Feb 18, 2022
Our last episode was on Project MAC, a Cold War-era project sponsored by ARPA. That led to many questions like what led to the Cold War and just what was the Cold War. We'll dig into that today.
The Cold War was a period between 1946, in the days after World War II, and 1991, when the United States and western allies were engaged in a technical time of peace that was actually an aggressive time of arms buildup and proxy wars. Technology often moves quickly when nations or empires are at war. In many ways, the Cold War gave us the very thought of interactive computing and networking, so is responsible for the acceleration towards our modern digital lives.
And while I’ve never seen it references as such, this was more of a continuation of wars between the former British empire and the Imperialistic Russian empires. These make up two or the three largest empires the world has ever seen and a rare pair of empires that were active at the same time.
And the third, well, we’ll get to the Mongols in this story as well. These were larger than the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, or any of the Chinese dynasties. In fact, the British Empire that reached its peak in 1920 was 7 times larger than the land controlled by the Romans, clocking in at 13.7 million square miles. The Russian Empire was 8.8 million square miles. Combined the two held nearly half the world. And their legacies live on in trade empires, in some cases run by the same families that helped fun the previous expansions.
But the Russians and British were on a collision course going back to a time when their roots were not as different as one might think. They were both known to the Romans. But yet they both became feudal powers with lineages of rulers going back to Vikings.
We know the Romans battled the Celts, but they also knew of a place that Ptolemy called Sarmatia Europea in around 150AD, where a man named Rurik settle far later. He was a Varangian prince, which is the name Romans gave to Vikings from the area we now call Sweden. The 9th to 11th century saw a number o these warrior chiefs flow down rivers throughout the Baltics and modern Russia in search of riches from the dwindling Roman vestiges of empire. Some returned home to Sweden; others conquered and settled. They rowed down the rivers: the Volga, the Volkhov, the Dvina, and the networks of rivers that flow between one another, all the way down the Dnieper river, through the Slavic tripes Ptolemy described which by then had developed into city-states, such as Kiev, past the Romanians and Bulgers and to the second Rome, or Constantinople.
The Viking ships rowed down these rivers. They pillaged, conquered, and sometimes settled. The term for rowers was Rus. Some Viking chiefs set up their own city-states in and around the lands. Some when their lands back home were taken while they were off on long campaigns. Charlemagne conquered modern day France and much of Germany, from The Atlantic all the way down into the Italian peninsula, north into Jutland, and east to the border with the Slavic tribes. He weakened many, upsetting the balance of power in the area. Or perhaps there was never a balance of power.
Empires such as the Scythians and Sarmatians and various Turkic or Iranian powers had come and gone and each in their wake crossing the vast and harsh lands found only what Homer said of the area all the way back in the 8th century BCE, that the land was deprived of sunshine. The Romans never pushed up so far into the interior of the steppes as the were busy with more fertile farming grounds. But as the Roman Empire fell and the Byzantines flourished, the Vikings traded with them and even took their turn trying to loot Constantinople. And Frankish Paris. And again, settled in the Slavic lands, marrying into cultures and DNA.
Rome retreated from lands as her generals were defeated. The Merovingian dynasty rose in the 5th century with the defeat of Syagrius, the last Roman general Gaul and lasted until a family of advisors slowly took control of running the country, transitioning to the Carolingian Empire, of which Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, as he was crowned, was the most famous. He conquered and grew the empire.
Charlemagne knew the empire had outgrown what one person could rule with the technology of the era, so it was split into three, which his son passed to his grandsons. And so the Carolingian empire had made the Eastern Slavs into tributaries of the Franks. There were hostilities but by the Treaty of Mersen in 870 the split of the empire generally looked like the borders of northern Italy, France, and Germany - although Germany also included Austria but not yet Bohemia. It split and re-merged and smaller boundary changes happened but that left the Slavs aware of these larger empires.
The Slavic peoples grew and mixed with people from the Steppes and Vikings. The Viking chiefs were always looking for new extensions to their trade networks. Trade was good. Looting was good. Looting and getting trade concessions to stop looting those already looted was better. The networks grew. One of those Vikings was Rurik. Possibly Danish Rorik, a well documented ally who tended to play all sides of the Carolingians and a well respected raider and military mind.
