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Today is the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. But wait, isn't it November? Indeed it is, but back in 1917, Russia still had not switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Most European countries had done so a long time before. Britain, for example, did it in 1752, as did the US and Canada (still British colonies). Even that was a couple of hundred years after France, Italy, and several other countries did it in 1582. Russia did it in 1918, by which time the difference between the two calendars was 13 days. So 25th October under the Julian calendar, when Lenin led the beginning of that phase of the Russian Revolution, is November 7th on the current calendar. So, like at Cambridge University, where May Week is in June, the October Revolution is in November. Today.
Of course, it is not an anniversary for celebration. Communism killed millions, especially in the forced starvation in Ukraine under Stalin. A better date to celebrate is in two days time, November 9th. In 1989, the border between East and West Germany was opened on that day, and "the wall fell." In fact, the wall was not actually demolished until the following year. And, I'm ignoring the New York Times' weird celebration of the anniversary, Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.
My first trip to Russia almost didn't happen. It must have been in about 1990 or 1991, soon after the fall of the Berlin wall. I had to go to the Russian Consulate to get my visa. I offered my credit card. "We don't take credit cards." So I tried to pay with cash. "We don't take cash." That didn't surprise me. Many places don't want the corruption that comes with cash. But I couldn't write a check either. The only way you could pay was with a cashier's check, which meant walking half a dozen blocks to the bank. We were going to St Petersburg, although still called Leningrad, and then to Moscow. I flew from Nice to Vienna. Then they put us all on an Aeroflot plane. It was snowing. We went out to the runway but then taxied back to the terminal. All the other planes meanwhile took off. We ended up having to stay the night and flew to Leningrad the next morning. I have no idea if the plane was just unsafe in the snow, which seems unlikely given that Russia has more snow than most places, or whether the crew just wanted to stay in Vienna for a night. The second seems more likely.
I arrived in Leningrad in time to get to the hotel, meet my colleagues, and get a taxi back to the airport. This was the pre-cellphone era, so I figured that going to the hotel would be a more dependable way to meet up than just staying at the airport. We got on the plane from Leningrad to Moscow. At the front of the plane was some senior-looking military officer. When we landed, we parked a long way from the terminal. They brought the stairs. A bus arrived. The military officer got on and then told the bus to go. So the rest of us were standing around on the tarmac with no bus. So we walked to the terminal in the light snow. We arrived at the terminal at about the same time as we could see that the bus had finally made it back to the plane. Then it was hard to find a door through which we could enter the terminal. A guard let us in, and told us off in Russian, presumably for walking around on the supposedly secure airport taxiway. The Russians ignored him and we didn't know what he was saying.
We then had a day and a half of meetings, the most interesting of which was with an organization that employed a number of good computer scientists who were looking for contract work. Eventually, we would end up with two different groups in Moscow working for us, and then, at one point, we had one of the groups hire the engineers from the other group since their management was basically stealing a large part of the money we were wiring for their salaries. I also started up a group in India, in Hyderabad. We did it through a company called CMC, which stood for the very generic-sounding Computer Manufacturing Company, which was the company that took over servicing IBM mainframes when IBM was basically nationalized. All IBM mainframes, which were leased, were given to the companies using them, and CMC was given the contract to maintain them. Ironically, IBM today has more employees in India than in the US.
One of the groups that we worked with was the Moscow Center for SPARC Technology, which obviously also had connections with Sun Microsystems. The head was Boris Babayan, who had been a computer architect for the Elbrus supercomputers during the days that Russia was closed to the west. They worked on the superscalar version called Elbrus-3 which used explicitly parallel instruction computing (EPIC). He showed me one of them in their computer museum. It was enormous (all computers were larger in that era, of course, but this was already the era of PCs). These were the computers that were used to deliver the computing power for the Russian space program, and, although nobody ever said it, I'm sure the Russian nuclear program. It was built using ECL technology (emitter coupled logic), which generated a lot of heat. The construction had channels filled with what looked a bit like mercury but was some metallic fluid that carried heat well. When the door was closed, those channels lay on top of the chips to duct the heat away.
The other place that we dealt with had a Vax 11/780. I never discovered the whole story of how it got there, but apparently, it had involved being transferred from a ship to a Russian submarine at sea. Computers like that were export controlled and were not permitted to be sold to the Russians. They also had an equally illicit Tektronix graphics terminal, which probably got there by a circuitous route. Despite being the VP of European Engineering, I ended up being the person who installed our design tools on this no-longer-illegal computer.
One thing I noticed about Russian engineers is that they thought differently than other engineers. In Europe and US, there is a lot of communication among universities, so students are educated in much the same way. As the IITs got going in India, they were largely staffed with people who had experience in the US, and so they also delivered a similar education. But Russia was isolated, so the curriculum developed independently.
Also, money had no value. It wasn't that the ruble wasn't externally convertible into dollars, it wasn't even internally convertible into stuff. If you didn't have the connections so you could go to the special stores for nomenklatura, then the stores were empty. That was already changing by my first visit, but it had been that way throughout the communist period.
Computers were too scarce to have many. So computer science and mathematics were things you did with just a pencil and paper. Being brilliant at doing a lot with a little gave people a sense of pride. Long after people in the west were using megabytes of memory, the Russians were still doing a lot on 286-based PCs with 256K of memory, which was all there was until the Berlin wall came down in 1989.
Wikipedia has a lot more about all the history of computer hardware in Soviet bloc countries.
There were only a few western-standard hotels in Moscow. They were always full of bankers and politicians, and they were $500/night or something similar. The SPARC center was near an old Russian Hotel called Cosmos (космос), with a huge statue Monument to the Conquerors of Space nearby. It is the largest hotel in Russia, built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (that the US boycotted). The rooms were sufficient, and the location was convenient, and I think it cost more like $20/night if the Russians made the reservations. The food was bad, and never served when they said it would be, so you got the entire communist hotel experience, including a woman on each floor whose function was apparently to make sure you didn't take a girl to your room.
When I was hiking in Romania a few years ago, most of the time we stayed in a friendly bed and breakfast, but one night we stayed in an old Soviet-era hotel. It was built out of solid concrete with no concession to making it look attractive, and the staff was equally customer-unfriendly. And this was a hotel in a ski area (although it was summer), so you might think they would make a bit more effort. It had been over 20 years since the end of the Soviet era. Everyone working in a communist society seems to develop habits that are hard to break.
Luckily, Boris or (one of his people) would usually take us out to dinner somewhere with good food. The final night we went to the restaurant Kiev (Киев), which was at the station where the train to Ukraine departed. We ate way too much caviar and drank way too much vodka and brandy. There were toasts given to all sorts of things, and it was considered impolite not to drink what you had been given. (I can confirm that Russians really do drink a lot of vodka.) They then presented us with a special bottle of vodka to take back with us. It was, of course, the export version of Stolichnaya, apparently hard to obtain in Moscow, but available in Safeway and BevMo. I'd rather have had the caviar, cheap in Moscow and all-but unobtainable in the west.
The Cosmos Hotel still exists. The room rate for tonight is $30 on hotels.com. I guess it still hasn't been brought up to modern standards.
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