Early History of Soviet Cybernetics

D.A. Pospelov and Ya.I. Fet

Computing Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia

1  Introduction

During the last years, history of science and, in particular, history of Computer Science attracted great attention all around the world.
This interest can be explained by the natural endeavour to "sum up" at the threshold of the new century. In the last decade of the 20th century, this trend could be traced in different areas of human activity. In this respect, Computer Science (and Cybernetics) deserves special observation. This young science, which appeared as late as in the middle of the century, had quite exceptional achievements. It is the real basis of what is now called "New Technological Revolution".

Up to the recent time, the history of Computing in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union was practically unknown to the computer community in the West. This situation is now changing. In 1996, on the 50th Anniversary of Computing, tne IEEE Computer Society has honoured prominent Russian computer scientists Victor Glushkov, Sergey Lebedev and Alexey Lyapunov as Computer Pioneers among other Eastern European scientists [1]. The "Computer Pioneer" Award was established in 1981 by the IEEE CS to honour those people whose efforts resulted in the creation and continued validity of Computer Science and Computer Technology. Among the 55 laureates of this Award are prominent scientists such as Arthur Burks, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Niclaus Wirth, Heinz Zemanek.

The IEEE CS stated in its wording that V.M. Glushkov was awarded "For founding the first USSR Institute of Cybernetics in the Ukraine, and for establishing the theory of digital automaton, computer architecture, and a high-level recursive, macropipeline processor", S.A. Lebedev, who "Designed and constructed the first computer in the Soviet Union and founded the Soviet computer industry", A.A. Lyapunov, who "Developed the first theory of operator methods for abstract programming and founded Soviet cybernetics and programming" [1,2].

Indeed, the awarded scientists, together with A.I. Berg, A.P. Ershov, A.N. Kolmogorov, L.V. Kantorovich and others, made a decisive contribution to the formation of Soviet cybernetics and Computer Science. These talanted and noble people came forward in defence of cybernetics at those hard times when the Soviet ideologists persecuted the new science as contrary to Marxists views.

Norbert Winer’s book "Cybernetics or Control and Communication in Animal and Maschine" published in 1948 was actually banned in the USSR, because some ideas expressed by Winer did not agree to the official Soviet doctrines.
In 1953, the leading ideological journal "Problems of Philosophy" published a notorious article "In whose service is Cybernetics?" [3]. The author who hided himself under a pseudonyme "Materialist" wrote, in particular: "The theory of Cybernetics, trying to extend the principles of modern computing machines to a broad variety of natural and social phenomena without due regard for their qualitative peculiarities, is mechanicism turning into idealism. It is a steril flower of the tree of knowledge arriving as a result of a one-sided and exaggerated blowing of a particular trait of epistemology". And further: "The imperialists are unable to resolve the contradictions splitting the kapitalists’ world. They cannot prevent the approaching inexorable economical crisis. They try to find salvation not only in the frenziend arms drive but as well in the ideological weapon. In the depth of their despair they resort to the help of pseudo-sciences giving them some shadow of expectation to lengthen their survival".

In the article "Cybernetics" of the 4th edition (1954) of "Concise Dictionary of Philosophy" [4] this science was defined as a "reactionary pseudo-science appeared in the USA after the World War II and becoming also wide spread in other capitalist countries; a kind of modern mechanicism".

One can easily imagine what meant defending and disseminating of a "reactionary pseudoscience" at those times in the Soviet Union! Nevertheless, A.A. Lyapunov devoted himself to such propaganda demonstrating all his enthusiasm and professional skill. It was just in 1954 when he presented to different audiences his lectures discussing the true contents of cybernetics, and launched his famous "Big Seminar" at the Moscow State University. (Earlier, in 1952/1953 academic year he had already offered to the students of the Mechanico/Mathematical Department of this University his first course on "Principles of Programming").

Then, in 1955, A.A. Lyapunov (together with S.L. Sobolev and A.I. Kitov) published in the same journal "Problems of Philosophy" the first officially permitted positive article on cybernetics entitled "Essential aspects of cybernetics" [5]. Essentially, this publication marked the beginning of the early period of cybernetics in the USSR which is the subject of the present report.

A series of materials relating to the history of the considered period has been recently published in [6]. In this report we will examine only some fragments of the creative biographies of several distinguished Russian scientists who made a decisive contribution in the gold fund of theoretical and applied cybernetics asuring the front-rank position of Russian Computer Science.

2.  Alexey Andreevich Lyapunov

We have already presented Alexey Andreevich Lyapunov as the founder of Soviet cybernetics and programming. Descendant of old Russian nobility, he was a typical representative of progressive Russian intelligentsia. Over fourty years of his life he devoted to disinterested service to his science and his country. The area of his scientific interests was so widespread that he can be truly called an encyclopedic scientist.

The known Russian cybernetician and historian of science M. G. Haase-Rapoport wrote about A.A. Lyapunov: "Despite the broad spectrum of his scientific interests, Lyapunov’s activities in science were always distinguished by professional skill. The biologists considered him a biologist, the geophysicists a geophysicist, the philosophers a philosopher. His large erudition and enciclopedic knowledge, combined with his integrating, non-dividing approach in natural science, in the hole complex of scientific knowledge became the rich soil which provided the sprout of cybernetical ideas. In this respect, there is some similarity of A.A. Lyapunov with Norbert Wiener, who was also a scientist of deep and broad mind working in different areas".