Rurik was brought in as the first Viking, or rower, or Rus, ruler of the important trade city that would be known as New City, or Novgorod. Humans had settled in Kiev since the Stone Age and then by Polans before another prince Kyi took over and then Rurik’s successor Oleg took Smolensk and Lyubech. Oleg extended the land of Rus down the trading routes, and conquered Kiev. Now, they had a larger capital and were the Kievan Rus.
Rurik’s son Igor took over after Oleg and centralized power in Kiev. He took tribute from Constantinople after he attacked, plunder Arab lands off the Caspian Sea, and was killed overtaxing vassal states in his territory. His son Sviatoslav the Brave then conquered the Alans and through other raiding helped cause the collapse of the Kazaria and Bulgarian empires. They expanded throughout the Volga River valley, then to the Balkans, and up the Pontic Steppe, and quickly became the largest empire in Europe of the day. His son Vladimir the Great expanded again, with he empire extending from the Baltics to Belarus to the Baltics and converted to Christianity, thus Christianizing the lands he ruled.
He began marrying and integrating into the Christian monarchies, which his son continued. Yaroslov the Wise married the daughter of the King of Sweden who gave him the area around modern-day Leningrad. He then captured Estonia in 1030, and as with others in the Rurikid dynasty as they were now known, made treaties with others and then pillaged more Byzantine treasures. He married one daughter to the King of Norway, another to the King of Hungary, another to the King of the Franks, and another to Edward the Exile of England, and thus was the grandfather of Edgar the Aetheling, who later became a king of England.
The next couple of centuries saw the rise of Feudalism and the descendants of Rurik fight amongst each other. The various principalities were, as with much of Europe during the Middle Ages, semi-independent duchies, similar to city-states. Kiev became one of the many and around the mid 1100s Yaroslav the Wise’s great-grandson, Yuri Dolgoruki built a number of new villages and principalities, including one along the Moskva river they called Moscow. They built a keep there, which the Rus called kremlins.
The walls of those keeps didn’t keep the Mongols out. They arrived in 1237. They moved the capital to Moscow and Yaroslav II, Yuri’s grandson, was poisoned in the court of Ghengis Khan’s grandson Batu. The Mongols ruled, sometimes through the descendants of Rurik, sometimes disposing of them and picking a new one, for 200 years. This is known as the time of the “Mongol yoke.”
One of those princes the Mongols let rule was Ivan I of Moscow, who helped them put down a revolt in a rival area in the 1300s. The Mongols trusted Moscow after that, and so we see a migration of rulers of the land up into Moscow. The Golden Horde, like the Viking Danes and Swedes settled in some lands. Kublai Khan made himself ruler of China. Khanates splintered off to form the ruling factions of weaker lands, such as modern India and Iran - who were once the cradle of civilization. Those became the Mughals dynasties as they Muslimized and moved south. And so the Golden Horde became the Great Horde.
Ivan the Great expanded the Muscovite sphere of influence, taking Novgorod, Rostov, Tver, Vyatka, and up into the land of the Finns. They were finally strong enough to stand up to the Tatars as they called their Mongol overlords and made a Great Stand on the Ugra River. And summoning a great army simply frightened the Mongol Tatars off. Turns out they were going through their own power struggles between princes of their realm and Akhmed was assassinated the next year, with his successor becoming Sheikh instead of Khan.
Ivan’s grandson, Ivan the Terrible expanded the country even further. He made deals with various Khans and then conquered others, pushing east to conquer the Khanate of Sibiu and so conquered Siberia in the 1580s. The empire then stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
He had a son who didn’t have any heirs and so was the last in the Rurikid dynasty. But Ivan the Terrible had married Anastasia Romanov, who when he crowned himself Caesar, or Tsar as they called it, made her Tsaritsa. And so the Romanov’s came to power in 1596 and following the rule of Peter the Great from 1672 to 1725, brought the Enlightenment to Russia. He started the process of industrialization, built a new capital he called St Petersburg, built a navy, made peace with the Polish king, then Ottoman king, and so took control of the Baltics, where the Swedes had taken control of on and off since the time of Rurik.
