There are opportunities that simply vanish like cigarette smoke in the middle of a park. It happened to the USSR. Between the years 50 and 70. And not in any field. It happened to him with what has become the Internet over time, the global network that has marked the drift of the world over the last decades and without which today we could hardly imagine life.
Opportunity knocked on the doors of the leaders of the Soviet Union already late 1950s, in the middle of the Cold War. In 1959, a brilliant young engineer, military officer, and pioneer of Soviet cybernetics, Anatoly Kitov, went to his bosses to propose an innovation that —he was convinced— would improve the economic planning of the country: a centralized automation system with computers and communication lines for civil and military applications.
A network to improve economic planning
Years ago Kitov had already participated in the preparation of a report that decided the Soviet authorities to bet on the creation of computer centers for the army. Now he planned to go a little further and create a long-distance communication infrastructure, EASU, which among other innovations also involved the civilian population. When he reviewed his plan, however, the Kremlin did not share his enthusiasm. Quite the contrary. Mixing spheres and allowing economists from outside the army to use military networks scared the commanders. Result? The idea was left in a drawer and Kitov ended up expelled from the army and the Communist Party.
It was not the only occasion in which the USSR saw the train pass by – a very primitive one, true – that offered it the opportunity to develop a national Internet. In the 1960s, another leading engineer and scientist, Aleksandr Kharkevich, took up Kitov’s philosophy and proposed to create a communication network to transmit data. His idea was that ESS, as it was baptized, would take advantage of the telephone and electrical infrastructure. Nor did it come to fruition. Kharkevich himself died shortly after having put it on the table, in 1965, having just turned 61.
The most ambitious of the proposals that could have marked the history of an Internet “made in Moscow” had not yet arrived, however. His father was Victor Glushkov, mathematician and pioneer of cybernetics, who decided to make a move at what a priori was the best time to talk to the Soviet commanders about communication networks. At the end of the 1960s, coinciding with the news that arrived from the USA. about the Arpanet project (Advanced Research Projecys Agency Network), Glushkov picked up Kitov’s torch, steeled himself, and knocked again on the Kremlin door to introduce BERRIES, acronym for —a macaronic name and very much in the style of Soviet technocracy— All Union Government Automated System.
Glushkov’s ambitious approach was to expand a central network throughout the USSR that would take advantage of the state telephone connection. Its headquarters would be in Moscow and it would have 200 centers scattered throughout the country and 20,000 local terminals. What would it be for? Glushkov had a civilian use in mind, that the network would help data collection and control of economy planning. Like Kitov, he wanted to contribute to a more efficient USSR, although he also contemplated other alternative uses, such as the development of a primitive electronic payment system.
In the style of cloud computing, OGAS would allow Soviet workers to share information with the purpose of contributing to a better performance of the industry. On paper the idea sounded great, but it required an enormous effort and technical deployment, with decades of work and an excessive cost. Technical difficulties were not, in any case, the only ones facing Glushkov’s project. Maybe not the worst. The great challenge of OGAS was in the offices.
“It was a network of computers that would operate in real time, decentralized and hierarchical, designed to handle all the information that controlled the economy,” comenta a BBC Ben Peters, author of ‘How Not to Connect a Nation’. “It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union had a computer network throughout that period, but it was exclusive use for the military sector”.
Without eating or drinking it, the proposal fell into the quagmire formed by power struggles in establishment of the USSR, specifically that of the Central Statistics Administration and the State Planning Committee. The implementation of a single management system threatened an imbalance of powers that, in the end, ended up harming it. The lack of reliable data, its high cost and the suspicion of the military It didn’t help him either. To top off his bad luck, OGAS was orphaned before his time. Glushkov died in 1982, at the age of 58, too soon to benefit from the boost that Gorbachev wanted to give to the USSR in the 1980s.
Over time, the Union began to equip itself with small local networks and connecting some cities —at the Novosibirsk University they could link up with Moscow— true; but with a system that has little to do with the ambitious approach of OGAS. On the other side of the “iron curtain”, in the United States, progress was being made in Arpanet, the computer network promoted by Defense that allowed the development of an institutional communication system and established the “prehistory” of the Internet.
At the end of the following decade, in 1989, the same as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the British Tim Berners-Lee shaped the world wide web and wrote a new chapter in the history of technology, one to which the Kremlin looked perhaps with distant memory of Glushkov.