First Monday

Excerpts from How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet by Benjamin Peters




How Not to Network a Nation cover
MIT Press:





The seeds of this book were first planted as I stood on the left bank of the Volga River in Balakovo, Russia, one evening in the spring of 2001. Balakovo, where I was living for several months doing volunteer service, was a pleasant city of roughly 200,000 people who were struggling through the economic depression that was sweeping Russia’s rust belt. As I reflected on my picturesque surroundings — green trees, rolling hills, and the setting sun’s reflections on the river — I sensed that something was out of place. The peculiar features that were visible on the horizon, backlit by the sunset, belonged to the Saratov hydroelectric dam, one of the world’s hundred largest dams by output and stretching over 1,200 meters in length to form the enormous Saratov reservoir. The city of Balakovo also is home to a thermal heat power plant and a nuclear power plant with four working nuclear reactors (the construction of two other nuclear plants was suspended in 1992). If local rumors were to be believed, Balakovo once boasted secret Soviet military factories, one of which produced a material for the cosmonautic industries that was so tough that napalm balled up and rolled off it. This peculiar pairing of natural scenery and outsized industrial infrastructure struck me on the riverbank that evening. What force of imagination and statecraft, I puzzled, could have decided to graft such hulking industry onto such a remote city — and why would it do so? Thus began my interest in the outsized infrastructural imagination of Soviet planners.

Six years later, in 2007, those seeds sprouted into the question driving this book. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I wanted to learn more about the international sources of the information age, a topic that first crystallized for me in Fred Turner’s graduate seminar on “Computers, Information Ideology and American Culture since World War II” at Stanford University in 2005. If, to gloss Whitehead, all philosophy begins as a series of footnotes to Plato, then this book began with an obscure footnote in Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman’s popular biography of Norbert Wiener. As I was rereading the book’s references one evening in 2007, I stumbled on a passing reference to a declassified, Freedom of Information Act–recovered 1962 Central Intelligence Agency report about a new Soviet initiative to develop a native “unified information network.” [1]

That footnote triggered a question that was so tenacious that I had to write this book to shake it: why were there no Soviet developments comparable to the ARPANET in the 1960s? It made sense that, at the height of the cold war technology race, Soviet cyberneticists would try to build a “unified information network” — and yet I knew nothing about their efforts or outcomes. I was hooked. What had happened? Why was there no Soviet Internet?

Over the next eight years, the question drew me to archives and interviews in Moscow and Kiev. After spending a year exhausting the available leads, literature, and FOIA requests available from New York, I traveled to begin archival work in Moscow, although initially this proved a dead end. Marshall McLuhan once quipped that the first thing a visitor needs to know about Russia is that there are no phonebooks [2]. His point is that a foreigner in Russia needs to have contacts already in place. (Or as the Finns say: in Finland, everything works and nothing can be arranged. In Russia, nothing works but everything can be arranged.) And so, with all the tools but none of the social network, I found myself shuffling through dusty documents that were lit by a single flickering light bulb in Moscow archives. Then in 2008, good fortune smiled when, while chasing down references to Nikolai Fedorenko and Viktor Glushkov in Moscow, I began a correspondence with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Slava Gerovitch, who emailed me from Cambridge a draft of his article “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network” that became the basis for this book [3]. Gerovitch also put me in touch with key contacts in Kiev, and my rapidly expanding social network led to dozens of interviews and contacts, out-of-the-way archives (including stacks of papers in the closet of an abandoned office), and unprecedented access to historical materials over years of research and writing. On the surface, this book is about why certain computer networks did not work in the Soviet Union, but the story turns on the basic fact that social networks in the region have long operated according to their own rhythms and reasons.

Writing this book has proven to be a valuable learning process. When I set out in 2007 to study early Soviet networks, I had a vague sense that the resulting scholarly work would intersect media and communication studies, the history of science and technology, and social thought that informed information policy discussions, but I did not anticipate the work in institutional and historical economics, the sociology of economics, and organizational theory that the story required. Least of all did I imagine that this story would throw me headlong into a study of Soviet bureaucracies. It is my hope that this work will lighten some of that burden for the patient reader. In the end, this book should be understood primarily as an interdisciplinary work of synthesis driven by a fascination with the relationship between communication technology and people. I have tried to write for the media and technology scholar as well as the general-interest reader, although the book draws on history, area studies, and social commentary to inform the emergent subfield of network studies in information policy as well. Like all these fields, its primary orientation is not to a single discipline but to the scholarly enterprise of making strange modern network culture, a technique that the Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky first popularized as ostranenie, or “defamiliarization.” [4] It seeks to offer what historian Peter Brown calls “salutary vertigo” or a disorientation that clarifies the foreignness of a modern networked culture that was once thought familiar [5]. To do so, this work seeks to separate readers from hidden assumptions about modern networks and the social, technological, political, and economic conditions that organize and are subsequently organized by it. For me, this book began as an essay on the forgotten origins of computer networks in the Soviet Union and ended up being about much more, including a cautionary tale in the annals of technological innovation and a critical reflection on the assumptions steeping the current network world.