Thus began the expansion as the Russian Empire. They used an alliance with Denmark-Norway and chased the Swedes through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, unseating the Polish king along the way. He probably should not have allied with them. They moved back into Finland, took the Baltics so modern Latvia and Estonia, and pushed all the way across the Eurasian content across the frozen tundra and into Alaska.
Catherine the Great took power in 1762 and ignited a golden age. She took Belarus, parts of Mongolia, parts of modern day Georgia, overtook the Crimean Khanate, and modern day Azerbaijan. and during her reign founded Odessa, Sevastopol and other cities. She modernized the country like Peter and oversaw nearly constant rebellions in the empire. And her three or four children went on to fill the courts of Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands. She set up a national network of schools, with teachings from Russian and western philosophers like John Locke. She collected vast amounts of art, including many from China. She set up a banking system and issued paper money. She also started the process to bring about the end of serfdom. Even though between her and the country she owned 3.3 million herself.
She planned on invading the Khanate of Persia, but passed away before her army got there. Her son Paul halted expansion. And probably just in time. Her grandson Alexander I supported other imperial powers against Napoleon and so had to deal with the biggest invasion Russia had seen. Napoleon moved in with his grand army of half a million troops. The Russians used a tactic that Peter the Great used and mostly refused to engage Napoleon’s troops instead burning the supply lines. Napoleon lost 300,000 troops during that campaign. Soon after the Napoleanic wars ended, the railways began to appear. The country was industrializing and with guns and cannons, growing stronger than ever.
The Opium Wars, between China and the UK then the UK and France were not good to China. Even though Russia didn’t really help they needed up with a piece of the Chinese empire and so in the last half of the 1800s the Russian Empire grew by another 300,000 square miles on the backs of a series of unequal treaties as they came to be known in China following World War I.
And so by 1895, the Romanovs had expanded past their native Moscow, driven back the Mongols, followed some of the former Mongol Khanates to their lands and taken them, took Siberia, parts of the Chinese empire, the Baltics, Alaska, and were sitting on the third largest empire the world had ever seen, which covered nearly 17 percent of the world. Some 8.8 million square miles. And yet, still just a little smaller than the British empire. They had small skirmishes with the British but by and large looked to smaller foes or proxy wars, with the exception of the Crimean War.
The population was expanding and industrializing. Workers flocked to factories on those train lines. And more people in more concentrated urban areas meant more ideas. Rurik came in 862 and his descendants ruled until the Romanovs took power in 1613. They ruled until 1917. That’s over 1,000 years of kings, queens, Tsars, and Emperors. The ideas of Marx slowly spread. While the ruling family was busy with treaties and wars and empire, they forgot to pay attention to the wars at home.
People like Vladimir Lenin discovered books by people like Karl Marx. Revolution was in the air around the world. France had shown monarchies could be toppled. Some of the revolutionaries were killed, others put to work in labor camps, others exiled, and still others continued on. Still, the empire was caught up in global empire intrigues. The German empire had been growing and the Russians had the Ottomans and Bulgarians on their southern boarders. They allied with France to take Germany, just as they’d allied with Germany to take down Poland. And so after over 1.8 million dead Russians and another 3.2 million wounded or captured and food shortages back home and in the trenches, the people finally had enough of their Tsar. They went on strike but Tsar Nicholas ordered the troops to fire. The troops refused. The Duma stepped in and forced Nicholas to abdicate. Russia had revolted in 1917, sued Germany for peace, and gave up more territory than they wanted in the process. Finland, the Baltics, their share of Poland, parts of the Ukraine. It was too much. But the Germans took a lot of time and focus to occupy and so it helped to weaken them in the overall war effort.
Back home, Lenin took a train home and his Bolshevik party took control of the country. After the war Poland was again independent. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Serbs became independent nations. In the wake of the war the Ottoman Empire was toppled and modern Turkey was born. The German Kaiser abdicated. And socialism and communism were on the rise. In some cases, that was really just a new way to refer to a dictator that pretended to care about the people. Revolution had come to China in 1911 and Mao took power in the 1940s.
