75 Years of Information Technology in Russia


Initial version of this article was written by Sergei Prokhorov, Institute for History of Science and Technology RAS

The 4th of December, 2023 will mark the 75th anniversary of the beginning of work on Computer Science in Russia and other former Soviet states. The development of the first electronic devices was initiated as early as 1947. However, the first official document certifying this fact at the state level is dated December 4, 1948, when employees of the Power Energy Institute of the Academy of Sciences Isaac Brook and Bashir Rameev submitted an application for an invention titled "Automatic digital calculating machine" to the State Committee of the USSR Council of Ministers for Introduction of Advanced Technology. At approximately the same time, at the end of 1948, in Kiev, under the direction of Alexei Lebedev, a seminar began to debate the practical aspects of the development of electronic computers.

In the US at this time, there were about 20 computers made by three companies.

Legends surround the history of the first Soviet computers' development. According to one of the legends, Rameev heard about the creation of ENIAC while listening to BBC radio in early 1947, which prompted him to become seriously involved in the development of computers. Rameev joined Brook at the Power Energy Institute of the Academy of Sciences in May 1948, and in August of that same year, they presented a detailed design for an automatic digital computer.

During those years, it was very dangerous for people in the USSR to listen to BBC programs. This could have led to arrest. Rameev did not have his own place to live, so he moved from friend to friend in Moscow. So listening to the BBC on the sly was a challenge. Assume he was once able to be alone and listen to the BBC. But were there any BBC shows at the time regarding computers? According to the BBC Genome Project, there was only one such radio broadcast during the whole 1940s. It happened on the BBC's Third program on January 11, 1947, at 23:30 GMT (January 12, Sunday, 2:30 Moscow time). Professor David Fielding Hartley of the University of Cambridge spoke about automatic computers in it.

Another legend holds that Lebedev's choice to begin working on computers was motivated by a magazine that was brought to him from Switzerland and had an article about digital computing equipment. By this time, Lebedev had been successfully working for many years in the field of trouble-free operation of long power lines. In the autumn of 1948, however, he drastically scaled back his scientific activities in the electric power industry, limiting himself to administrative duties alone. This coincides with an article titled "Electronic Calculating Machines" by Eduard Stiefel that was published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on October 13, 1948.

Are these stories true? Given that all of the work done to create the first computers was deemed "secret," it is doubtful. As a result, authentic papers from those eras were unavailable for a long time, and the legends themselves took on a mysterious air. The lack of information led to the emergence of legends.

In reality, by the time work on the first electronic computers in the USSR began, four articles devoted to electronic computers had been published in the journal Uspekhi Matematicheskikh Nauk (Advances in Mathematical Sciences), including the article "The ENIAC, an Electronic Calculating Machine" by D. R. Hartree.

Brook provided a link to 13 articles when he submitted for registration of his invention of an electronic computer. According to Lebedev, he is aware of 18 publications.

However, work on the building of the first Soviet computers was abruptly halted in 1949, despite the fact that it had only just begun. The reason behind this was a shortage of funds and material resources to build computers. Only in 1950 was the development of electronic computers recognized as a priority and got major funding and assistance. Russia and Ukraine produced the first Soviet computers. On December 15, 1951, the M-1, constructed under Brook's guidance, was activated in Moscow. A few days later, in Kyiv, an act on the acceptance into operation of the MESM, founded under Lebedev's leadership, was signed.

In 1952, the USSR developed three new types of computers: the Strela, BESM, and M-2. However, only one (Strela) was recommended for serial manufacture. The cause for this is a scarcity of resources. In comparison, there were around 250 computers of 54 brands in the United States at the time. Nonetheless, the USSR was one of the first three countries to embrace the era of computer technology.

There were no Western prototypes in these works; they were entirely original. Lebedev said at one of the closed meetings, "I have data on 18 machines developed by Americans; these data are in the nature of advertising, without any information." Brook, for his part, stated in his patent application that "the proposed automatic computer is similar to machines we develop abroad, but as far as one can judge from the scarcely published materials, it is completely different from the general scheme and the scheme of individual elements." Following that, based on the knowledge gained in developing the first electronic computers, serial computer production began not only in Russia and Ukraine, but also in Armenia and Belarus. information technology began to be widely used in all the republics of the Soviet Union.