-fulfillment, Tatarchenko argues for a collective identity and techno-futurist commitment that survived the political “crackdown” of 1968 often presented as pivotal or even fatal.

With the Siberian “science city” and the Soviet computing profession both built, the third chapter delivers on the promise to place programming in transnational context. Tatarchenko insists that the Cold War did not prevent the formation of international networks and intellectual communities, but shaped their development. Again computer science is particularly well-placed as an emergent field, and its specialists are shown to be important mediators among different and even opposing geographical, political, and epistemic registers. Ershov is now navigating the international scientific community to gather and exchange information while simultaneously presenting Soviet achievements. The primary link that he develops is to the American programmer John McCarthy. Through a painstaking reconstruction of visits, correspondence and collaboration between the Stanford computer science pioneer and the Siberian fellow traveler, Tatarchenko uncovers commitments to mathematical theory and the potential of man-machine interaction far deeper than ideology. Drawn repeatedly to Akademgorodok and “the Soviet intelligentsia subculture” (p. 218), McCarthy encountered more than the dysfunctional socialist imitation of his own Silicon Valley to which the “science city” has often been reduced. His letters likewise show interest in the particular potential for programming applications in the centrally planned economy. This is not to say that geopolitical considerations and domestic dynamics fall out of scope. One misrepresented remark by Ershov during a 1965 visit to the United States required assurances to the President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Mstislav Keldysh, that he meant no insult to his own computer industry. With the fate of future foreign travel possibly in the balance, Ershov seized an opportunity to tout advantages of international computing cooperation despite some American media mistreatment. Americans visiting and reporting on Soviet computer technology likewise sold a particular picture of the international environment with an eye towards goals for the domestic development of their discipline. For her Cold War context, Tatarchenko does well to borrow the concept of “dual loyalties” introduced by Nikolai Krementsov to describe interwar geneticists’ investment in a borderless scientific discussion despite heightened national awareness (International Science between the World Wars: The Case of Genetics. London: Routledge, 2005). Both the ceremonial practices—of “reciprocity” (p. 181) in showing technology to visiting delegations—and the professional tasks—of “translation and contribution…completely interdependent” (p. 193)—that were required of Tatarchenko’s protagonists highlight the increasingly important mediatory role played by the scientific elite in Cold War geopolitics, while foreshadowing the truly global explosion of the computing revolution in later years. By the late 1960s, Ershov is an integrated member of an intellectual community, composing official reports on the state of affairs in Soviet programming that mirror international concerns about software engineering and innovative design. Vital to the overall argument, Tatarchenko reiterates, he blazed this trail “within the Soviet science system, not against it” (p. 235).

The dissertation’s fourth chapter pivots to the later career of Andrei Ershov to make one of its key assertions: the Soviet Union did, in fact, enter the Information Age, albeit in unique and unexpected fashion. Both Tatarchenko and her protagonists display great creativity in maintaining engagement throughout the 1970s and 1980s, too often reduced to decades of stagnation and collapse in which Soviet technology falls out of the American-centered narrative. Though not a full participant in the transformations then underway in the Western software industry, Ershov captured the aesthetic of their shared endeavor as few could in a widely cited 1972 talk at a conference in the United States. To an audience concerned with increased corporatization, Ershov struck an idealist note in a call for creative educational methods and mass programming literacy, what Tatarchenko labels “a mythology of profession” (p. 239). Linking this to his prior work in automatic programming and technical pedagogy as well as his conviction that programming must serve a greater social—indeed, socialist—purpose, the chapter builds a counter-narrative to the familiar story of falling behind the American pace of hardware production to suggest a wholly different Soviet vision of mass technological engagement. Within the history of computing, Tatarchenko follows the work of Michael Mahoney and Nathan Ensmenger in considering the implications of “decentering the machine” (p. 242), but the relevance to Soviet historiography should also be clear. The ambitions and frustrations of the flagship project pursued by the ACC in the 1970s, known as the Beta or Internal Language, demonstrate many of the tensions of that era—between generations of Soviet specialists, the above-mentioned “dual loyalties” in the context of potential Jewish emigration, and the ever-present dance between applied and fundamental scientific work. Beta was conceptualized as an automated intermediary between higher-level source languages and any hardware-specific language, the clear heir to Ershov’s earlier work in program-machine integration. Yet crucial contingencies of group dynamics, demands from industry deadlines, and the emigration via Israel to the United States of a top designer left the Beta project badly hobbled by mid-decade. Under these admittedly strained circumstances, Tatarchenko shows Ershov’s great efforts at generating nationally and internationally grounded discourses of computing’s past to fit his vision of its present and potential future. Once more the specialist doubles as a remarkably adroit organizer, summoning a 1978 international conference in honor of the medieval mathematician al-Khwarizmi—Latin namesake of the term “algorithm”—to the remote Uzbek desert city of Urgench where he was believed to have been born. For the Soviet state, this was a prime opportunity to glorify an isolated region and mythologize its scientific legacy. Interests coinciding, an intellectual community spanning East and West gained its chance to think philosophically and heroically about where their discipline had come from and where it might be headed. Famed American computer scientist Donald Knuth had to bring projector transparencies for the conference from around the globe, and Ershov himself lugged the projector from Siberia, but the tie across borders and epochs—the shared faith in the algorithm’s potential to transform human society—was reforged in a typically Soviet monument to al-Khwarizmi dedicated before the conference participants in the heart of Urgench. Tatarchenko locates this Uzbek episode amidst a transnational movement in the late 1970s for a history of computing, largely composed by the early luminaries themselves. Ershov’s stature positioned him well to participate in this process, an advantage he exploited to emphasize the Soviet contribution internationally and to advance his theoretically grounded vision for the programming profession domestically.

