Academician Glushkov’s “Life’s Work” | History of Computing in Ukraine

Academician Glushkov’s “Life’s Work”

Many ideas considered innovative today often have a long history of both success and failure. This is how the history of the Nation-wide Automated Economics Control System (Russian: OGAS) developed as well. Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov called this machine his “life’s work” on August 24, 1973, when celebrating his 50th birthday. At the time, he was full of life and confident of achieving his audacious plan to build a nation-wide control system to oversee the USSR’s economy. A machine such as OGAS does not exist even today, and was almost inconceivable in the 1960s when Glushkov began designing it. He was the first to see the potential of a powerful computerized system to do such a task; however, despite the initial enthusiasm towards the idea, OGAS was never completed.


Viktor M. Glushkov

The name of the Academician Viktor Mikhailovich Glushkov is most usually associated with cybernetics, computer technologies, and mathematics. However, despite such a diversity of interests, Glushkov’s main focus was always the global task of computerization and informatization of human society. He was undisputedly the brightest figure in this area in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s-70s. V.M. Glushkov became the founder of information technology in the USSR; OGAS was to be its centerpiece.

It would be difficult to sum up the man’s life and work in one book, let alone one article. Glushkov did though manage to sum up much in his memoirs – his “confessions”, as he called them – as recorded by his daughter Olga during the last nine days of his life. These memoirs are a concise but comprehensive account of Glushkov’s life and work, which was rich with important events, including the founding and development of the institute he created, developing its glorious young staff, and most of all OGAS. It is these recollections that form the background to this story.

It began in 1956, with the publication of the first Soviet book on computer technologies, “Electronic digital machines” by A.I. Kitov. According to Glushkov, it was this book that first introduced him to the basics of computer operation as well as the potential for their use. It wasn’t until much later that he learned about Kitov’s subsequent fate.

As it turned out, in 1959 Kitov wrote a memo to the leader of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev addressing the issue of developing computing technologies, which played a major role in preparing the decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Council of Ministers of the USSR “On acceleration and expansion of production of computing machines and their implementation in the national economy”.

Inspired by this decree, Kitov prepared a report for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he proposed to create a unified automated control system for the armed forces and the national economy, based on a common network of computing centers created and serviced by the Ministry of Defense of the USSR. A special committee of the Ministry headed by Marshal K.K. Rokossovskiy was created especially to consider this proposal. The report’s criticism of the current state of affairs and proposals for fundamental changes to the control system used in the Ministry of Defense and high levels of government provoked a negative reaction from the committee. Kitov was expelled from the Communist Party and ordered to vacate the position of Head of the Computing Center #1 of the Ministry of Defense.

Despite this extreme reaction, Kitov remained true to his ideas, and in 1961, just before the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he published a new article, calling for the creation of a control system for the national economy based on the conceptofa nation-wide network of computing centers. However, the only attention it received came from abroad; the American journal Operations Research published an extensive positive review of the article.

V.M. Glushkov met Kitov in early 1960s, when he worked as the Executive Director of the Computing Center of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Despite knowing that Kitov was being prosecuted for his countless insistent letters, Glushkov found the courage to continue his work on the Nation-wide automated control system (OGAS) himself, and appointed Kitov his assistant for this project.

In fact, the idea to create OGAS came to Glushkov even before he came across Kitov. He shared this idea with the President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, who in turn introduced him to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers A.N. Kosygin. Kosygin approved Glushkov’s project, and the scientist took to the task with enthusiasm.

The USSR had a planned economy, where all physical resource funds listed in the National Plan were redistributed by 20-30 subdivisions with roughly 500 staff members. The USSR’s economy, colossal in size, was very difficult to plan precisely using only manual calculation methods. Additionally, the plan underwent constant modifications throughout the year in order to adjust for changing circumstances. Therefore it became clear that it was impossible to coordinate all the planning and economic controls without the use of computers.

Glushkov was aware of this, and during 1963 visited around 100 plants and organizations of varied specializations ranging from industrial plants and mines to state farms. He then spent a week at the Central Statistics Administration, where he studied the control chain from regional offices to the Central Administration itself. Glushkov also spent much time studying the operations of the State Planning Committee. Soon, the number of organizations he visited reached 1,000. These experiences gave Glushkov an extremely thorough understanding of the national economy of the USSR as a whole, from the lowest level of authority to the top, enabling him to recognise the system’s peculiarities, challenges, and instances where computing technologies could make a difference.

The first draft project for the Unified nation-wide network of computing centers (Russian: EGSVC) was created as early as 1964. Glushkov proposed a system to help the country’s authorities control the economy of the entire Soviet Union at all levels of the hierarchy, all in real time using a network of computing centers. The project implied a complete restructuring of the entire system of control, planning, and economic forecasting.

The submitted project suggested the creation of 100 computing centers in the biggest industrial cities and economic centers, connected by broadband communication channels. These centers would be spread across the entire country, and service around 20,000 large industrial plants and ministries as well as small enterprises. The presence of a distributed databank and the possibility of addressless to any information from any branch of the system (after verification of access privileges) was the distinguishing feature of the system. A number of proposals regarding data security were also included.

However, after the committee reviewed the project, very little of it was left. The budget of 5 billion rubles for 10 years and the need to prepare over 300,000 highly skilled specialists for the project forced the committee to cancel many projects. The practical implementation of EGSVC was limited to creating a number of more basic objects like the Management Information and Control Systems (MICS) and the Automated Manufacturing Process Control Systems (Russian: ASUTP). Their functions were limited to industrial process automation and statistical information collection, in addition to document control in some organizations. This fell far short of the original vision of automation for the entire planning and control system. Thus, Glushkov’s plans were not fulfilled, and eventually his rival, the Central Statistics Administration rose to be in charge of the State Economic Administration computerization project. As a result, the focus of the project shifted to improving the Administration’s work flow.

There were other reasons that prevented the implementation of Glushkov’s vision. In large part, it was the fault of the State Planning Committee, by way of its cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus. The heads of its regional and branch administrations were not interested in receiving accurate information about their performance, not to mention unprepared to receive and process economic information. Secondly, implementation of such a large project required large expenditures. Thirdly, the process of in-line data input was still imperfect and necessitated additional training for the staff.

Statistics departments and some of the planning department branches were still using computing-analytical machines from 1939, while in the US the comparable authorities had already switched to the new generation of computers. Before 1965, the Americans were developing two lines of computing machines: science research machines and economics machines. These first merged in the machines made by IBM. In contrast, the USSR only had science research machines because nobody cared to develop computers for economics; thus, there was nothing to merge. While Glushkov attempted to spark computer designers’ interest in the necessity of such machines, he managed to persuade neither B.I. Rameev (head designer of “Ural”) nor V.V. Przhiyalkovskiy (designer of the “Minsk” computer series).

Starting in 1964, leading economists like Liberman, Belkin, Birman and others began to speak out openly against Glushkov. Despite this, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers A.N. Kosygin, being a very practical man, decided to hear him out and weigh the potential costs. Glushkov stated openly that the OGAS project was more complex than the space and nuclear programs combined, because it would affect every administrative branch: industry, trade, planning, control and more. However, according to his calculations, the system would pay for itself within 5 years of operation.

Still, the country’s leadership decided that simple economic reform would suffice, and cost less. Glushkov and OGAS were put aside. Not much later, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, P. Shelest, summoned Glushkov and ordered him to stop OGAS propaganda and instead focus on lower-level systems.

Expecting this, Glushkov and his team at the Institute of Cybernetics of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR began working on the “Lviv system” – a MICS for use at the Lviv television plant “Elektron” (today, a more modern term “Enterprise Resource Planning Systems” or “ERP-systems” is used to describe such systems). The Lviv MICS was the first system in the USSR used at a plant with large-scale production. The history of the system began in 1965. Glushkov attended a conference organized by the regional national economy department in Lviv, where he gave a speech promoting automated control systems and explained how they work. The Director of the television plant S.O. Petrovskiy gave the scientist an opportunity to create such a system at his plant and promised cooperation. Glushkov, excited by the chance to create a first-of-its-kind machine, completed the project within 2 years.

After completing the “Lviv system”, the Institute of Cybernetics went on to build an even more complex system “Kuntsevo” for the Kuntsevo radio manufacturing plant.

In the late 1960s, new information emerged about American attempts to build an information network. Apparently, they completed a draft project for several such networks in 1966, 2 years after Glushkov’s original OGAS proposal. The launch of ARPANET, which would connect computers in several American cities, was planned for 1969. As a result, the Soviet leadership decided to return to the OGAS idea, and created another high-level committee, which now included the Minister of Finance, Minister of Instrument-building, etc. This committee was tasked with making a decision about the creation of OGAS.

In the new version of the project, Glushkov shifted emphasis from core issues to implementation mechanisms. He proposed to create a State committee on OGAS design control, and a central scientific center including 10-15 existing institutes. Most importantly, he proposed that one of the members of the Politburo be made responsible for the projects.

At the hearing on OGAS, where neither Brezhnev nor Kosygin were present, the Politburo expressed major objections toward the project. This is how Glushkov himself described it in his “Confessions”:

Suslov led the hearing. After Kirillin spoke, I had the chance to present the idea. My speech was short.” It provoked many questions, but Glushkov answered all of them. “Then Kosygin’s assistants were invited to speak. Baybakov was first, and he not only supported me, but also emphasized the importance of the project and explained how the resources needed for implementation could be procured.”

