Computer Age <i> Glasnost</i> : Satellite Links Up Americans and Soviets Via Personal Computers


At a youth club in northwest Moscow, 8-year-old Pavlik Teremetsky sat at an American-made computer helping three “Island Survivors” build shelter, hunt, fish and gather firewood for the approaching winter.

Later, he put his experiences into writing:

“I and my friends, Kirill and Misha, went on a trip around the world,” he wrote. “Our ship ran aground during a bad storm and was destroyed. . . . We held on to the remnants of a mast and made it ashore. Very strange creatures live there, they look like dinosaurs.”

His story was sent electronically to a microwave station outside the Soviet capital for relay via an Intelsat satellite to a ground station in the United States.


Its ultimate destination: a small public library in the San Diego suburb of Solana Beach, where a group of American children play the same game after school.

The experimental project involving Soviet and American schoolchildren is one of a series undertaken by U.S. public interest groups, peace activists, educators, academic researchers and other professionals to try to promote better East-West relations and encourage reforms through the use of personal computers.

The activities include daily exchanges of electronic mail messages between computers in the two countries over a new satellite communications network linking the United States with Moscow and other major Soviet cities.

At the same time, however, several American experts on Soviet computer technology say some of the PC enthusiasts may have naively optimistic expectations. They contend that even with more personal computers, the Soviet Union is unlikely to develop a Western-style “information society.”

The United States now leads the Soviet Union about a hundredfold in numbers of personal computers--approximately 30-million PCs in this country compared to between 200,000 and 350,000 in the Soviet Union. Most Soviet PCs are installed at schools, universities, research institutes, military bases, factories and other enterprises; relatively few are in use at home.

Within the Soviet Union, PCs are extremely expensive. IBM-compatible XT clones sell for about 50,000 rubles ($80,000 at the official exchange rate) while AT clones go for up to 80,000 rubles ($130,000).


In July, the Bush Administration lifted export controls on the sale of IBM-compatible AT and similar desktop computers to the Soviet Union, after finding that such PCs were readily available in 11 countries--including Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The decision was sharply criticized by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who contended that it would provide to Moscow computers “with military applications” and thus give the Soviets “significant capabilities they do not now possess.”

Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said he was in favor of lifting the export controls and “moderately optimistic” about the long-term implications of increased numbers of personal computers in the Soviet Union.

“It will contribute to the spread of democracy in the Soviet Union, mainly because a growing number of what you might call the computer literate or computer elite people will have access to a broad base of information about what’s going on in the rest of the world,” he said.

Brown said that “will allow them to make better judgments about the changes, political and otherwise, that will be necessary in the Soviet Union. And they’ll be better prepared to act to accomplish some of these changes.”

Direct, high-speed communication between computers in the United States and Soviet Union has been facilitated by the establishment early last year of the San Francisco-Moscow Teleport, which uses data channels relayed by an Intelsat satellite.

Joel Schatz, the American entrepreneur who heads the teleport, and Soviet officials signed an agreement Sept. 20 formally creating a joint venture between the San Francisco company and the Moscow-based Research Institute of Applied Automated Systems.

Schatz said that after more than four years of work, “we have solved the major technical and political problems for providing electronic mail service.”

He noted that “when we first attempted to connect a computer modem to the Moscow telephone network several years ago, we needed approval from the Ministry of Communications and half a dozen additional Moscow agencies. Today, we simply use alligator clips to connect modems to phone wires without any permission.”

Schatz attributed the change mainly to the increased familiarity of Soviet officials and technical personnel with electronic mail systems. Earlier, he said, “this was a new technology for them--they had never seen E-mail before.”

A few computer hobbyists have begun exchanging messages via the teleport, but most of its users are companies and other organizations. Among them:

* Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto, which has been exchanging information with the Institute of Nuclear Science at Novosibirsk in western Siberia.

David Leith, a high-energy physicist at the Stanford center, said the electronic link has substantially aided communications with Soviet colleagues about joint scientific work.

He noted that “our prior communications were by mail, which is long and unreliable; by phone, which is difficult; and by telex, which is expensive.”

* The Space Studies Institute in Princeton, N.J., which has been using the teleport to discuss possible joint space missions with the Moscow Aviation Institute.

* International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a public interest group based in Cambridge, Mass., which used the teleport to communicate with its Soviet counterpart about travel plans and other logistics in advance of a world conference held in Hiroshima, Japan.

* Argus Trading Ltd., a small company based in Rockville, Md., whose business includes exports to the Soviet Union of oil pipeline equipment, chemicals and machinery for producing electronic circuit boards.

“There’s a potential for it to be a great money saver,” said Thomas Anaya, U.S. contract manager for Argus, about the electronic mail link. “If you use telexes as much as we do, you find that the savings can be tremendous.”

Americans wanting to use the San Francisco-Moscow Teleport first must get a written agreement with a counterpart in the Soviet Union for an electronic mail connection. This paper work can take up to five weeks.