In 1953, M.V. Keldysh invited Lyapunov to the Division of Applied Mathematics of the Mathematical Institute of USSR Academy of Sciences. Simultaneously, Lyapunov began his work at the Moscow State University as a Professor of Chairs of Mathematical Logic and of Computational Mathematics. In the 1952/1953 academic year he organised in the University a Seminar on programming, while in 1954/1955 a Seminar on cybernetics. The latter Seminar attracted, from the very beginning, great attention of different specialists and developed into an all-Moscow, and even in all-Union event. During ten years (1954-1964) a total of 121 sessions of this Seminar was held. Numerous special Seminars detached from this "Big" Lyapunov’s Seminar working in different directions of cybernetics and located in Moscow, in Leningrad, and in other cities.

In the same years, extraordinary interesting domestic meetings/seminars happened at the Lyapunov’s appartament in Chavsko-Shabolovsky Street. Here, in the Autumn of 1955 A.A. Lyapunov made acquaintance of N.V. Timofeev-Ressovsky, here this great Russian geneticist  has presented his first public report after he was discharged from confinement. A close friendship between these two scientists began. Next Summer, the famous Miassovo Summer Schools were launched by Timofeev-Ressovsky in the Ural, near Chelyabinsk. Lyapunov became a permanent, most active, and well-liked participant of these Schools.

N.A. Lyapunova, the daughter of Professor Lyapunov, recollected: " At this first Summer, during about two months (from July 12 till September 10) 30 Colloquiums were held [in Miassovo], each devoted to one, sometimes to two topics, alwais accompanied by heated discussions ... Nine of these Colloquiums were addressed by A.A. Lyapunov. The subjects of his reports were: 1). On cybernetics. 2). Design of computing machines (logic diagrams). 3). Computer programming. 4). On the structure of DNA. 5). Logic program schemata (logico-mathematical principles of computer programming). 6). Problems of machine translation. 7). Set-theoretical approaches to the problems of stability and divergence of species. 8). Homeostasis and variability of organisms. 9). The theories on the origin of Earth".

It is little known that in 1960-1961 people in Moscow were waiting for opening of an Institute for Cybernetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The project of establishing such an Institute was seriously discussed by the Academic Division of Physico-Mathematical Sciences. The structure of this Institute, its themes of research, its presumed staff was being prepared. Even a Resolution was decreed by the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences containing a paragraph on constructing a building for 400 employees in the city of Noginsk, near Moscow.

A curious document was found in the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences: a letter from the Scientific Secretary of the Division of Physico-Mathematical Sciences N.E. Skibko dated at October 18, 1961 asking to name urgently "... the name of the person who will be responsible for organising and building of the Institute for Cybernetics". This letter was addressed in thefollowing way: "Division of Applied Mathematics, Mathematical Institute of USSR Academy of Sciences, to A.A. Lyapunov". Evidently, at this time Lyapunov appeared as the presumed future Director of the Institute for Cybernetics. Why this Institute was not then established? It is hard to explain it now. Some witnesses of those events believe that there existed different views on the personality of future leaders of the Institute. Possibly, Lyapunov’s decision of 1961 to move to Novosibirsk played some role. From the other side, it can be assumed that just due to this transfer the Novosibirsk Academic Village became the center of the development of Soviet cybernetics for many years.

3.  Leonid  Vital’evich  Kantorovich

The name of Leonid Kantorovich, his life, his role in the science, and his struggle for his ideas occupy a special position in the history of science of the 20th century. Kantorovich’s importance to science and society has not as yet found an adequate expression in the scientific literature. The early blossoming of his talent, the discovery (at the age of 27) of new methods of planning and management, the extraordinary breadth of interests, the uncompromising nature of a fighter, and, at the same time, his modesty amd nobility - all these features form the unique phenomenon of Kantorovich. This phenomenon is worth to be shown to the contemporaries.

The mathematical investigations of Kantorovich served as a basis of the formation of new important directions in mathematics. At the same time, he is rightfully considered one of the founders of modern mathemetical economics, the kernel of which is the linear programming he created. Itis the most important concept of the economical cybernetics allowing to transform the economics into objective science, thus ensuring most efficient results of the economic activity.

Academician L.V. Makarov, one of the closest Kantorovich’s collaborators, wrote []: "He is the author of first-class results in functional analysis, in the theory of functions, in computational mathematics. He has a number of great works on the theory of sets, the thery of computer programming, etc. He published a dozen of reputable monographs on mathematics. In seems to be clear: Leonid Vital’evich is a mathematician to the core ... . In reality, this is not true. It is just Kantorovich’s phenomenon that he is at the same time an outstanding economist, a scientist who changed esentially the understanding of economical events, the economic thinking, and became a founder of an original economic school".

L.V. Kantorovich also paid considerable attentionto the technical realisation of complicated computational processes [7]. In his research work in the field of computer architecture and computer programming Kantorovich anticipated a number of future directions of the development of computer sciencs and computer technology. In some sense, the personality of L.V. Kantorovich who combined many diversified interests in science and made his great contribution not only in mathematics and economics, but also in computer architecture, is similar to John von Neumann’s personality.


1. "IEEE Computer", 1998, No  7.
2. "Priroda" (Nature), 1997, No.12.
3. "Voprosy Filisofii", 1953, No.5, pp.210-219.
4. Kratkiy Filosofskiy Slovar’. Moscow, 1954, pp.236-237.
5. "Voprosy Filisofii", 1955, No.4, pp.136-148.
6.  Essays on the History of Computer Science in Russia. Edited by D.A. Pospelov and
     Ya.I. Fet. Novosibirsk, Scientific Publishing Center, 1998, 664 pp.
7.  Ya.I. Fet. On L.V. Kantorovich’s research in the field of computer architecture.
      In: ‘Functional Analysis, Optimization, and Mathematical Economics". Oxford
      University Pres, 1990, pp.49-55.