Chapter 6: "So then we took the Roof off"

 
This is the story of the Soviet Union's early computers and in particular the very first, the MESM, built by a small team under the inspirational leadership of the legendary Sergei Lebedev, working from an abandoned monastery in Feofania on the outskirts of Kyiv, capital of the Ukraine.
       
Where this story came from      
Around 1997 when there was a lot in the media about the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the Manchester Baby’s first successful operation the following year, I started searching around for any information on the first Soviet computer. I’d idly looked before without coming across anything – most Western histories tend to concentrate on Western computers, particularly the American pioneers. This time I found something, though it was only a tantalising paragraph on a Ukrainian website sayng that the first Soviet computer had been built in an abandoned monastery on the edge of Kyiv just after the end of World War 2. That was all, but oh so tantalising! I knew that Ukraine was probably the country that had been most ravaged by the second world war. And Kyiv was an evocative name. The picture of these pioneers taking over an abandoned monastery to build their first computer was very intriguing. But I didn’t really know if there was an interesting story there – was I just weaving a romantic web around a few bare facts?
           
Emails to various academics in Kyiv suggested there was more to it and a picture began to emerge, enough to see that there might well be the basis of an interesting radio programme. But it was only in 2000 that I got the chance to propose it as one of a series that became “Electronic Brains” the following year.
           
Collecting the material      
So in the summer of 2001 I found myself in the rather daunting city of Kyiv – it hasn’t yet had the influx of western money that other east European capitals like Prague have enjoyed. My B&B wasn’t quite what I had expected and the very first thing my hosts did was to lecture me at length on the security arrangements – crime is high and brutal, with robbers frequently loitering outside apartment doors. So they showed me how to use the spy-hole that every flat-dweller relies on – “if there is anyone outside don’t leave the flat”. The door was reinforced and covered with an array of huge locks and bolts. A couple of days later I found a body on the stairs.
           
However, other than the pervasive sense of threat around the grim old Soviet-era apartment blocks, it was a fascinating visit. The wonderful Victor Ivanenko had arranged interviews for me with the two people I needed most – Boris Malinovsky and Zinovy Rabinovich. Malinovsky was involved in the MESM project almost from the start and has done more than anyone to recover and preserve the history of Soviet computing in recent years. Rabinovich was in at the start of MESM. I recorded them in the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences building. I’d been worried about translation, and like everything else that had been difficult to arrange in advance – but I needn’t have worried. Victor had arranged for Rabinovich’s lovely grand-daughter Polina Okulova, an English teacher, to interpret and she did it wonderfully – it is her voice that is heard on the radio programmes. She also became my guide to Kyiv and told me all about the pervasive corruption that links the business-criminal-political class (so the later events surrounding the election of 2004 and the poisoning of the opposition leader came as no surprise to me).    
  
Boris Malinovsky, in autumn 2001
 
picture of Zinovy Rabinovich with grand-daughter and interpreter Polina Okulova
The restored Cathedral at Feofania
Zinovy Rabinovich with grand-daughter and interpreter Polina Okulova
           
Next day Victor took me out to Feofania, and this did not disappoint. It is indeed an idyllic place, dominated by the restored church (or cathedral – descriptions vary). Indeed this is a feature of present day Kyiv: among the general poverty churches have been lavishly restored many with their domes recovered in real gold leaf. The Feofania church, long derelict during the soviet era is now restored to its former glory and back in daily use. While I was there I saw a priest blessing a family’s car – this apparently is a common sight, as a car is still a sought-after and valuable item, out of reach of many families.
     
 Blessing the family car
We walked down the hill, past peasant women working a field in a way that is probably unchanged for hundreds of years. At the foot of the hill is the lake that the great Soviet pioneer Sergey Lebedev used to lead his team to – it is said he was always first into the water during breaks from work. Victor told me with relish about his time there as a student in the early 50s, sharing a sauna with the two young women programmers, all single and free of responsibilities.
       
By then I had enough material for a programme, but Victor had suggested there might be more people. It all seemed a little vague though. We returned to his flat and I gazed with astonishment at his front door, that looked like one of those bank vaults you see in old black and white films – covered in thick steel plate, reinforced all round with angle-iron. He proudly showed me the locking mechanism: turning a huge handle caused an array of bolts to come out of the four sides of the door and lock into holes in the steel door frame. He explained that burglars were now carrying huge hydraulic builders’ jacks. They would place one end against a flat door and the other against the wall on the other side of the footwell and break down even reinforced doors with ease. But Victor’s Fort Knox style door was designed to resist even that kind of attack.
       
Victor in front of the lake at Feofania
The search for further pioneers didn’t look good – no-one answered the phone and Victor explained that many people had now gone to their country-houses. Over the next day or so I continued exploring Kyiv’s sights, churches and restaurants usually assisted by my generous guide Polina. As well as her street-wisdom, which kept me out of the dodgiest areas, she could get me tickets at local instead of tourist rate (a factor of 10 or more) Meantime I kept up a discreet barrage of phone calls and emails to Victor. The emails meant regular visits to a strange internet café above a shop, done out like ghostly cave with low lights, UV tubes and giant “cobwebs” draped above the terminals.
Plaque commemorating Lebedev
           
Fresh peaches and English tea in the shade of a Dacha  
           
Finally on Monday evening Victor called to say that if I could get to his apartment for 7 the next morning he would take me across the river to where he had found two surviving pioneers in their dacha. It was my first unaccompanied ride on the Kyiv underground but I’d got to grips with the Cyrillic alphabet and knew the main stations. Still I felt conspicuously western – virtually no Ukrainian men have beards, though my western rucksack was probably OK (they like western logos).
           