There is much which we must leave, whether we like it or not, to the un-“scientific” narrative method of the professional historian.
— Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 1948, concluding line

The Soviet Union was home to hidden networks. The story told here about those networks hangs on a hook that is unfamiliar to most readers and scholars — the Soviet Internet. At first glance, pairing the Internet and the Soviet Union appears paradoxical. The Internet first developed in America and became popular only after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Internet suggests to general readers open networks, flat structures, and collaborative cultures, and the Soviet Union signals censored networks, hierarchies, and command and control cultures. What, then, could the phrase Soviet Internet possibly mean?

The central premise of this book holds that there was once something that we might think of as the Soviet Internet. Between the late 1950s and the late 1980s, a small group of leading Soviet scientists and administrators tried to develop a nationwide computer network that was designed for citizen communication and sweeping social benefits. This book is about their story. At the height of the cold war technology race, the Soviet Union was awash in intelligence about contemporary Western initiatives, including the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) project at the U.S. Department of Defense. The Soviet state had all the necessary motives, mathematics, and means to develop nationwide computer networks for the benefit of its people and society. This book also ventures analysis on why, despite pioneering national network projects from the most promising of scientists and administrators, the Soviet state proved unable and unwilling to network its nation.

This much is clear: the Soviet Union never had the Internet as it is known today [6]. Rather, in the early 1960s, Soviet cyberneticists designed the most prominent of the network projects examined here — the All-State Automated System (OGAS) — with the mission of saving the entire command economy by a computer network. Their elaborate technocratic ambition was to network, store, transmit, optimize, and manage the information flows that constituted the command economy, under the guidance of the Politburo and in collaboration with everyday enterprise workers, managers, and planners nationwide.

The historic failure of that network was neither natural nor inevitable. Its story is one of the lifework and struggles of often genius cybernetic scientists and administrators and the institutional settings that were tasked with this enormous project. The question deserves a sympathetic and rigorous examination of the Soviet side of the story. Why did Soviet networks like the OGAS not take root? What obstacles did network entrepreneurs face? Given unprecedented Soviet investments and successes in mathematics, science, and some technology (such as nuclear power and rocketry), why did the Soviet Union not successfully develop computer networks that were capable of benefiting a range of civilian, economic, political, social, and other human wants and needs? How might we begin to rethink our current network world in light of the Soviet experience?

I propose that the primary reason that the Soviets struggled to network their nation rests on the institutional conditions supporting the scientific knowledge base and the command economy. Those conditions, once examined, challenge conventional assumptions about the institutions that build open, flat, and collaborative networks and thereby help recolor the cold war origins of the information society. It is a mistake, as the standard interpretation among technologists and some scholars have it, to project cold war biases onto this history. Our networked present is the result of neither free-market triumphs nor socialist state failures.

That said, let us begin with a slight twist on the conventional cold war showdown: the central proposition that this book develops and then complicates is that although the American ARPANET initially took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies and collaborative research environments, the comparable Soviet network projects stumbled due to widespread unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and other key actors. The first global civilian computer networks developed among cooperative capitalists, not among competitive socialists. The capitalists behaved like socialists while the socialists behaved like capitalists.

In the process of examining and elaborating on that plain statement about the cold war history of networks, this book describes two intersecting approaches to larger questions of social control and change — one institutional and the other technological. The first approach looks at the context of Soviet institutions and political bodies that were preoccupied with both the paperwork and the power brokerage behind the socialist command economy. The question of how to organize economies, especially but not only the Soviet command economy, is shown to be political before it is economic. The second approach accounts for the attempts of Soviet cyberneticists to build a computer system over a period of about thirty years from 1959 to 1989 that would control in real time the economy’s problems. The two approaches — political economy and computing technology — combine and play out here on the common stage of Soviet cybernetics, a midcentury discipline that was interested in systematizing all organization problems with computing technology. The result is a tragic story that addresses questions that are central to the history of technology and global media theory: what makes the same technology take shape differently in different contexts?

To explore that tragedy, the book sets up the dramatic potential of a networked command economy, the loss of that potential in the hands of the state, and a critical reclamation for contemplation, reflection, and contemporary instruction. The limitations of this work’s scope are also clear. Although it focuses primarily on the cybernetics and economic concerns besetting Viktor Glushkov and his Kiev-based OGAS team between 1959 and 1989, the setting is broader, including the military, industrial, and academic complexes that stretched from the seat of power Moscow to other cities, including St. Petersburg to the north and Akademgorodok (a science city that was nestled deep in Siberia) three thousand kilometers to the east [7]. The book also seeks to comment on the Soviet Union as a perceived state of exception on the global geopolitical stage. As one pole in the global cold war, the Soviet state stood unrivaled among socialist states in terms of international military and political influence [8]. In their search for a balance of focus and breadth, historians of science and technology have called for midpicture history, or a case study drilled deeply to explore intersecting historical subdisciplines (not entirely unlike Robert Merton’s middle-range theory). This book is not a midpicture history, although I hope its best moments may model how media history and theory can move in tandem with information science and technology. In its most ambitious moments, this book offers a synthesizing commentary (in the premodern sense of the central genre of scholarship, not derivative status) about the sources of the modern network age [9].

