It’s well known the USSR lost the most important leg of the space race, and the Cold War entirely, after its collapse in 1991. But it turns out they were tantalisingly close to beating the Americans to perhaps the most influential invention of modern times: the internet. So what went wrong?
The commercialisation of the internet in 1995 was the culmination of 30 years worth of work, owing much to the US government's investment in research into communication channels via computer networks in the 1960s. Hot on their heels, at the same time, the Soviets were also researching networking opportunities computerisation offered.
The history of Russia’s early information network ‘OGAS’ (translated as All-State Automated System), is a sliding doors-type story of near-misses and could-have-been-champions. It started in 1962, when the visionary Russian mathematician and computer scientist Victor Glushkov was given funds to research computer networks. Glushkov was in the early stages of creating a vast network that would reach from a central computer in Moscow to 200 auxiliary computer centres, and then onto another 20,000 computer terminals across key economic production sites.
But Glushkov’s grand plan was cut off at the knees when the Russian government turned down his grant application in 1970, which would have included a roll-out of the network. It turns out, the strongest opponent to the research was Minister for Finance Vasily Garbuzov, who allegedly felt threatened by OGAS's relationship with the Central Statistical Administration, a body Garbuzov was not a fan of.
Not one to give up, Glushkov managed to roll out smaller, localised information management systems after some funding came through in 1971, but it never came close to his grand vision. Glushkov’s death in 1982 greatly diminished the USSR’s chances of creating a centralised network using existing telephone infrastructure, and although others did attempt to carry the torch, it was always snuffed out by political disinterest. The network’s last such proponent was chess grandmaster and computer scientist Mikhail Botvinnik, who apparently attempted – unsuccessfully – to convince Boris Yeltsin that such a network could help reinvigorate the economy after the USSR’s collapse.
There are various theories as to why a Soviet version of the internet never came to fruition, but most agree that the government's lack of timely investment in research was a death knell to Glushkov's progress. Now there’s an alternative history to mull over: how differently the USSR’s history may have played out if they’d greenlit a small research grant back in 1970.
For more on this story, check out Aeon’s terrific article, The Soviet Internyet.