Minister K.B. Rudnev signed the document, but commented negatively, said that it was premature to sign it. Garbuzov, Minister of Finance made a speech worth recounting.

He entered the stage and addressed Mazurov, Kosygin’s first assistant. He said that, well, he went to Minsk as directed, in order to examine the poultry farms. At the so-and-so farm, the workers designed a computing machine on their own. I laughed out loud. He shook a finger at me and said, “You, Glushkov, shouldn’t laugh, we are discussing a serious issue”. However, Suslov interrupted him, “Comrade Garbuzov, you are not the chairman here, and it’s not up to you to control the proceedings of a Politburo hearing”. He shrugged, and self-confidently continued, “The machine can perform three programs; turns on music when the hen lays an egg, turns lights on and off, and so on. This increased egg production at the farm”. So he suggested that first we should implement these machines at all the poultry farms in the Soviet Union, and only then could we even begin thinking about silly projects like a nation-wide system…

So someone introduced a counter-suggestion, which significantly decreased the level of the system. State control was replaced by Head Administration of computing technologies at the State committee for science and technology; the central scientific center – by the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for issues of organization and control; etc. The main task remained intact, but became more technical, and focused on the Nation-wide computing center network. The economic dimension, the mathematical model development for OGAS and the rest was phased out.

Toward the end of the hearing, Suslov came forward to say, “Comrades, perhaps we are making a mistake by not accepting the project in full; however, it is so revolutionary a change that it is difficult for us to implement at this time. Let us try it this alternative, and see how it goes”. Then he asked not Kirillin but me, “What do you think?” I said, “Mikhail Andreevich, I can tell you one thing, that if we don’t do this now, by the late 1970s the Soviet economy will face serious problems that will force this issue to re-emerge. However, my opinion was ignored, and the counter-suggestion was accepted.”

After the directives by the XXIV assembly about OGASwere published, strange assaults on Glushkov began. For example, as he remembered it, in 1970 when he was returning from Montreal to Moscow on the Il-62 plane, the experienced pilot felt something was wrong when they were already flying over the Atlantic and returned. It turned out that someone added something to the fuel mix. Glushkov landed safely, but the rationale and perpetrators of the sabotage remain unknown.

Behind the scenes other intrigues took place. Minister of Finance Garbuzov managed to set Kosygin, who originally supported OGAS, against Glushkov. He told Kosygin that the State Committee would become an organization that would check the activity of Kosygin and the Council of Ministers, and thus should never be allowed.

In 1972, the All-Union conference, headed by Kirilenko, took place. It finalized the shift toward manufacturing process control. The aim was to slow the development of automated control systems. OGAS is done for” – said Glushkov’s opponents.

During the preparations for the XXV Assembly of the CPSU, the word “OGAS” was taken out of the text of the decision. Glushkov wrote a memo for the Central Committee proposing to create branch control systems, which could later be merged into OGAS. This suggestion was accepted.

Viktor Mikhailovich also began a media campaign for the creation of OGAS. The editor of “Pravda” supported this idea. After the article “For the entire country” was published, Glushkov finally felt hope that OGAS could see the light of the day. After all, “Pravda” was a branch of the Central Committee, which meant that the article was approved. However, this was not to be.

Y.E. Antipov, deputy chairman of the Military-industrial committee of the USSR and a supporter of OGAS commented, “The planned economy of the former USSR allowed us to create the most effective system of economic control. Understanding this, Glushkov made his bet on OGAS. According to experts’ estimates, the Soviet control system was three times as cheap as the American system, at the same level of GDP. The decision not to approve OGAS was the biggest strategic mistake of our leadership and our society”.

As a result, Glushkov was like a prophet “not welcomed in his town”. He was misunderstood and forgotten.

During those difficult times, D.F. Ustinov, Minister of Defense supported Glushkov. He suggested the scientist implement the idea of OGAS partially, in the defense branches of the industry. The branches being well-organized, it was easy to create a number of effective automated control systems for them in a very short time. However, Glushkov’s opponents continued to plot against him. His automated control systems were declared ineffective and to cause financial loss. While in a limited number of cases this was true, due to poor understanding and use of the systems, the reports were exaggerated and presented as the last word. This in turn resulted in the policy of denial of accelerated computerization and informatization of the society. Just as in cybernetics, Glushkov’s opponents managed to achieve temporary success, which was crippling despite his best efforts.

Another new and unexpected opponent was Glushkov’s worsening health. During his last days of life, Ustinov’s assistant came to him and asked if they could help him in any way. “Send me a tank!” he responded furiously, remembering the wall of bureaucracy and misunderstanding he never managed to breach. On the morning of January 30, 1982, the great scientist’s heart stopped beating.

Academician Glushkov was ahead of his time; the state and society were not ready to receive OGAS when he proposed it. This was the scientist’s tragedy, as he did not want to accept that others could not comprehend something that for him, was self-evident.