The Legacy of The Soviet Silicon Valley
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The Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute (YCRDI) occupies a few offices in a concrete-and-glass multi-storey building in the centre of Armenia’s capital - a faint image of the landmark institute’s former glory.

Better known as the Mergelyan Institute - after the mathematician who played a leading role in setting it up, Sergey Mergelyan - the centre opened in 1956 and it soon became the jewel in the crown of USSR’s information and communication technology (ICT). Pre-independence Armenia boasted more scientists per capita than any other Soviet republic and it produced about a third of the hi-tech and microelectronic equipment used for the country’s defense and space systems. The Mergelyan Institute designed one of the first Soviet computer systems in 1959, and by the late 1980s, it employed about 7,000 people.

Maxim Hakobyan arrived at the institute in 1958. He was fifth year student at the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute. He then went on to specialize with a PhD in Technical Sciences.

 

Maxim Hakobyan, former YCRDI employee, PhD in Technical Sciences.

“Many prominent scientists of the USSR, in particular those who created the “BESM,” played in important role in founding the institute,” recalls Hakobyan, now 70. “They came to Armenia to exchange experience and knowledge.”

A series of Soviet computers developed in the 1950s, BESM (БЭСМ) is the acronym of  the name of a Bolshaya Elektronno-Schetnaya Mashina, or “large electronic computing machine.”

The “Soviet Silicon Valley” collapsed in the 1990s - the 1988 deadly earthquake, the dissolution of the USSR and the war against Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh brought the economy to tatters and halted the IT and software industry. Yet, talent was brewing and that legacy resurfaced.

Today the ICT sector is a main economic driver for the country and it tops the government’s economic strategy. In 2015 the industry - software, services, and the Internet provider - posted total revenue for USD 559.1 million, up by 17.7% from 2014, and accounted for 5% of Armenia’s total gross domestic product. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Armenia ranked among the few countries in the world which has achieved 100% access to computers in both secondary and primary schools as early as 2012.

 

Behind the walls, researchers created a series of milestone computational machines but instead of labeling them with dry acronyms, they reverted to names of places in the country - Aragats, a four-peaked volcano, Nairi, one of the country’s ancient names, Hrazdan, the country’s second largest river, Sevan, the Caucasus’ largest body of water, and Garni, whose classical temple makes it the symbol of pre-Christian Armenia.

Yet, in order to cut through the red tape’s official rhetoric, scientists proved to be creative.

“When we presented the project of the Garni machine at the Ministry of Electrical Industries and officials said, “We don’t consider national names for the machines, and Garni is a name of a [national] wine,” explains Hakobyan. But he was ready. “I replied, “No no, it’s not a national name, G.A.R.N.I. is the acronym for “Graphical Automatic Recorder of Narrated Information,” he chuckles.

“In the 1970s, the institute with its 5,700 employees, was a unique example of teamwork. Occasionally you find people saying that Armenians are bad team-players and more individual-oriented, but the Mergelyan institute proved the opposite.”

Photo of the Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute/Archive

The hardships of the 1990s hit severely state-owned entities like the Mergelyan Institute. In 2003 the Armenian government decided to give it to Russia, alongside three other Armenian entities, as part of a deal to partially repay the gas supply from Russia - the Russian company Sitronics became owner of the Mergelyan, both the institute and the premises housing it. Since then, Sitronics has been renting out part of the building, which features as well an exhibition hall, and the complex is an official free economic zone.

Former employees like Hakobyan are not happy about the deal, as the new ownership is somehow hindering further research and development.

“Before the collapse, the institute used to receive remunerative contracts. Then it was given to Russia, basically for pennies. We hoped to have some new contracts, but  nothing happened. The new owners tell us, do whatever you want, just pay taxes [in Russia],” he laments.

Technology in the USSR

A historian by profession, Zhirayr Sevoyan is passionate about radiophysics. After years of collecting various items in 2008 he decided to create a museum of technologies and science. The 60-something enthusiast attracted funds from a few philanthropists and in 2015 his dream materialized in a building in the Nor Nork district of Yerevan. Many items and artefacts are on display, illustrating the achievements of Armenia in the sphere of microelectronics, automatization, and household electronics. Microchips, PC pats, irons, watches, portable TVs, electronic musical instruments, machinery components - you name it, Sevoyan has it. 

Zhirayr Sevoyan, founder of Science and Technology museum.

The museum offers an insight into the development of electronics through items like electric meat grinders, and portable TVs; it displays photos of prototype Armenian electric cars. There is also the keyboard of the first portable computer produced in the 1980s - it was assembled in a factory in the city of Masis.

“The republic of Armenia, albeit small, had a considerably large market in the Soviet Union. No direction was spared - radio equipment, machinery, cars, and household electronic items were produced,” explains Sevoyan.

SWW - Soviet Wide Web

From the 1960s, scientists worked to create a USSR-wide information network - a primordial Internet of sort. All attempts failed, but remaining, is a sign of how the Soviet Union was actively pursuing the development of an effective ICT industry. The most famous of these projects was the OGAS - or All-State Automated System, from its Russian acronym - whose primary architect was the Soviet scientist Viktor Glushkov. Designed in 1962 and developed through the 1960s, OGAS aimed at creating a network of computational machines throughout the country for automatized governance of the economy. The ambitious project came to a halt in 1970 as funding was denied. 

Yet, a secret computer network existed and it was used for defense purposes.

ISOC Armenia President Igor Mkrtumyan, 78, has had an impact on Internet development in Armenia since the first years of its existence.

ISOC Armenia President Igor Mkrtumyan

“The wide information network was used for the first time for civilian purposes in 1988, in the aftermath of the devastating Spitak earthquake that killed up to 30,000 people. A network was developed to assist the rescue operations in the search of missing people - a database updated in real time via Moscow would keep track of the people rescued, found dead or reported missing. Lost persons were being carried out.

 

Inevitably, the lack of communication beyond the Iron Curtain and the USSR’s closed borders hindered further development of the sector. Mkrtumyan maintains that in any case it would have been difficult to compete with the West.

“A prototype of ‘Nairi’ was a French machine K 500, a series of ES - the American IBM. In Armenia, of course, there were good engineers and specialists, but we lacked good research centres.”

In the 1990s the Mergelyan institute tried to develop a local computer industry through an assembling factory, but the project died in the bud, it was not profitable and unable to face against the competition from abroad.

Chai Khana
  Jumpstart Georgia
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