How Not to Network a Nation. The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

(Ben Green) #1

xii Prologue

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 com-
parable 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
Over the next eight years, the question drew me to archives and inter-
views 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 Niko-
lai 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 inter-
views 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

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