I banged on Victor’s vault door and after passing his security checks he emerged and we went down to his prized 1950s saloon – a fine old machine. He had spent much of the previous day stripping the water pump to fit a new (or used-but-better) bearing. He lifted the bonnet to replace the rotor arm – his anti-theft system. We edged out into Kyiv’s morning rush hour, swarms of old Moskvichs and the like, with the occasional brand-new Merc or BMW with blacked-out windows and bulky shadowy figures inside.
           
Most of residential and industrial Kyiv is on the west side of the Dneper river. Large areas of the east side are given over to modest summer houses – “dacha” is an intensely romantic name, redolent of Chekhovian drama, but most dachas are modest home-made wooden structures. Here too there is an occasional garish symptom of the new money – a huge tasteless mansion surrounded by high walls and security gates with armed guards, owned no doubt by a “fat Ukrainian” as the locals call the new moneyed class.
           
But our destination was a delightful overgrown dacha in an acre or so of fruit trees and vegetable plots. There I was introduced to Ivan Parkhomhenko and Rostislav Cherniak, both of whom had worked on MESM. We sat under a canopy formed by two peach trees. When I asked Cherniak about Lebedev he started to answer then stopped and burst into tears. I paused the recorder and the women-folk came to the rescue in classic English style, producing a pot of Brooke Bond tea. Apparently British tea is much sought after – we sipped it gratefully and munched fresh peaches pulled from the bush overhead while waiting for Park to recompose himself. Victor translated manfully, as sadly Polina was on her way to the Black Sea for her annual holiday.
           
It was still not yet 9 am and Cherniak’s daughter was off to work in the west of Kyiv. Victor, ever the ladies’ man, offered her a lift and in the car he found that she too had memories of Feofania, as a child. She spoke virtually no English, and there wasn’t time for Victor to interpret her answers as we went along. So in the garden outside his apartment block I recorded a hired interview in which Victor translated my questions but I had not the faintest idea what here answers were. She then rushed off to work and Victor listened back to the interview half a minute at a time, recording his translations after each section. Surprisingly this process worked perfectly well.
           
The Dissident      
           
I found myself admiring Victor immensely. He had been gone to the USA in the early 60s and spent about a year there. It caused him to question the whole Soviet system he had previously been a loyal servant of. He liked his new academic colleagues in America. On his return he refused to tell his KGB minders about them (that sort of thing was routine, not just a product of Western anti-soviet paranoia) and was never allowed out of the SU again. Needless to say he welcomed the collapse of the SU and Ukrainian independence, though he lamented the wave of criminality and corruption that followed. He conceded that many ordinary people were worse off in material terms than under the old system – basic foodstuffs no longer held down at nominal prices, housing no longer guaranteed, the weak, disabled or mentally ill tricked or beaten out of their apartments in city centre areas. Middle-class academics like him had seen their pension provisions lost and all who could go on working were doing so even into their 80s. Building real democracy was going to be a long process.
           
Overland to Moscow      
           

That completed the recording for the radio programme, but I took the opportunity to go on to Moscow for another few days, by train, and met another wonderful host Sergei Prokhorov. He was very keen to push Isaac Bruk’s credentials as a rival to Lebedev and MESM – but sadly there were no interviewees to back this up. Fortunately I had seen this as an extension to my trip anyway, a chance to explore the Russian angle with an eye to future publication. Moscow was a revelation in another sense. Much more affluent than Kyiv, and although crime is supposed to be a problem it seemed much less threatening than Kyiv. There was a heat-wave and young people splashed around in the Alexander Gardens. Fleets of water-bowsers trundled round the streets keeping the dust down. Sergei knew the best restaurants and was the perfect host, he and his girlfriend taking me to all the famous Moscow tourist sites, new as well as old.

       
They included the extraordinary restored “Cathedral of Christ the Saviour” on the bank of the river (near the Pushkin Museum). This, the biggest cathedral in Russia, had been dynamited by Stalin in the 20s with the intention of replacing it with a people’s palace, but the site remained derelict (other than a swimming pool) for almost the whole life of the Soviet experiment. After the collapse of the SU the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Lushkov, eager to reshape the city in his image and litter it with monuments to his rule, appealed for funds to rebuild the cathedral. Pitifully, many of Russia’s poorest old babushkas donated their meagre savings to produce what many Muscovites now regard as a monstrosity. But not so bad as the grotesque sculpture of Peter the Great, visible just down the river from the church – so hated that there have been unsuccessful attempts to blow it up, on artistic rather than ideological grounds.
       
Peter the Great
Postscript: Moscow conference    
           
I was surprised and delighted to get an invitation back to Moscow for a conference on the history of Soviet computing, on the centenary of Lebedev’s birth. As well as the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Malinovsky, Rabinovich and Prokhorov I was able to meet for the first time Alexander Nitussov whose fantastic book “History of Russian Computing” I had recently read – I’d been corresponding with him by email since the Ukraine trip. Alexander is fearsomely learned and intelligent, fluent in Russian, German and English, and provide simultaneous translation for me during the conference. When it came to my spot I of course spoke in English and Alexander translated for the multitude. We got in more sight-seeing and among the highlights were the Polytechnical Museum which has an excellent computing gallery. Our hosts let us take photographs of the exhibits, which is strictly against the rules and clearly greatly distressed the numerous attendants who normally leap on any offender who produces a camera before they can even get the lens cap off.

 

last update 25/2/05