This book seeks to complicate the popular memory of the Soviet Union — its heady promises of socioeconomic justice as well as its parade of horribles, including authoritarian abuses, violence, and a cumbersome state hierarchy that subjected its citizens to political oppression and information censorship. It examines the Soviet command economy, which proved inflexible to the fluctuating demands of the emerging global network economy and eventually imploded on itself. Some readers may feel that the Internet and the Soviet Union seem to be fundamentally opposed information projects: one is a salvific vehicle for the invisible hand of modern-day commerce, and the other is remembered for its dead hand; one led to the knowledge explosion that is Wikipedia, and the other, to the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl; one produced Linux, and the other, the Lada; one is a haven for technoenthusiasts, libertarians, and free-speech absolutists, and the other, the whipping boy for the same. But I seek to bring to English-language readers the story of the Soviet computer network in its own terms. Given that the story is not singular, my emphasis is on relating the untold story of the All-State Automated System project and its research network led by the mathematician Viktor Glushkov in Kiev (the current capital of Ukraine) between 1959 and 1989. The case study arrives couched in commentary that seeks to upend and move beyond residual binary narratives about the cold war origins of the current networked age [10].

The internal historical setting for the tragic tale begins with the turbulent grab for power that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and stretches through the halting internal unraveling of that power in the 1980s. There was an unusual contender for filling the political vacuum left by Stalin’s passing. To the scientists under study here, Stalin’s best replacement was no person at all but rather a technocratic conviction that computer-aided governance could avoid the past abuses of its strongman state. The All-State Automated System was a utopian vision of a distinctly state socialist information society as well as, closer to home, a familiar story of how bright men and women struggle to employ both might and machines in the service of social justice and greater public goods [11].

A thin line sometimes separates tragedy from comedy. Backlit by reflections on cold war political economic orders, the fickle muses of historical contingency staff this drama. For example, family preferences for warmer weather ended up shifting the centers of scientific development, empty chairs at crucial meetings sank decade-long campaigns, informal whims of power shipwrecked careers and perhaps countries, basic notational systems (not sophisticated algorithms) revolutionized long-term strategic thinking (and Soviet chess), and countless other details rained down via informal bureaucratic actions on the Soviet knowledge base. All these and others blur the comic and tragic elements. The Soviets could have developed a network contemporary to the ARPANET, and yet they did not. What makes this story tragic is not that the Soviet political, economic, and technological networks collapsed but that the deeper problems that beset the USSR have been transformed but have not disappeared. The twenty-five years following the collapse of the Soviet Union have reaffirmed that Russia, although no longer in a superpower showdown with the West, remains anything but a negligible actor on the global stage and that the patterns of its state governance are much older than the post-Soviet transition. By triangulating across the central Soviet-American cold war axis to emphasize Ukrainian and other liminal people and places, this book aims to help readers rethink residual cold war misunderstandings in popular network and digital media discourse while simultaneously showcasing the institutional tensions at the heart of modern-day networked practices, policies, and polities.



The curtain parts on two anecdotes about Soviet networks. The first introduces the central story, and the second marks the limit of that story. In late September 1970, a year after the ARPANET went online, the Soviet cyberneticist Viktor Glushkov boarded a train from Kiev to Moscow to attend what proved to be a fateful meeting for the future of what we might call the Soviet Internet. On the windy morning of October 1, 1970, he met with members of the Politburo, the governing body of the Soviet state, around the long rectangular table on a red carpet in Stalin’s former office in the Kremlin. The Politburo convened that day to hear Glushkov’s proposal and decide whether to build a massive nationwide computer network for citizen use — or what Glushkov called the All-State Automated System (OGAS, obshche-gosudarstvennyi avtomatizirovannaya system), the most ambitious computer network project of its kind in the world at the time. OGAS was to connect tens of thousands of computer centers and to manage and optimize in real time the communications between hundreds of thousands of workers, factory managers, and regional and national administrators. The purpose of the OGAS Project was simple to state and grandiose to imagine: Glushkov sought to network and automatically manage the nation’s struggling command economy.


The OGAS Project was developed by scientists in 1960s Kiev that also formed a group that pretended to be an independent country called Cybertonia
Figure 1: The OGAS Project was developed by scientists in 1960s Kiev that also formed a group that pretended to be an independent country called “Cybertonia”: on the left of this passport is a map of its capital city, Cybergrad. On the right is their mascot and supreme leader: a saxophone-playing robot.


What transpired in Stalin’s former office that day enters into the story. Throughout this (and perhaps all) history, the messy details often matter most. In this case, two crucial chairs in that committee room were empty on that particular day due to the contingencies of the calendar and competitive bids for power. This book’s analysis will note how pesky details often reveal hidden patterns of institutional (mis)behavior that structure and reshape the interests of public actors, organizations, and even economic and social relations. Taken together, the history and analysis of the OGAS and related attempts to network and command the Soviet economy tell a story with consequences for the history of cold war computer networks and our understanding of the current networked world that emerged from the cold war itself.

The second anecdote took place not far from Glushkov’s fateful meeting in the Kremlin. Here, in a top-secret chamber in a cement bunker, or shariki (“spheres” or “globes”), buried deep underground somewhere outside of Moscow, was a very different kind of computer network. In that small room, a few uniformed personnel sat before flickering computer screens that were powered by an independent generator purring audibly nearby but out of sight. The single closed door was of reinforced metal with a self-locking mechanism, and behind it a long ladder ascended into a network of underground tunnels overhead. The chairs were bolted to the floor and pivoted to allow the military officers to review a control panel lined with information displays — satellite data and security camera feeds, telephone and radio signals, Geiger counters and seismographs, and other instruments for measuring the world above. These men sat at their consoles, operating as cogs in a larger sociotechnical machine. They were trained so that if or when the time arrived, they would observe the sensors, orient and input certain coordinates and a timetable, flip switches, and press a button that would end the world in a nuclear Armageddon.

This is Dead Hand, the semiautomatic nuclear-defense perimeter system that was first installed in the late Soviet Union. The details above are mostly pure invention, and yet the network system is real. Formally called Systema “Perimetr,” the perimeter system was imagined under Brezhnev as a fail-deadly deterrence mechanism for ensuring second-strike capacity in the nuclear cold war [12]. These men — not unlike the U.S. workers who staffed the Emergency Rocket Communication System from 1961 to 1991 — sat in the top-secret underground command-and-control center of their nation’s perimeter system. The data were fed into computer consuls to confirm whether the enemy had struck first. If an American military strike effectively disabled the regular Soviet command-and-control military leadership above ground from swiftly retaliating, then the strategy maintained that the Dead Hand would stand ready to trigger “a spasm of destruction.” [13] After the national computer network system was activated, it would put on alert nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles that were stored thousands of miles away. The red button, once pressed, would launch a massive retaliatory nuclear strike, enacting swift revenge at a global cataclysmic scale. Behold the apocalypse — delivered by national network.

This book is about civilian networks, not military networks. This is a deliberate choice. I choose to emphasize public networks because a network built for every Soviet worker still speaks to the popular and scholarly imagination of our current socially networked world in ways that closed military networks do not, although, as we will see, the military’s relationship to technological innovation backlights the whole stage of cold war science.

A sideways look at some of the discourse about online commerce today proposes the enduring relevance of the Soviet socialist revolution that was consummated a century ago. Both the Internet and the Soviet command economy promise the revolutionary realization of the means for socialist or collectivist production on a mass scale. In the rhetoric of networking collective consciousness and crowd-sourced collaboration, we see the unlikely alliance of Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s hive mind, open-source software promoter Eric Raymond’s bazaar, and Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s collective farm [14]. Long before Internet enthusiasts were around, Soviet enthusiasts were promising that workers (users) could meet the needs of the masses (crowds) through collective modes of resource sharing and collaboration (peer-to-peer production).

Few, if any, contemporary scholars recognize these concerns as fundamental to our modern network culture, and yet they persist in coloring views of both past and future. This is no accident: the concurrent emergence of cyberspace and post-Soviet affairs entered scholarly and popular discourse at the tail end of the previous century. For example, sociologist Manuel Castells has developed an extensive argument detailing how the Soviet Union failed to enter the information age, which this book is in some ways a sideways response to, and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig used his experience observing the rapid deregulation and privatization in post-Soviet economic transition in the early 1990s as a formative analog for what he felt was an equally disastrous attitude about the supposed unregulability of cyberspace common in the late 1990s [15]. Since then, scholars have recognized that the summary experiences of perhaps the last two great information frontiers of the twentieth-century — the rise of post-Soviet economic transition and the Internet — present not, as Francis Fukuyama infamously claimed, the end of history so much as a new chapter in it. Leading cyberlegal scholar Yochai Benkler has argued for a middle way by observing how online modes of “commons-based peer production” sustain capitalist profit margins through collectivist forms of reputational altruistic communities that do not depend on individual self-interest [16]. From the final chapters of Soviet history, we may begin to observe and puzzle through the perennial fact that, for many Western technologists and scholars, the promise of socialist collaboration shines brightest online today — a promise that the Soviet OGAS designers were among the first to foresee.

