Our Common Cause

V.K. Levin[1]

Translated by Mark Ames (Australia)

Anatoly Ivanovich Kitov was one of the brightest stars in Russian cybernetics and computer technology – a top Russian scientist who made some of the most significant and wide reaching contributions to Russia’s "computer business" (a term coined at the time by another outstanding scientist, AP Ershov). In the earliest days of computing history, he lead the way in the development and use electronic computers

I was also involved in the development of special-purpose computer facilities, and though I didn’t have the opportunity to work directly with Kitov in the Soviet Ministry of Defence, it’s as though we were colleagues sharing many of the same ideas and challenges working with the vacuum tube technology of the time.

Kitov was already well known during the development of the first Russian computers,  Strela and BESM. We met at several conferences, seminars, and meetings on the subject of computing, even though the work was highly secret. In conversations with Kitov, we quickly discovered mutual interests which lead to technical collaboration in our work and publications. His wartime experience together with his extensive knowledge, talent, and energy for research and management lead him to be the natural teacher and mentor of the young graduates with whom he plotted the development of Russia’s nascent computer technology from 1950-1955.

Kitov’s reputation as scholar, technical expert, leader and teacher, gained wider recognition as the field developed. I can recall a number of events and episodes that demonstrate the breadth of Kitov’s interests and activities. One of the most significant was the 1956 publication of Electronic Digital Computers [2] which was the first Russian book on electronic digital computing. This was so well received that he soon thereafter published, Electronic Digital Computers and Programming,[3] (co-authored with N.A. Krinitsky). This second publication was heavy tome, twice the size of the first, and became the all purpose reference and textbook of computer science in Russia at the time. Thousands of specialists and technicians who formed the first generation of Russian computer experts and programmers learned about computing from these early textbooks.

The first large Soviet semiconductor-based computer, ‘Vesna’, was developed in 1959 under the leadership of this writer. The Soviet Government tested and accepted this machine prior to the BESM-6[4] machine, which appeared subsequently.  ‘Vesna’ is important here because of Kitov’s significant influence in its development. Among other things, Kitov’s influence on ‘Vesna’ raised the profile of the Scientific Research Institute[5] where Kitov had worked earlier and the influence of his colleagues was still evident. The first production model of ‘Vesna’ was delivered to Computer Centre №1 of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, which Kitov had set up[6]. This was the country’s largest data centre and Kitov imbued its work with a pioneering spirit of creativity and breadth of scientific pursuit.

From 1960-1965 I worked on automatic translation of texts, collaborating with G.G. Belonogov[7] – one of the pioneers of research in this area who worked under Kitov’s direction.

This kind of research was relevant to the solution of so-called "hard to formulate" problems that Kitov was particularly interested in. Difficulties can be found everywhere when trying to formulate a problem: uncertainty in how to define the problem; finding new and unconventional solutions and criteria for assessing the computer outputs; how to set up and interpret the human-computer interface; and all this against a background of demands for human and computing resources. There was considerable disagreement on how to structure the work and what results to expect, including underestimates and overestimates, all of which let to personal enmity and organisational disruption. Since then, methods for formulating problems have significantly improved, but disagreements in defining problems and interpreting results remain.

 Kitov’s 1959 letter to government agencies and departments suggesting they consolidate their computing resources in the interests of economic development and national defence had a huge impact. He was, in effect proposing what we now recognise as grid-computing – the harnessing of global compute resources to solve global problems. At that time though, no computers were actually connected to each other – it was only understood that such a thing was, in principle, possible. The proposal to network all the computers in the country to support economic growth – and military planning – generated huge interest; the word around in scientific and technical circles was that, “Now the Kremlin’s taking orders from Kitov!” It is very clear that as a result of Kitov’s proposal, the Soviet leadership took a greater interest in the development of computers and their potential uses. Progress was slow, however. The term ‘national computer network’[8] only appeared in 1970; there was some preliminary planning, but only a few specialist departments were actually networked. Kitov’s proposal for a single national data network was a great idea, but lacked sufficient detail to set a firm direction. Today, grid computing is promoted and used by scientific organizations, universities, and collaborating groups of scientists and engineers; the Russian Academy of Science runs a special program in Network Technology. In these and many other areas, the Kitov’s influence was critical to the direction and development of this “computer business”; in the training of specialists and technicians; and especially in improving the perception of computing and confidence in its capabilities on the part of users and departmental managers.

Subsequently Kitov worked with the author of this article to develop standardised computer systems, which added towards the progress of computer networking and other of Kitov’s technical interests.

Anatoly Ivanovich Kitov was a remarkable scientist and an extraordinary person. It is very pleasing for his colleagues, friends, students, and family to see his work being continued. We can see many examples of how Kitov’s aspirations are reflected in modern research work.

The bright memory of Anatolii Ivanovich Kitov will forever remain in our hearts and in the history of national science and technology.

[1] See http://www.computer-museum.ru/english/galglory_en/Levin.htm

[2] «Электронные цифровые машины»

[3] «Электронные цифровые машины и программирование»

[5] НИИ, научно-исследовательский институт

[6] See Also, Anatoly Ivanovich Kitov – the creator of the Computer Centre №1, http://www.computer-museum.ru/english/galglory_en/kitov_5.php

[7] http://www.computer-museum.ru/english/galglory_en/kitov_9.php, Prof. G.G. Belonogov is still engaged in theoretical and practical work on computer linguistics.

[8] ЕГСВЦ (Единая государственная сеть вычислительных центров)