Andrei Ershov’s final success and one of the most compelling episodes in the dissertation comes with the translation of his long-cultivated dream into the all-Union school curriculum for Informatics. Steeped in the unique atmosphere of combined education and research that had been Akademgorodok’s hallmark for years, Ershov spent the early 1980s trumpeting programming as a “second literacy” for the dawning age. Benefitting from his multi-level messaging strategy and its new resonance in the transformative atmosphere of Gorbachev’s leadership, Ershov’s initiative rode a cascade of high-level state decisions, suddenly to become a centrally mandated subject in all 60,000 Soviet middle schools in September 1985. An amazing tale of the national reach of a quirky concept—with students across the world’s largest country acting out the role of an imaginary robot named “Dezhurik” programmed to “CLOSE WINDOW” or “CLEAN BLACKBOARD” (p. 277)—its implementation repeats themes in Ershov’s career and Soviet history more broadly. How would 100,000 teachers be retrained in one summer? What about access to actual computers and competing voices in the specialist community who considered such access imperative? Excerpts from Ershov’s correspondence capture the confusion of the revolutionary, short-lived pedagogical experiment powerfully. And while neither the program nor its author would survive the Soviet collapse (Ershov died in 1988), Tatarchenko makes a strong argument that we should see “his project of making Soviet schoolchildren into members of an information society” as emblematic of perestroika aspirations to transform not simply “Soviet state power structures but its very people” (p. 291).

Zooming back out from the programming group to the higher ranks of scientist-administrators with whom the dissertation began, Chapter 5 traces the life of Gurii Marchuk, successor to Akademgorodok’s founder Mikhail Lavrentiev and ultimately the last President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Already a theme throughout, here is Tatarchenko’s most direct confrontation with a trend in the history of Soviet science that posits the laboratory, the intellectual community, or the academic mind as a particular space of freedom (see, for example, Douglas R. Weiner, A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Instead, through Marchuk, she reveals repeated “instances of entanglement between science and power” (p. 298). Returning to the transnational setting of computational mathematics and Krementsov’s “dual loyalties,” Tatarchenko finds this particularly revealed in Marchuk’s détente-era partnership with the French scholar Jacques-Louis Lions. Both deeply embedded in their domestic scientific establishments, they nevertheless manipulate multiple opportunities and forms of international collaboration to create new opportunities. A peculiar set of Cold War circumstances—in which France from the mid-1960s attempted to strike a somewhat independent course from its American allies—generated additional possibilities, forming a triangle that tipped in all directions. Lions’ observations after a trip to the United States strengthen Tatarchenko’s call for a transnational perspective, suggesting there were some ways in which work at the French computer center INRIA (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) was organized “more like the Russians” (p. 313). In addition to this Soviet-French computing connection, Marchuk is important for his role as the second head of the Soviet Academy’s Siberian Branch, taking over from Lavrentiev in 1975. Fighting the reduction of Akademgorodok to a utopian dream buried with the career of its founder, Tatarchenko takes a more complex view of Marchuk’s tenure and the late Soviet period as a whole. Relationships between the scientist and the regional party organization are crucial to projects that would come to define his career but that echoed foundational principles of the Siberian Branch, namely: links between science and branches of industry, a plan of regional development, and a network of further science centers stretching across Siberia. To be sure, his tenure featured major Siberian development projects like the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway, Computer Centers were added at the “science cities” near Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk, and the topic of specialists’ role in the responsible development of regional resources was frequently raised. But before his recall to still higher positions in Moscow in 1980, Marchuk could do little more than use his networks to combat “a fundamental contradiction within the system” (p. 331) that trained experts to provide advice it might not be willing to heed. Much like Ershov’s late success with the installation of the school program in Informatics, Marchuk’s ascent to the presidency of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in fall 1986 represents both a consummation of the Akademgorodok experiment and an all-too-brief final phase in the story of Soviet science and technology. The USSR’s top academic bureaucrat found himself overtaken by the disorienting pace of events from early 1989, blamed by an older generation for his reforms and a younger generation for not moving fast enough. His fate, by late 1991, was to surrender the Soviet Academy’s positions and possessions to its Russian heir with an ominous warning against sacrificing the gains—however modest or fragmented—of Soviet Big Science at the uncertain altar of democracy.

Tatarchenko’s conclusion is part post-mortem and part departure point for this type of revisionist history. Post-Soviet Akademgorodok, after all, needed international assistance to sustain the bare minimum of academic and technological activity, yet it was capable of building its internet network in such short order thanks to the infrastructural remnants of an early local networking project authorized under Marchuk in the late 1970s. This physical artifact allowed for a crucial virtual connection to be built that might yet again help Akademgorodok overcome its physical remoteness and maintain the links to international scientific communities always considered vital by its visionaries, and increasingly prioritized in the developing global economy. In preparing the book version, Tatarchenko faces practical tradeoffs in making her material more immediately accessible to historians of computing or the Soviet Union, but this should have little bearing on the work’s importance to both groups, as well as to historians interested in the interaction of knowledge and power in modern societies more broadly.

Nicholas Levy
Department of History
Stanford University

Primary Sources

Andrei Ershov Archive
Charles Babbage Institute Archives (USA)
Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ARAN) and its Siberian Branch (SO RAN)
Archive of the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) (France)
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Communications of the ACM, Algol Bulletin, and proceedings of various International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) conferences

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2013. 413 pp. Primary Advisor: Michael D. Gordin.

Image: Façade of the Computer Center at the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, 1957, adapted from the photo chronicle of the Archive of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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