None of the conditions — technological, sociological, economic, or otherwise — for the flourishing of computer networks are necessarily as we may think. As Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology holds, technology is neither positive, negative, nor neutral [17]. The same holds for society and economy. By looking at failed network projects, I seek to flip science anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour’s aphorism that technology is society made durable. We observe in the collapse of the Soviet network projects a lesson for humans who live in a fragile world: society too is technology made temporary [18]. The Soviet experience with networks reminds us that although computer networks are prospering today, our modern social assumptions about those networks are no more inevitable or permanent than those of the Soviets. Our current beliefs about networks will pass. This book looks to take in a new direction what science and technology scholars Geoffrey C. Bowker and Leigh Starr have called an “infrastructural inversion”: looking closely at the alternative setting of a Soviet networked society can shake up a modern mental infrastructure that makes the current networked environment appear natural and necessary [19]. Sometimes the best way to see something is to look away from it. The French revolution, as historian Eric Hobsbawm has noted, did not become the French revolution until it was seen in the context of the British industrial revolution and the revolutions of 1848 [20]. We stand to apprehend the current network transformations better by placing the past in the context of a wider world. By exploring the pathway that was once taken and then abandoned in cold war networks, I hope to help unsettle, broaden, and deepen our imagination for the possibilities that gave rise to the modern networked media environment.

The literature on which this book builds is growing. Above all, this book builds on the historical foundation that was laid by the pioneering works of historians of Soviet science, Slava Gerovitch and Loren Graham [21]. Slava Gerovitch’s article “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network,” which he shared with me in draft form while I was independently pursuing the Soviet Internet story in archives in Moscow, jumpstarted this history with a treasure chest of scholarly leads. His work has opened many windows into the Soviet history of science and its associated social problems. The literature in English on the midcentury development of computer networks — by leading scholars such as Janet Abbate, Finn Burton, Paul N. Edwards, Fred Turner, and Thomas Streeter — also includes works that examine the creative communities, institutional innovation and setbacks, cold war tensions, and Western internal politics that backlight this particular case study [22]. This work attempts to help internationalize the core insights of this sociologically sensitive body of analysis into the people and places that shape networks.

The literature also teaches that the significance of the global spread of a social network often precedes, exceeds, and coevolves with that of any specific technological network. To borrow a line from Elihu Katz, international communication networks precede national computer networks [23]. Along these lines, historian of technology Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile advances a seminal history and analysis of early technological and political attempts to network another socialist state during the cold war. Her close and careful analysis of the people involved in the creation of Project Cybersyn (especially 1971 to 1973) reveals how the significance of technological projects carries beyond and exceeds that of specific network projects [24]. Her work, together with other recent scholarship on international cybernetic movements, helps outline the central cast of characters in this book [25]. This cast was not selected exclusively from cybernetic scientists or administrators. Rather, the characters are drawn from what I call the “knowledge base” of the Soviet Union — theoretical and applied scientists, their laboratories and research centers, students in universities, administrators in the academies of science, state office bureaucrats, generals in the Ministry of Defense, ideologues and censors in the scholarly and public press, the secret police, functionaries, officials, midlevel managers, members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and others whose careers depended on the management, manipulation, and representation of knowledge as an intellectual, institutional, and innovative product [26].

Finally, a practical note about language. All translations from Russian and Ukrainian into English are my own unless otherwise noted. In translating, as Stephen Jay Gould says, “we reveal ourselves in the metaphors we choose for depicting the cosmos in miniature.” [27] This is true of the translation process as a way of trying to bring separate languages into resonance. Sometimes words can be translated straightforwardly. For example, this work, an interdisciplinary exercise in the emerging field of network studies, seeks to articulate a fluid discourse around the central term network. The term network, like other keywords in digital discourse, packs more meaning than is usually seen and has roots in the textile industry of lacework, like the Jacquard loom behind computer programming techniques (there may be more silk than silicon to the information age). The Russian term set’ maps fairly well onto my three English uses of the term network — (1) a technical communication network understood as interlinked digital, electronic, telephonic, or other channels of communication; (2) the complex sociotechnical assemblage of heterogeneous relations that link people, institutions, and the administration of markets, states, and other actors in everyday life; and (3) an abstract organizational mode that maps the linkages between any set of objects, such as graph theory in mathematics [28]. Although all of these meanings are in play here, what we assume to be a relatively settled term today behind the concept of network (set’) took up in Soviet discussions an even wider set of terms such as base, complex, cluster, and most characteristically for computers connected over distances, system.

At other times, Russian terms reveal their own world in how they resist easy translation. I occasionally retain, for example, the early Soviet term for computer, “the automatic high-speed electronic calculating machine” (avtomaticheskaya byistrodeistvuyushchaya elektronicheskaya schyotnaya mashina and its various shortenings) for its splendidly descriptive bulk that signals perhaps the most elegant definition of new media I know: new media are those media we do not yet know how to talk about [29]. The probability theorist Aleksandr Ya. Khinchin revealingly renders what is known in English as “queuing theory” (used by information theorists to describe how data packets wait in line) as “mass-service theory” (teoria massovogo obsluzhivaniya) in Russian [30]. Sustaining the anthropological gaze requires depicting the variable sets of cultural, social, and political values in comparative relief with the network elements that are all too familiar in modern culture, which I have attempted to do here whenever relevant.

