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Early Russian 'Internet'

The Russian 'Stack' is inseparable from how its technocratic planned economy has been (and continues to be) a nation-building project fraught by geopolitical tensions. The story is much deeper than trolls and hacks. In fact, the internet could have been Russian. In the Soviet Union, ideas and designs for a nationwide cybernetic network had already been developed in the late 1950s, inspired by a long tradition of artistic and philosophical speculations about the possibilities of technology. Cultural movements like Cosmism, Suprematism and Constructivism and their experimentation with metaphysical models derived from mathematics and mysticism informed these techno-scientific developments in unexpected ways.

Fired up by successes in space faring in the 1960s, the Communist Party began to reimagine the command economy as a reflexive system that could calibrate planning in real time, in response to new information. Their most ambitious plan was OGAS - the All-State Automated System. OGAS anticipated cloud computing by allowing input to and output from a central database to all users, and proposed that physical money would become redundant by processing electronic receipts. Its chief architect was Viktor Glushkoff, a Cosmist who believed that, one day, ever more advanced networks would make it possible to upload personalities embedded in human neural circuits to a supercomputer.

But the OGAS fell apart in the 1970s. As the Global internet was adopted in Russia, it brought new logics of networked interaction as well as a familiar tradition of Russian techno-cultural sensibilities. However, the political implications of information decentralization came to be seen as potentially dangerous and new policies to regain control were implemented. 

Beyond State Control

Since the 2010s, powerful foreign tech-platforms have been forced to base part of their cloud data servers on Russian soil, behind state-controlled online gateways. Telegram, the popular Russian message service, was requested to share its encryption keys with the government (but refused), resulting in a boom in VPN service providers virtually locating Russian citizens and companies outside the country.

Such frictions between different models for state-scale platforms spur attempts at cross- and retrofitting that range from the clever to the clumsy and they engender unpredicted geopolitical effects. As the dynamic between how stacks are governed becomes yet more contentious --state centralization, private decentralization, platform centralization, public decentralization et cetera, the remarkable aspirations and debacles of the Russian stack form an essential model to investigate.

Documentation

Full documentation of Island.eu research lab will be published on this website.

Kévin Bray
Het Nieuwe Instituut, Hivos, Stedelijk Museum
Benjamin Bratton, Arthur Steiner, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer