What caused the failure of the soviet internet?

Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov and the OGAS Project

From today’s perspective, it is clear that the lack of an Internet-like structure also doomed the socialist planned economy to failure. The question naturally arises why the Soviet Union did not invent the Internet or at least imitate it, because the technology would have been there in principle. Answer: It has yes. Or had, if the little word "when" had not been.

Cybernetics, which was a suspect science in the Soviet Union in the years after World War II. Stalin and his, whose approach can rather be described as top-down, criminal-style management, had no sense of oscillating, interdependent control loops; one can figuratively imagine that they had "Widerrede" for a correct translation of the term "feedback" had held.

With the death of Stalin, the attitude of Soviet socialism to cybernetics changed, not overnight, but quite soon; what until then had been discussed only by a few specialists behind closed doors could now be discussed freely. The effect of this new freedom was so noticeable that it still reverberates today.

The Soviet cyberneticists

If one looks, for example, at an article by Wolfgang Hoffmann in the ZEIT from 1964, which comes across as a review of a book by George Paloczi-Horvath, then the hope is almost palpable that the "silent revolution" that cybernetics would soon be stripped of all its socialist clutter.

Of course, the Soviet cyberneticists did not intend to collapse socialism, but to revive it and to realize its potentials in the first place. In a recent text by Benjamin Peters, whimsically titled The Soviet Internyet, the computer scientist Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov is described as the preeminent visionary mind among Soviet cyberneticists of the time.

Victor Glushkov. Picture: Whole thing of the post office of the Soviet Union/freeware

In addition to his many honors during his lifetime, the posthumous Computer Pioneer Award presented to him by the New York Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1996 is noteworthy for, among other things, his contributions to the theory of automata and the development of innovative computer architectures (pipeline architecture and multiprocessor systems).

As for the spirit of freedom that Wolfgang Hoffman saw blowing through the Soviet Union so lastingly as early as 1964, Benjamin Peters describes the climate at the Cybernetic Institute in Kiev, under Glushkov’s direction since 1962, as follows:

Outside of work, the cyberneticists organized themselves into a satirical club whose frivolous activities were marked by pranks that sometimes bordered on rebellion. Intended as a valve to let off steam, this club soon saw itself, with a wink, as a virtual nation independent of the Moscow rules of the game. At a New Year’s party in 1960, they christened their group "Cybertonia" and organized regular events such as dances, symposiums and conferences in Kiev and Lviv; they even published tracts such as "The need to be invisible – at least to the authorities."

Benjamin Peters

The serious goals of Glushkov’s group were at least as audacious as its jokes. They devised nothing less than OGAS, in German translation, for instance:

The general automatic system for collection and processing of information related to accounting, planning and control for the national economy.

The pompous title of the project seems rather understated compared to some of the ideas it brought, or which nevertheless floated along in its slipstream. Glushkov not only dreamed of a computer network spanning all of Eurasia, with an initial 20.000 nodes in the Soviet Union alone (in the early sixties, mind you).

The architecture of the entire network, which was to use existing and newly created telephone lines, was designed for the most efficient communication possible between individual participants.

Natural language programming, the paperless office and cashless payments were, of course, part of the overall vision. If one adds that Glushkov himself worked on the miniaturization of powerful computers, and delivered results in this respect with the models of the MIR series, the evaluation of OGAS as the nucleus of a Soviet Internet is absolutely justified.

The power of the unimaginative

Who stopped the bright minds? First of all, Dummkopf with power. Although there was initial support for OGAS in the Politburo, in the end the unimaginative had the upper hand. In Benjamin Peters’ account, it was one man in particular who, at a crucial Politburo meeting on 1. October 1970: Vasily Garbuzov, Minister of Finance of the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1985, who foiled Glushkov’s ambitious plans

But just as the OGAS project was not the work of Glushkov alone, Garbusov alone was not able to prevent it. It took the perfidy of an entire state bureaucracy fighting with itself to sabotage such a good idea. The project was not buried without further ado, like Anatoly Kitov’s preliminary idea.

OGAS was never granted central resources, it was redefined and talked down in a tedious wrangling of competences between ministries and apparatchiks, until in the end nothing remained that resembled the draft. Peters summarizes the contrasting developments of this period in West and East as follows:

The first global computer network owes its existence to the fact that capitalists acted like cooperative socialists, while socialists acted like competing capitalists.

Although this is a nice bon mot, it does not seem to be entirely accurate. Rather, quasi-feudal structures had spread in the Soviet state apparatus, with individual ministers and party rulers defending their spheres of competence like little kings.

Interestingly, this is very reminiscent of the wrangling in the U.S. military at the beginning of the U.S. space program, and similar processes caused the failure of the Soviet manned lunar landing.

Demands on the apparatus

Glushkov himself, by the way, was well aware of the imposition that his project represented for the apparatus. He openly admitted to Soviet Prime Minister Kossygin that his project would be more difficult to realize than the Soviet space and nuclear programs put together. At the same time, he did not doubt in the least that the project would pay for itself very soon.

The depressing process of decomposition of his ideas must have been stressful for Glushkov, although he continued to fight for them throughout his life. During the Politburo meeting, described by Peters as decisive, he remarked, according to his own recollection:

I can only say: If we don’t do it now, the difficulties that will come to the Soviet economy in the second half of the 1970s will force us to do it.


That was still too optimistically seen. By the second half of the 1970s, it was clear that the Soviet Union had fallen behind in all too many key areas, and the West was holding its own in the Cold War.

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