I have also tried to write with the conviction that plain language packs in its own insights. By proposing for further examination that the first global civilian networks took shape thanks to capitalists behaving like socialists, not socialists behaving like capitalists, I understand the terms capitalism and socialism in the ordinary way. I define capitalism as the order of the market economy, where economic actors act independent of the state, private property rights are reasonably secure and dominate most enterprises, prices and trade are predominantly free, state subsidies are limited, and transactions mostly monetized. Socialism, by contrast, is an economic order of the command economy where the opposite can usually be expected, although with its instinct to communism operating according to the moral and political principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” [31] The argument here depends not on collapsing that definitional divide but on revealing how that ordinary understanding falls short of describing mixed constellations of competitive and collaborative practices — public-private and state-market formations that belie and tweak our sense of these opposing economic orders. Evidence complicates the tidiness of ideas. This is a conventional a priori to foundational work in general scholarship and in institutional economics, which look to the complexities of behavior and scale them toward understanding the unpredictable behaviors of modern state and market relations [32].

At other times, new phrases have been introduced to familiarize readers with a foreign context. I have attempted to cast a critical eye on all source materials, and the careful act of weighting and arranging evidence has pressed on my work its own brand of insight and argument. For example, after observing the extraordinary lengths to which Soviet scientists went to promote economic reform with networks, I settled on the phrase network entrepreneur to cast a new light on the dynamics of the knowledge base in Soviet science and technological innovation. This word choice might seem misplaced because the Soviet knowledge base appears at first glance to carry none of the cultural or conceptual weight of venture capital, investment risk, and inherited responsibility for an enterprise that typically is associated with the modern English term entrepreneur. And yet the Soviet Internet makes a fitting case study in the global history of technology entrepreneurs, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs to Sergei Brin. That history has yet to be written, although when it is, it will feature an international species of actors, among them Soviets, who were prone to repeat bold slogans before proceeding by bolder failures [33]. Those who are uncomfortable applying a capitalistic term to comparable socialist practices may do well to recall that the English entrepreneur is already on loan from the French.


This book proceeds in five roughly chronological chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the global consolidation and spread of cybernetics as a midcentury science in search of self-governing systems from World War II to the mid-1960s. It also notes that cybernetics articulated internationally distinct scientific dialects to try to harness a range of different information systems — including biological, mechanical, and social — under one umbrella science. The term heterarchy is introduced as a cybernetic term for complex networks with multiple conflicting regimes of evaluation in operation at the same time. Also looked at are the mind and its neural networks (including the brain and the nervous system) as an international analogy of choice for thinking about national networks. Then the chapter examines the historical backdrop of the sequential rejection, adoption, adaptation, and mainstreaming of cybernetics in the 1950s and 1960s Soviet Union, against which the central tragedy of the remaining chapters and cast of characters unfolds.

Chapter 2 examines the emergence of economic cybernetics in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a field that was closely allied to mathematical economics and econometrics yet peculiar in its implications in the international sphere of Soviet intellectual and political influence. It also outlines and describes the basics behind the command economy and the tremendous coordination problems that the Soviet state and competing schools of orthodox, liberal, and cybernetic economists all agreed needed to be addressed and reformed in the early 1960s. A few sources of the organizational dissonance, including heterarchical networks of institutional interests, that was underlying the Soviet command economy and its state administration are also introduced.

Chapter 3 chronicles the first three aborted attempts to network the Soviet nation. The first was Anatoly Kitov’s pioneering proposal in the fall of 1959 to build a nationwide computer network for civilians on preexisting military networks. The resulting show trial removed him, the first Soviet cyberneticist and a star military researcher, from the military. The second attempt was the short-lived technocratic proposal by Aleksandr Kharkevich in 1962 to build a unified communication system for standardizing and consolidating all communication signals in the Soviet Union. And the third attempt was the simultaneous proposal by N. I. Kovalev for a rational system for economic control using a nationwide web of computer networks. Brief attention is paid to the historical concurrence of cold war networks, including a caution against the cold war preoccupation to overvalue claims to being historically “first” in and outside of Soviet science.

Chapter 4 introduces the most ambitious and prominent of Soviet network projects — the All-State Automated System (OGAS) — and its primary promoter and protagonists, the cyberneticist Viktor M. Glushkov, whose stories are brought together for the first time in English. This chapter details what is known about the sweeping theoretical and practical reach of the OGAS Project between 1962 and 1969, its vision for an economy managed by network, and the institutional landscape that evolved in support of that initial project proposal in the 1960s. It also presents snapshots of both the playful work (counter)culture and informal institutional obstacles that began to preoccupy two of the most prominent research institutes for economic cyberneticists — Nikolai Fedorenko’s Central Economic-Mathematical Institute (CEMI) and Viktor Glushkov’s Institute of Cybernetics — in the same decade.

Chapter 5 chronicles the slow undoing of the OGAS between 1970 and 1989. Neither formally approved nor fully rejected, the OGAS Project found itself (and proposals to use computer-programmed networks to plan social and economic resources, including those by the chess grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik) stalemated in a morass of bureaucratic barriers, mutinous ministries, and institutional infighting among a state that imagined itself as centralized but under civilian administration proved to be anything but. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Glushkov had died, and the political feasibility of technocratic economic reform had passed. This chapter frames how hidden social networks unraveled computer networks.

