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

(Ben Green) #1

Staging the OGAS, 1962 to 1969 115

The Visionary behind the Vast Network: Viktor Glushkov

Viktor Glushkov (1923–1982), who was called the “king of Soviet cybernet-
ics” in his New York Times obituary, was neither the first nor the last to pro-
pose a nationwide network. But he figures as the organizing protagonist of
the remaining history as the leading champion of the OGAS Project, a well-
positioned academician, vice president of the Academy of Sciences, and a
leading cyberneticist. Known as both a global thinker and a local doer from a
young age, Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov was born in the temperate south-
ern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on August 23, 1923, into a family of a
mining engineer (figure 4.3). Like many prominent Soviet figures, he excelled
in mathematics at a young age and in middle school dreamed of becom-
ing a theoretical physicist. In high school, he quickly grasped topics such
as quantum mechanics and absorbed classics in the original German from
Johann von Goethe to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s The Philosophy of His-
tory. In 1941, the Nazis executed his mother for her part in the underground
resistance. After failing to enlist in the artillery school for health reasons, he
turned to mathematics in college, dove into topological algebra, and gradu-
ated in 1948. Four years later, including two years to complete his doctorate
while holding a research position at a new nuclear center in Yekaterinburg
(then Sverdlovsk) in central Russia, he proposed solutions to David Hilbert’s
generalized fifth problem in 1952. In 1900, in Paris, the German mathema-
tician David Hilbert proposed twenty-three foundational problems that
have attracted much attention in modern mathematics since. Two of those
problems are considered unresolvable, and the fifth problem, parts of which
Glushkov tackled, involves smooth manifolds in Lie group theory. The initial
breakthrough came to him while he was climbing an ice field on Mt. Kazbek
in the Caucasus with his wife, Valentina Mikhailovna. Six months later he
had formalized the shortest solution to that problem to that day.
This feat guaranteed that in the mid-1950s, the rising algebraist could
have secured almost any position in the Soviet Union. Thanks to an intro-
duction from academician Boris Vladimirovich Gnedenko, Glushkov
became acquainted with Lebedev’s computing center in Kiev, which six
years later (in 1962) he transformed into the prominent Institute of Cyber-
netics. He directed the institute from 1962 until his death in 1983. When
asked why he chose to shift his attention to the intersection of computer
technology and mathematics and subsequently assume the directorship of
a Computing Center from Sergei Lebedev in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1956—and
not a more politically prestigious position in Moscow—he is reported to
have replied that his wife, Valentina, whom he had met in their third year

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