The teleport charges a one-time setup fee of $100. Commercial users pay a monthly service fee of $200, while nonprofit groups are charged $25 to $75 per month. In addition, there is an on-line connection charge of $15 per hour.

The network’s staff offers both English-to-Russian and Russian-to-English translation services, at a minimum fee of $30 per message and volume charges of up to 35 cents per word.

The U.S.-Soviet teleport is closely tied with PeaceNet, a San Francisco-based computer network linking nearly 2,000 subscribers from dozens of peace groups in the United States and other Western countries.

Michael Shuman, executive director of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy in Irvine, a group instrumental in forming PeaceNet, said he was “very interested in ways in which promotion of computer technology can strengthen glasnost and perestroika, “ Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s policies of openness and restructuring.

“It may turn out that the real significance of computerization is to inoculate the Soviet Union from a dramatic reversal of glasnost, “ Shuman said. “The more that computers and information are spread, the more difficult it will become for the government to suddenly rewrite history or pull that information back from people.”

Communication via the San Francisco-Moscow Teleport also is at the heart of the U.S.-Soviet educational effort being led by Michael Cole, a Russian-speaking psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Alexandra Belyaeva of the Soviet Institute of Psychology in Moscow.

Cole said “Island Survivors” was among computer games being used because “everybody’s interested in global consciousness of ecology.” He said this activity had developed into “a very lively discussion where the kids brought in a lot of knowledge beyond the specific game.”

In the East-West education project, he said, each side usually sends messages in its own language, with bilingual teachers on hand to translate at the other end.

The program, conducted after school so that it does not interfere with the regular curriculum, involves several dozen children ages 6 to 12 in each country.

Test sites in the United States include the Children’s School in La Jolla; a day-care center associated with the Erikson Institute of Early Education in Chicago; Casita Maria, an after-school center in New York City’s East Harlem; and a center in New Orleans associated with the University of New Orleans. The Solana Beach library was used for two years up through last summer.

Cole said that although he was pleased by progress achieved in the program so far, “there are enormous institutional and cultural barriers to really making it anything more than a public relations gimmick.”

“I like it as public relations--it’s not bad. But in general, even within the United States, when you have the use of electronic mail to amplify educational activity, it’s much more promise than delivery,” he said.

Other American observers voice mixed feelings about the role of personal computers in improving East-West ties and promoting reforms within Soviet society.

Gary Chapman, executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a public interest group based in Palo Alto, spent three weeks in the Soviet Union last spring to get a firsthand look at Soviet computing.

After returning home, Chapman launched a drive to raise $35,000 for personal computers and other office equipment to assist Perspektiva, a Moscow cooperative affiliated with community groups that offer social services dealing with problems such as domestic violence, Afghan war veterans, youth crime and drug abuse.

Perspektiva operates a clearinghouse of information--none of it yet computerized--collected from more than 1,200 non-governmental organizations across the Soviet Union.

Chapman said he doesn’t have particularly high expectations about the value of computer technology for enhancing East-West communication. However, he believes PCs can play a significant role in aiding the work of progressive organizations such as Perspektiva.

“I’m a little bit concerned that a lot of the financial and philanthropic support for computerization with respect to the Soviet Union is mainly focused on this East-West communication business, and not on supporting indigenous efforts that, from my perspective, would have a lot more impact,” Chapman said.

Accompanying Chapman on the trip was Esther Dyson, the Russian-speaking editor and publisher of Release 1.0, a New York-based computer industry newsletter.

Dyson said she concluded afterward that “it’s not enough--it’s like having your eyes open but your muscles aren’t connected. Until you have the economic vitality that comes from really liberating the forces of individual business, all this stuff isn’t going to do enough.”

Richard Judy, director of the Center for Soviet and East European Studies at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, said he estimates there are currently about 350,000 personal computers in the Soviet Union, with that number increasing by about 100,000 a year--including both Soviet production and imported machines.

However, Judy said that even with a growing number of PCs, their impact within Soviet society is likely to be limited, partly because of inadequacies of the country’s telephone system for carrying computer data.

“To really have a ripple effect that all of us would like to see, fanning out horizontally across the population, is going to require much better telecommunications. That’s just not likely to be in place anytime soon,” Judy said.

Seymour E. Goodman, an expert on Soviet computer technology at the University of Arizona, said that in the years ahead “what emerges will no more resemble a Western-style information society than Gorbachev’s emerging Soviet-style democracy will resemble Western-style democracy.”

“The most likely changes over the next several years range from modest increases in technology applications narrowly related to achieving the state’s main goals, to the attainment of some more ambitious vision of ‘enlightened collectivism’ that has yet to be defined by Soviet academics or technocrats,” he said.

Goodman added that “even if the U.S.S.R. undergoes social and economic reforms as radical as those of Hungary--a scenario that is not inconceivable--information technology will still be more tightly controlled and less pervasive than in the West.”