The conclusion reflects on and complicates the plain statement that is the conceit of this book — that the first global computer networks began among cooperative capitalists, not competing socialists. Borrowing from the language of Hannah Arendt, it recasts the Soviet network experience in light of other national network projects in the latter half of the twentieth century, suggesting the ways that the Soviet experience may appear uncomfortably close to our modern network situation. A few other summary observations for scholar and general-interest reader are offered in close. End of article


About the author

Benjamin Peters is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Tulsa and affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Tweet @bjpeters. More on his work here —
E-mail: bjpeters [at] gmail [dot] com



1. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 392 n. 318.

2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

3. Slava Gerovitch, “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network,” History and Technology 24 (4) (December 2008): 335–350.

4. Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917), in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reiss (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3–24.

5. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), xvii.

6. On September 19, 1990, fifteen months before the Soviet Union collapsed, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) assigned the .su country code top-level domain, and it remains in use today.

7. For more on Akademgorodok, see Paul R. Josephson, New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

8. The literature on the Soviet Union’s role in the cold war is enormous. Readers unacquainted with that literature may wish to start with a primer on the global cold war context, such as Robert J. McMahon, The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), Steven Lovell, The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), and a more substantial work by Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014). Other classics outside the Soviet period or space include Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994); Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Picador, 2003); and James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage, 1966). For more on the intellectual context, see the politically opposing pair, Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers (New York: Penguin Group, 1978), and Richard Pipes, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

9. Robert E. Kohler and Kathryn M. Olesko, “Introduction: Clio Meets Science: The Challenges of History,” Osiris 27 (1) (2012): 4–6.

10. The literature on the history of computing in the United States context is also significant. For a basic introduction, see Paul E. Ceruzzi, Computing: A Concise History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012); Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998); Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004); and William Aspray and Paul E. Ceruzzi, The Internet and American Business (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). The growing literature on the U.S. history of the Internet includes works such as Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999); Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996); Finn Burton, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013); and Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York: New York University Press, 2011). See also Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), and Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (New York: Atlantic Books, 2010).

11. Scholarship has not yet advanced a deep understanding of the relationship between social justice and computing, although initial inroads are being made in the critical study of gender and computing. A few works of note include Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991); Jennifer S. Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture 40 (3) (1999): 455–483; Nathan Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); and Mette Bryld and Nina Lykke, Cosmodolphins: Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred (New York: Zed Books, 2000).

12. David E. Hoffmann, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Random House, 2009), 150–154, 364–369, 422–423, 477.

13. Ibid., 153–154.

14. For sample references, see Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Fourth Edition (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 2004), chap. 4; Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (New York: O’Reilly, 1999); and Leon Trotsky, Platform of the Joint Opposition (1927) (London: New Park Publications, 1973), especially “The Agrarian Question and Social Construction.”

15. Manuel Castells, End of the Millennium: The Information Age — Economy, Society, and Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 5–68; Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 3–8.

16. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

17. Melvin Kranzberg, “Technology and History: ‘Kranzberg’s Laws,’” Technology and Culture 27 (3) (1986): 544–560.

18. For Latour’s aphorism, see Bruno Latour, “Technology Is Society Made Durable,” in A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, ed. John Law, Sociological Review Monograph No. 38 (London: Routledge, 1991), 103–132. For an excellent bibliographical bridge between science and technology studies (STS) and the study of information technologies, see P. Boczkowski and L. Lievrouw, “Bridging STS and Communication Studies: Scholarship on Media and Information Technologies,” in The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, ed. E. Hackett, O. Amsterdamska, M. Lynch, and J. Wajcman, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 949–977.

19. Geoffrey C. Bowker and Leigh Starr, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 33–50.

20. Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 22–41.

21. The article that made this book possible is Slava Gerovitch, “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network,” History and Technology, 24 (4) (2008): 335–350. See also Slava Gerovitch, “The Cybernetics Scare and the Origins of the Internet,” Baltic Worlds 2 (1) (2009): 32–38; Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002); Slava Gerovitch, “Speaking Cybernetically: The Soviet Remaking of an American Science,” Ph.D. diss., Program in Science, Technology and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999; Loren R. Graham, Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union (New York: Columbia University, 1987); Loren R. Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Loren R. Graham, Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete? (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).

22. Classic and recent histories of the Internet and its American milieu include Abbate, Inventing the Internet; Edwards, The Closed World; Burton, Spam; and Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York: New York University Press, 2011). For more popular introductions, see Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (New York: Norton, 2008), whose scholarly breadth and snap counterweight popular accounts such as Katie Hafner, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), and Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

23. I owe a version of this line and much else to conversations with Elihu Katz at the Department of Communication at Hebrew University in the spring of 2011.

24. Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

25. The literature on cybernetics, viewed in its breadth, is considerable and growing. For a brief introduction, see Bernard Geoghegan and Benjamin Peters, “Cybernetics,” in The John Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, ed. Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 109–112. For more on cybernetics in the United States, see Peter Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision,” Critical Inquiry 21 (1) (1994): 228–266; Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to Be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies, 1943–1970,” Social Studies of Science 23 (1993): 107–127; Geoffrey Bowker, “The Empty Archive: Cybernetics and the 1960s,” in Memory Practices in the Sciences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006); Lily E. Kay, “Cybernetics, Information, Life: The Emergence of Scriptural Representations of Heredity,” Configurations 5 (1) (1997): 23–91. Books on the cybernetic context before and during the U.S. cold war include Edwards, The Closed World; David Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); Jennifer Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); and Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro, eds., Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002). A few biographical works include Steve J. Heims, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991); Steve J. Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982); Pesi R. Masani, Norbert Wiener, 1894–1964 (Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1990); Flow Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (New York: Basic Books, 2005); and Hunter Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon: The Bounds of Reason in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). A few key theorizations and historical treatments include N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mechanization of the Mind: The Origins of Cognitive Science, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009); John Johnston, The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008); Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Orit Halpern, “Dreams for Our Perceptual Present: Archives, Interfaces, and Networks in Cybernetics,” Configurations 13 (2007): 283–319; Stuart Umpleby, “A History of the Cybernetics Movement in the United States,” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 91 (2005): 54–66; Bernard Geoghegan, “The Historiographic Conceptualization of Information: A Critical Survey,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 30 (2008): 66–81. For more on cybernetics in the Soviet Union, see Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002); David Holloway, “Innovation in Science: The Case of Cybernetics in the Soviet Union,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 299–337; and David Mindell, Jerome Segal, and Slava Gerovitch, “From Communications Engineering to Communications Science: Cybernetics and Information Theory in the United States, France, and the Soviet Union,” in Science and Ideology: A Comparative History, ed. Mark Walker, 66–96 (New York: Routledge, 2003). Work on cybernetics in France includes, among others, Celine Lafontaine, “The Cybernetic Matrix of ‘French Theory,’” Theory, Culture and Society 24 (2007): 27–46; Lydia Liu, “The Cybernetic Unconscious: Rethinking Lacan, Poe, and French Theory,” Critical Inquiry 36 (2010): 288–320; Bernard Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus,” Critical Inquiry 38 (2011): 96–126. On cybernetics in Britain, see Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). On cybernetics in East Germany, see Jérôme Segal, “L’introduction de la cybernétique en R.D.A. rencontres avec l’idéologie marxiste,” Science, Technology and Political Change: Proceedings of the Twentieth International Congress of History of Science (Liège, July 20–26, 1997) (Brepols: Turnhout, 1999), 1: 67–80. And on cybernetics in China, see Susan Greenhalgh, “Missile Science, Population Science: The Origins of China’s One-Child Policy,” China Quarterly 182 (2005): 253–276. On cybernetics in Chile, see Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries.

26. I owe the term knowledge base to conversations with Richard John in 2010. See, in particular, his related work on the political decisions that have shaped U.S. communication history, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

27. Stephen Jay Gould, Life’s Grandeur (London: Vintage, 1997), 7.

28. Under the name “actor-network theory,” Bruno Latour has attempted to theorize the concept of network as a way of retooling the historian’s method of following the linkages across all forms of actors. See Bruno Latour’s Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987). Two decades later, he deemed “the word network so ambiguous we should have abandoned it long ago,” in Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 129–130.

29. For more on the historical designator new media, see Benjamin Peters, “And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New Is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History,” New Media & Society 11 (1–2) (2009): 13–30.

30. Aleksandr Ya. Khinchin, “Teoria prosteishego potoka” (Mathematical Methods of the Theory of Mass Service; more literally, Simple Stream Theory), Trudy Matematicheskogo Instituta Steklov. 49 (1955): 3–122.

31. János Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); David Graeber, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), 94.

32. The field of institutional economics offers pragmatic approaches to observed irrationalities in individual and group actions. A few standard references in the literature include Thorsten Veblen’s heterodox position in “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 12 (1898): 373–393; Thomas C. Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York: Norton, 1978); Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Ronald Coase, “The New Institutional Economics,” American Economic Review 88 (2) (1998): 72–74; and William Kapp, The Foundations of Institutional Economics (New York: Routledge, 2011). For comparison to the quirkiness of individual decisions, see popular introductions to cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology and economics, such as Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), and Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). Compare these to recent works on the informal and violent character of post-Soviet economics, including Alena V. Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favors: Blat, Networking and Information Exchange (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and Vadim Volkov, Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

33. The English-language literature on tech entrepreneurs is long and popular, including Walter Isaacson, The Innovators (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), and Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (New York: Crown Business, 2014), but very little of it to my knowledge looks beyond the West (in particular, the west coast of the United States and the eastern Asian rim), such as Eden Medina, ed., Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).

Excerpted from How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet by Benjamin Peters published March 2016 by The MIT Press. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet by Benjamin Peters.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 5 - 2 May 2016