Russian Computing

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After getting that report about Durons, I asked Shato if he would like to write something about computing in Russia. He asked me to make some acknoweldgements, which I include here, then wrote what I find as absolutely fascinating
piece. I’ve been very interested in Russian history and society for at least the last twenty five years, so it’s possible I might find this a lot more fascinating than you.

Since our average reader might not be too familiar with some of the terms, or their significance, the second part of this are my observations on what was said, along with some explanations. Email me if you think I should cover anything you’re not too clear about.

“. . . it would be right to include an URL to the source,
though it’s in Russian: www.fcenter.ru, news from 13.10.2000.
For me, it’s one of the main sources of hard and soft news, also this shop often
receives different new components one of the first. Other good sites in Russian
are: www.ixbt.ru and www.3dnews.ru (although the latter mostly deals with game
world and peripherals).”

I’m 26. Yes, I remember the time, I do remember just that atmosphere about “talking
to foreigners” – suspicious, cautious, well, like climbing into the window of the local
boss’ wife and making love to her with his bodyguards just behind the
doors… 🙂

About the article. Well… Could it be a letter? I do not work in computing, just look
through the news and have some good friends among programmers. There are
some points which are very special to this place, though. Now that I start to think
about it… Well, let’s try.

The first PC’s appeared here from the West, of course. To have the right to travel to foreign countries
was a very special bonus in Russia – for many years.

It meant you earned whatever little money you could and bringing home whatever you saw. Most probably, whatever it was
would be very rare at home.

With all imports centralized and the government buying abroad
only a small list of “really necessary” stuff, almost everything brought “from the West”
was unique, and set you above and apart from everyone else. PCs were one such items.

Commodore’s 32 and 64, Atari’s… sweet memories :). In the beginning of 80’s my
friend’s dad brought him a Commodore (what was it? Just a keyboard, with
a tape recorder plugged in as a storage device and a b/w tv set as a monitor.
Memory is blurry, seems like it was some Japanese product). I visited him every
other day just to play. “Fighter Pilot” – that magic phrase still sounds like Christmas bells.

In 1986 I got my first PC. XT, of course, 8088, 8 MHz, 640K RAM. We all know what
it could and what it could not. It could do almost everything an average PC does
now at home :). Gaming, typing, printing. Really green monochrome screen. My dad
brought it from Germany with some catalogues. People gathered at my place to
play games, to browse through catalogues, looking at high-end Commodores, with
TWO diskette drives and some even with a hard disk. Later I got one – 10 Megs.
Wow. And first Sierra games: Larry Laffer, Roger Wilco…

People gathered and crowded around the monitor. 3-4 friends. Often more.
Just like they gathered and crowded around the first TV sets after WW2. Just like
they will when 3D television appears.

“Perestroika”. Wow, you can now go abroad. Wow, you can bring back whatever
you want: dissident literature, porn magazines…. No one will check your diskettes
at Customs to see if they contain any “anti-communist propaganda”.

You can even run your own business. For that, you need a computer. Accounting, yes.
A surge. Many modern so-called “oligarchs” started in a computer industry: it was
on the rise – fast rise!

Infamous Berezovsky (spoken to be the driving force of many
of Yeltsin’s decisions, kinda “grey cardinal”) started in a small computer company,
then made a nice “grab-and-run-with-their-money” combination with car-producing
company shares, and finally became one of the richest and powerful Russians.
Putin has made many attempts to move him aside from politics: the fight is still hot.

Taking into account the income of most people, computers were and are quite
expensive here. Almost everyone is for the best “bang-for-the-buck”.

On the other hand, our culture greatly respects and demands a show of wealth:
Show your generosity: if you have money, show everyone you have money. The wealthy who buy
computers often say “Bring me the best, the highest end – don’t care about the money!”.

Our society is highly polarized between the wealthy and the rest. It is hard to find a simple, modest computer shop.
Four, five years ago, it was almost impossible, but as the middle-class grows,
more appear. And what did we have?

Outside of Moscow, there is a very short supply of modern computer
techs. Habarovsk, for example, is very close to China. I believe over 40% of
PC components come to Russia from China and Taiwan. But people from Habarovsk
come to Moscow when they want to buy a modern PC. Imports are still centralized –
– but now by the private oligarchs.

Moscow is a financial center, where money turn over. Where there is a lot of money, it leaves
a lot of traces, and a lot of people grab and live off those traces. Well, it’s like everywhere, of course.

We have “posh” companies. They sell expensive PC’s for people who don’t care
about the money – more about looking grand. To have the highest technology,
to drive a Mercedes 600, etc. etc. They would sell even Dell – God knows why
Dell costs so much.

Many years ago, I wished to upgrade my 486-33-SX Dell computer
to 66. Just had to upgrade the processor. The new
processor costed about 200 bucks. I called to local Dell office and asked for
processor upgrade to 66 – they call it “processor upgrade kit”. It costed almost
800. The mobo from that PC still lies somewhere in my case for spare parts.
The HSF from that 66 processor now cools the backside of my TNT2-Ultra and
the processor itself is going to hang on keychain. Excuse me for getting sentimental 🙂
Maybe it’s another side: expensive things serve longer and bring side benefits :).

We have something called a “radio-market”. It is a kind of “flea market”, with many people trading
whatever they have. It started as a market for radio components, then, with the rise of the computing
industry rise, more and more people brought PC’s and components cheaply bought
somewhere in the West or even wholesale lots from Asia – and traded. This market
was famous in Moscow and around for its low prices on hardware.

Now many shops in downtown have lower prices. This market has again changed its profile: it’s
mainly cellular now: cheap phones, sim-cards, pirated accounts etc. etc.

But it still hosts some radio fans with resistors and all kinds of mechware, any PC components –
preferably small and able to be smuggled about in quantity in a small car. Memory,
video cards (“GF 2 GTS? Of course! Which would you prefer – Hercules, or Creative?
Oh, you would like a Radeon… It’s not here, but that man ten tables from here
has it – and he got a 1 GHz Thunderbird, too…”).

But all this is not what this market is so known for. If someone has broken into your car and stole
an expensive tape or CD player with speakers, you will most probably find it on sale here
the next day.

Email Ed


There’s something you need to understand about Russia. When one great 19th century Russian historian
was asked to describe life in Russia in one word, he said: “Steal”. In Russian,
this word has a form which means “they steal”.

I know a man who actually bought Windows 95 once. He even bought an MS Office
later. He did it for show when he worked for a big bank and could afford
it. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore.

There’s a theft mentality here. It has to change and will change, but that’s what we have right now.

No one will buy software. No one will buy games. A CD with Win2000, Win98SE,
Office97, Full Photoshop, and some other stuff will cost you about $3 in Moscow.
Come to the market and buy 10 CD’s with newest games, soft, films etc.
You will spend 30 bucks. (DVD a little extra, of course.)

For now, the most popular software are MP4 films and MP3 collections. 3 bucks. Many people complain it’s too
expensive, so they started selling disks with no plastic case: just a paper wrapper.
2.5 bucks.

I have some friends in the West: twice I have made them presents:
these collections. I will never forget their eyes when they looked through the list
of soft on a single disk…

Well, maybe no one is too strong a word. I do not visit high bankers or top managers,
but I see some shops which say they sell legal software. I know that some companies selling
assembled PC’s (many local brands are quite known and reliable) would sell OEM
Win98 or 2000, sometimes MS Works etc. Some organizations would buy them
– a few copies and install them to a hundred computers, but at least they have
bought some.

When Bill Gates came to Moscow some years ago, Microsoft signed a
special agreement with the Central Bank of Russia. The Central Bank said all MS software used in
the bank will be bought and registered, and even paid some fine for using the pirated software before.
It was rather a show for everyone: like “we are serious”. Maybe some actually believed that?

This situation has started to change lately. For the last two years, police raids on this
and other similiar markets have become common. Police even arrested
a whole factory producing CD’s nearby Moscow. Before that, it was video
pirates: still almost everywhere you can buy a legal copy of a new film and illegal:
half the price.

Local software companies started making new arrangements: they buy all rights for selling localized copies of new games.
They then translate the game and bring it to the market for the same 3-4 bucks. It works for everyone. The originators
get more money than they ever would have selling at the regular price, and the locals make good money, too.

But other software companies (producing office applications etc.) would never think of such a thing.
Until then, the demand will remain and the raids won’t stop pirates meeting it.

Now let’s turn to the Internet. It started to grow really fast in the middle of the 90’s. To
have access to Internet from home is now common. Many small districts of
Moscow have even a local provider who will put a LAN end through to your apartment,
and you would be online 24 hours.

Russian Internet space is called “RUNET”. One of the biggest portals and search
engines in Runet, rambler.ru, has over 12 mln. documents in Russian listed in the
database, with about 3.5 mln. hits daily.

Maybe the most searched words on American search engines are “sex” or “porn”. In
Russia it’s “anecdote” or “common joke”. Maybe we need to laugh more, or else we’d look around and cry. We also don’t take
work quite as seriously as those in the West. Employers are much more loyal to employees than in the West in terms of
Internet use. Surfing porn sites at work is not considered such a great crime; I’ve never
heard of anyone being fired or even fined after that. Maybe they shun to say so :).

Runet covers a lot of ground: MLM, fake homeys, “earn-while-surfing”, everything.
I cruise around for hardware sites and literature. My friend stays in sports forums, in satellite tv forums (that’s still
not too common, but more and more people get addicted).

My younger friends disappear from this world in chat rooms. Huge number of them. Some prefer dating boards.
With almost 10 mlllion people in Moscow it’s quite popular, but I think most chatters are from other cities.

Moscow has a very special life rhythm: life is twice as fast here as in other big cities, and many times as fast as in small ones.
So not so much time is left for chatting: you see Moscow people mostly in specialised forums.

Literature is thriving on the Internet. Publish anything you write, flash your URL
at some boards where well-known writers appear, and you will receive comments,
start dialogues, well, you will live in THE STREAM. No censorship. Write anything, read anything.

You can download almost any text: prose, poem, whatever – which has been
published in Russian. Forget about copyrights. Authors know – sometimes
they just let anyone download their books. Because those who love to read, would
buy a book. A real one. Which you can handle, hold, touch. That’s still
important, even with a good LCD screen which would not hurt your eyes.

Of course, most popular sofware sites are those which allow you to
download free stuff. Or drivers for your new hardware. There are also hackers’ sites.
online magazines: new trojans, new nice hacks, forums on breaking PGP codes,
you name it.

The Internet makes Russia open to the world, but what happens is people go out for a while, feel how different
the outside world is, then return back home. Over 80% of barebone traffic goes between Russian
hosts. And you must note that very few businesses run dispersed networks: largest
part of this traffic is, so to say, “personal”.

Well, I think it’s enough for now….

Email Ed


Until well into the Gorbachev era, the average person just couldn’t travel outside the country whenever he or she felt like it. You needed all kinds of permissions from governmental agencies, and they usually said, “No.” when it came to go to the West.

That’s if you had a perfect record. If you had ever been in any trouble, particularly political trouble, they wouldn’t generally let you out unless they weren’t planning to let you back in again.

It’s almost impossible to explain to a young Western audience the buying frenzy then-Soviet citizens (and we’re not talking Joe Blow here; we’re talking about reasonably important people) used to engage in when allowed overseas.

Imagine going to your favorite mall and being told, “Buy what you can, you can’t come back for a couple years (if you’re lucky). And you can only buy a couple things through your friends or relatives once a year.”

The Soviet Union had no real consumer market as we in the West understand it, and those relatively few consumer products that were made were usually of extremely poor quality. We’re not talking about not being able to afford things (that’s what you have now in Russia, which is a major improvement), we’re talking about not being able to get things no matter how much money you have.

Even in the eighties, it was pretty standard procedure for the American State Department to take the Russian entourage for a summit meeting to outlet malls in Washington’s suburbs. People would buy everything including literally the kitchen sink and bring it back with them on the plane. Western goods were a huge status symbol.

Add to that the lack of free convertibility (you just couldn’t exchange your rubles for dollars, which you weren’t supposed to possess, anyway), and buying foreign goods was a real problem.

When it came to computers, at the time Gorbachev came to power, most personal computers in the Soviet Union were Western computers imported through roundabout (and expensive) means to duck American export restrictions. A few East European companies (including I bet a few now working for AMD at Dresden) had managed to reverse-engineer the 8088, and were working on the 80286. (I may be mistaken, but I don’t think they ever managed to copy the 80386 before the fall of Communism.)

One Soviet concern actually came up with an Apple II clone in 1983. As one bemused Byte columnist reported, they even cloned Apple’s trademark in the ROM.

“Oligarchs” and “Berezovsky” need some explanation. The Soviet (later Russian) economy was not and still is not completely free when it comes to import/export. The government(s) still had the right to grant licenses to allow you to import or export goods. Often, they’d give these to only one company, so they’d have a monopoly on this.

The Russian government also privatized many companies, and often sold them for very little to favored private investors. Obviously, political connections were very important in getting these favors, and often, people who were powerful Soviet industry and party leaders quickly became big industrialists.

Boris Berezovsky (though one of the very few who had not been a big Soviet bigwig) has been one of the biggest oligarchs, though many think his days are numbered.

Russian and Soviet society never really developed what Westerners would consider fiscally prudent middle class attitudes. There was no middle class to speak of in Tsarist times.

While the Soviet Union had a group of people who were neither poor nor rich, saving money that couldn’t buy anything desirable hardly encouraged savings. What you would normally buy in the West could only be procured by noneconomic means (manipulating the government, working through a network of friends, working through underground contacts). Like getting Super Bowl tickets, except you can’t use money to do it.

Nor was there any real economic equality in the Soviet Union. You had mostly very poor people with basic needs met and not much more, a decided minority doing fair to OK by Western standards (but far better compared to most than you have in America), and a few fairly well-off (but not extremely wealthy) at the very top. The fall of Communism has widened the gap between poor and rich even more.

The comments made about Moscow are not just local pride. If you took New York, Washington, and Los Angeles and wrapped them all together, you’d begin to have some idea how important Moscow is in Russia. It was, and remains, the power center, in ways inconceivable to Westerners.

The comment about people coming to Moscow from Habaravsk to buy a computer would be like saying people coming to New York from Nome, Alaska, or people from London going to Silcon Valley to pick up a PC.

Whether it be Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Idaho, Dell rips you off on upgrades. 🙂

Per the “radio market” I guess the closest American equivalent to that would be a computer fair, though they not too big on used nor stolen goods.:)

When Slato talks about “theft mentality,” he doesn’t mean just software, that’s pretty common throughout the world, even in the U.S.. He means about everything.

If you’ve ever done something dishonest with a company and justified it by saying, “This is a big company, they can afford it,” that’s the type of attitude we’re talking about. Now imagine an entire economy running that way, and you start to understand why the Soviet and Russian economies had and have such problems.

We’re not just talking about somebody at a factory, we’re talking about the owners, too. You don’t have a long-term investment outlook, it’s more “take the money and run” (usually to a foreign bank account).

Outward show is a very important Russian cultural trait. An American like Bill Gates thinks that the Central Bank really is buying all the software it uses.

The Central Bank executives probably think quite otherwise. They’re probably having a rough time paying their own employees; they’re going to pay somebody in Redmond ahead of them? So long as all the official paperwork says it’s being done, it doesn’t matter whether you’re actually doing it or not. Shato shows what I think is a very legitimate skepticism about this.

This doesn’t mean all Russians are inherent thieves and liars; they aren’t. You never steal from your friends; it’s the faceless others you rob blind given the chance.

You don’t have great respect for the law as a reasonably fair, impartial and equitable system of rules that pretty much apply to everyone, simply because that’s never been the case in Russia.

Law is what the ruler feels like imposing on you at the time (often on a whim) that you can’t influence or bribe your way out of. If you lived in that kind of society, you wouldn’t have too much respect for it, either. Most people getting paid a pittance doesn’t help matters, either.

Russian humor is really not like American humor; it has a strong gallows humor streak to it.

It’s not surprising at all to find that chat rooms are very popular in Russia, but I’d bet the topics of discussion are a good deal more serious. Russians are not big on shallow chat; I would bet you’d find a lot more serious conversation on more substantive issues than you would in America. .

Literature is extraordinarily important in Russia, infinitely more so than it has ever been in America. It’s the lifeblood of Russian culture in many ways, and it’s not something that’s looked upon as being commercial. During the Soviet era, many authors wrote books they knew had no chance of ever being published in the Soviet press, just in the hope that, some day, they could be.

Finally, I’m not too surprised to read that Russians poke their heads out, take a look around, then head back. While there’s admiration of the West’s technological achievements, many Russians find Western civilization a somewhat soulless, superficial affair, too obsessed with outerward material values, not concerned about higher inner spiritual (which doesn’t necessarily mean religious) values.

It is a huge irony and tragedy that people with such beliefs spent most of the twentieth century subject to a political philosophy in many ways its antithesis.

There is a strong patriotism, but it’s much unlike its American counterpart. Americans are patriotic largely of what America does and represents. Russians are patriotic simply because their country is, almost despite anything that it does. It’s sort of like the difference between loving a girl(boy)friend and loving your mother, and Russians indeed call Russia Rodina, the Motherland.

Email Ed


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