Historian of mathematics Vyacheslav Gerovitch on the idea of optimizing the Soviet economy with a computer network, the technology of datagram switching, and “considents” in the USSR
What plans did the Soviet Union have on building a nationwide computer network? What are the cybernetic applications of computers in general? Lecturer of Mathematics at MIT Vyacheslav Gerovitch explains the political reasons of why the USSR never built the Internet.
In October 1961, just in time for the opening of the XXII Party Congress, a group of Soviet mathematicians, computer specialists, economists, linguists, and other scientists interested in mathematical models and computer simulation published a collection of papers called “Cybernetics in the Service of Communism”. In that collection they offered a wide variety of applications of computers to various problems in science and in the national economy. In particular, they offered to build a network of computer centers all around the Soviet Union that would process economic information on a giant scale and would suggest ways to optimize the functioning of the national economy.
It turned out that the plans to build that computer network were part of a much larger movement among Soviet scientists, cyberneticians, to reform the entire edifice of Soviet science under the banner of cybernetics, mathematical modeling and computer simulation, as a way to get rid of the Stalinist legacy which put Soviet science into very rigid condition. Introducing cybernating models was a way to open up to all sorts of innovations in various sciences. And this way, cybernetic biology emerged, cybernetic linguistics, cybernetic economics and so forth. Under the banner of cybernetic economics these plans to build a computer network were conceptualized and justified.
Colonel Anatoly Kitov, specialist in military computing, proposed a network of computer centers, an underground network that would be devoted to the military purposes, to processing the military information, but in peacetime these computer centers would not have to process that much information, so we could occupy these computer facilities with solving economic problems. So it would be a dual-purpose network. In peacetime it would process economic information, in wartime it would be mobilized to solve military problems. I must say that the militaries didn’t like the proposal. They said they didn’t want to combine military and civilian functions on military facilities.