Soviet scientists tried for decades to network their nation. What stalemated them is now fracturing the global internet
After the Soviet Union’s leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s personality cult in 1956, a sense of possibility swept the country. Onto this scene entered a host of socialist projects to wire the national economy with networks, among them the first proposal anywhere in the world to create a national computer network for civilians. The idea was the brainchild of the military researcher Anatoly Ivanovich Kitov.
In 1959, as the director of a secret military computer research centre, Kitov turned his attention to devoting ‘unlimited quantities of reliable calculating processing power’ to better planning the national economy, which was the most persistent information-coordination problem besetting the Soviet socialist project. (It was discovered in 1962, for example, that a handmade calculation error in the 1959 census goofed the population prediction by 4 million people.) Kitov wrote his thoughts down in the ‘Red Book letter’, which he sent to Khrushchev. He proposed allowing ‘civilian organisations’ to use functioning military computer ‘complexes’ for economic planning in the nighttime hours, when most military men were sleeping. Here, he thought, economic planners could harness the military’s computational surplus to adjust for census problems in real-time, tweaking the economic plan nightly if needed. He named his military-civilian national computer network the Economic Automated Management System.