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Early Russian 'Internet'

The Russian 'Stack' is inseparable from how its technocratic planned economy was (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 speculation about the potential 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 Glushkov, 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 to 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 different ways of governing stacks becomes yet more contentious — state centralization, private decentralization, platform centralization, public decentralization, the remarkable aspirations and debacles of the Russian stack form an essential model to investigate.

In the conjoined public programme on 29 November and 2 December 2018 at Het Nieuwe Instituut and Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), four speakers addressed the techno-political and historical specificities of the Russian digital cosmos. Talks, Het Nieuwe Instituut

Ksenia Tatarchenko outlined the cornerstones of Soviet cybernetic history, challenging the normalised American narrative and the rhetoric of failure around Russian computing. Closely examining the work of a Soviet computer scientist Andrey Ershov (1931-1988) a pioneer in systems programming and author of the universal computer language ‘ALGOL’, Tatarchenko brought attention to Ershov’s visit to RAND Corporation during the Cold War. Consequent US developments in cybernetics were principally inspired by his work on programming literacy. For Ershov, learning programming was about actualising abstract thinking to action, and reasoning through the algorithm. In line with the Gorbachev’s agenda, this visionary project was striving towards (socialist) human development, enhanced by a cybernetics of the mind. Just as book literacy (‘likbez’), introduced in the 1920s, was thought as a pathway to communism, computing would pave the road for another socialist revolution of the mind.

Ongoing Research

In this second Vertical Atlas Lab, many questions and approaches were articulated that will return in the forthcoming Vertical Atlas sessions. At the same time, each consequent lab may discover perspectives and grounds that will suggest a reconsidering of the assessments of the previous conversations. The text of this very report, as well as its method of documentation, is fluid and subject to change, and will serve as a working draft for future participants. A consistent approach to documentation — as well as an actual Vertical Atlas — will be established at the completion of the entire series.


Vertical Atlas was made possible thanks to the generous support of:

Kévin Bray
Het Nieuwe Instituut and Digital Earth
Benjamin Bratton, Arthur Steiner, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer