Computing in the other Europe. (Eastern Europe)
by Kristen Sternberg
Even as the bitter wind cut through our winter coats and boots, we were glowing with excitement at the prospect of spending three weeks in the Soviet Union. The cramped seating and bumpy flight made all 22 of us-17 high school students and five teachers-happy to disembark from the Aeroflot plane that had brought us to Moscow from Finland.
The state of technology in the Soviet Union forces the people to rely on their own resources. Because even electronic calculators are unheard of, shopkeepers ring up purchases with an abacus instead of a cash register. Business people can fax information, but there are only 16 international telephone lines out of the Soviet Union, so a message can wait for days to be sent out of the country.
As a computer teacher in the United States, I was naturally interested in how the Soviet citizens were using what new technology was available. I knew there were computer hackers out there. After all, it was a Russian who created the challenge of Tetris.
My mission started in Moscow. I had seen ads for computers on Russian television, and I carried with me some references from American magazines about computer conventions in Russia. I quizzed everyone I met who could speak English, but no one could give me any information about computer conventions. No one could direct me to a computer store, a software store, or even a magazine store. There just weren't any. No one I talked to had ever even used a computer. I drew a complete blank in Moscow.
My sleuthing days appeared to be numbered. The people I spoke to were interested in computers, they believed computers could be useful, and their kids were up to date on all the titles of the latest games. Yet they could not buy computers for their homes or their schools.
I was later told that there were no computer stores available to the public in Russia. Only used computers were to be found, and these were all sold or traded privately, not in stores. There was also a very long waiting fist for them. New computers had to be brought in, one at a time, from outside the country, which meant they had to pass through the numerous and thorough customs officials.
Moving useful technology through customs is almost impossible. In the rare event that a computer becomes available for sale, the price is outrageous. It can cost a Russian family four times as much as a car, or up to about 40,000 rubles. This sum may not seem large when you translate it into dollars (40,000 rubles is a little less than $700), but a Soviet citizen might earn less than 1 00 rubles (about $18) per month.
At that rate you'd have to save every single penny for well over three years for a computer. And the computer might be a used computer, not even new or up to date.
The second leg of my trip was Estonia. I immediately noticed differences when I crossed from Russia into Estonia. Most obvious was the presence of stores-food stores, clothing stores, handicrafts stores, and pharmacies. It was apparent that the Estonians enjoyed more comforts and choices than the Russians.
Our group was participating in an academic exchange with a high school in Tallinn, the capital city. As a part of the exchange, the previous autumn we had arranged for the school to have an Apple IIe computer and printer. We also provided it with some indispensable tool software: word processing, database, greeting card/ sign making, and various logic and skill-building programs. I was eager to see how the computer was being used and what kinds of problems the Estonian teachers and students had come across. I wasn't even sure if they had been able to set it up.
My fears about their having the computer up and running were put to rest the minute I walked into the school. Some of the high school students who specialized in computer studies were waiting in the lobby to take me to their Apple and show me everything they had done with it. Many of them were very experienced in BASIC and machine language programming by this time, and they had also taught themselves to use all of the software. Some of the students had even reprogrammed the word processor so that the menus were shown in Estonian. They treasured the computer and kept a careful watch over it, locking it behind several doors each time they were finished using it. The computer was heavily-used-and not only during school hours.
The American students reported that their Estonian friends spent many Friday nights and Saturdays using the computer in the school. They were astounded that the Estonians would voluntarily spend Saturday at school. But to the Estonians it was a privilege to be there with the computer.
In another part of the school, during regular class times, many students were busy writing programs to simulate a password-protection scheme. The BASIC programming language they used was an interesting mixture of English and Estonian. I tried to help debug one student's program, but the only command I could recognize was STOP. I was amazed to find a third-generation computer still in use: This Bulgarian minicomputer dated from the 1960s, and its technology was passe long before that in America. It supported a total of five terminals, was hard-wired to run only BASIC, and-believe it or not-allowed only 64K of RAM.
In addition to their computer classes at school, many students traveled after school every day to a nearby university to work on an IBM system. There they would wait in long lines for a turn to work at one of the terminals.
However serious they were, the students managed to find time to play computer games. What did they spend their free time playing.? Do you remember Sea Fox, Star Blazer, Super Puckman, Sneakers, or Spy's Demise? Although we may think of these games as old-fashioned, they were new to the Estonians.
I discovered a second Apple computer in Estonia. I also found an old IBM PC. This machine was in a doctor's office and was used for research. The doctor had taught herself to use the computer without any help other than a manual (which was printed in English). Her greatest need was for blank disks on which to store her information.
The majority of computer enthusiasts in the school were boys, but some girls were also interested, and everybody shares the computer equalI So far the students monopolize the computer, but the interest on the part of teachers is growing.
Times are definitely changing in the Soviet Union. Some major universities are becoming computerized, and students are allowed more access to the computers for their research. Online information services are beginning to spring up in major cities. A new line of microcomputers is scheduled for release throughout the U.S. R. When and if these micros are made available to homes, businesses, and schools, we'll begin to see a lot more activity in the computer world.
After three weeks opf travel in Russia and Estonia, my strongest impressions were of the changing political situation throughout the Soviet Union, the food shortages, the lack of choices available to the population, and the incredible warmth and caring of the people. Russia is caught between an old world and a new one. Traditions remain while technology languishes. Even where the equipment is available-as in the case of the doctor trying to do research-the accessories can't be found.