Meanwhile, Lenin passed in 1924 and Rykov, then Molotov, who helped spur a new wave of industrialization. Then Stalin, who led purges of the Russian people in a number of Show Trials before getting the Soviet Union, as Russian Empire was now called, into World War II. Stalin encouraged Hitler to attack Poland in 1939. Let’s sit on that for a second. He tried to build a pact with the Western powers and after that broke down, he launched excursions annexing parts of Poland, Finland, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia. Many of the lands were parts of the former Russian Empire. The USSR had chunks of Belarus and the Ukraine before but as of the 1950s annexed Poland, Easter Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria as part of the Warsaw Pact, a block of nations we later called the Soviet Bloc. They even built a wall between East and West Germany.
During and after the war, the Americans whisked German scientists off to the United States. The Soviets were in no real danger from an invasion by the US and the weakened French, Austrians, and military-less Germans were in no place to attack the Soviets. The UK had to rebuild and British empire quickly fell apart. Even the traditional homes of the vikings who’d rowed down the rivers would cease to become global powers. And thus there were two superpowers remaining in the world, the Soviets and the United States.
The Cold War
The Soviets took back much of the former Russian Empire, claiming they needed buffer zones or through subterfuge. At its peak, the Soviet Union cover 8.6 million square miles; just a couple hundred thousand shy of the Russian Empire. On the way there, they grew to a nation of over 290 million people with dozens of nationalities. And they expanded the sphere of influence even further, waging proxy wars in places like Vietnam and Korea. They never actually went to war with the United States, in much the same way they mostly avoided the direct big war with the Mongols and the British - and how Rorik of Dorestad played both sides of Frankish conflicts. We now call this period the Cold War.
The Cold War was an arms race. This manifested itself first in nuclear weapons. The US is still the only country to detonate a nuclear weapon in war time, from the bombings that caused the surrender of Japan at the end of the war. The Soviets weren’t that far behind and detonated a bomb in 1949. That was the same year NATO was founded as a treaty organization between Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States.
The US upped the ante with the hydrogen bomb in 1952. The Soviets got the hydrogen bomb in 1955. And then came the Space Race. Sputnik launched in 1957. The Russians were winning the space race. They further proved that when they put Yuri Gagarin up in 1961. By 1969 the US put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Each side developed military coalitions, provided economic aid to allies, built large arsenals of weapons, practiced espionage against one another, deployed massive amounts of propaganda, and spreading their ideology. Or at least that’s what the modern interpretation of history tells us. There were certainly ideological differences, but the Cold War saw the spread of communism as a replacement for conquest. That started with Lenin trying to lead a revolt throughout Europe but shifted over the decades into again, pure conquest.
Truman saw the rapid expansion of the Soviets and without context that they were mostly reclaiming lands conquered by the Russian imperial forces, won support for the Truman Doctrine. There, he contained Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. First, they supported Greece and Turkey. But the support extended throughout areas adjacent to Soviet interests. Eisenhower saw how swiftly Russians were putting science in action with satellites and space missions and nuclear weapons - and responded with an emphasis in American science.
The post-war advancements in computing were vast in the US. The industry moved from tubes and punch cards to interactive computing after the Whirlwind computer was developed at MIT first to help train pilots and then to intercept soviet nuclear weapons. Packet switching, and so the foundations of the Internet were laid to build a computer network that could withstand nuclear attack. Graphical interfaces got their start when Ivan Sutherland was working at MIT on the grandchild of Whirlwind, the TX-2 - which would evolve into the Digital Equipment PDP once privatized. Drum memory, which became the foundation of storage was developed to help break Russian codes and intercept messages. There isn’t a part of the computing industry that isn’t touched by the research farmed out by various branches of the military and by ARPA.
Before the Cold War, Russia and then the Soviet Union were about half for and half against various countries when it came to proxy wars. They tended to play both sides. After the Cold War it was pretty much always the US or UK vs the Soviet Union. Algeria, Kenya, Taiwan, the Sudan, Lebanon, Central America, the Congo, Eritrea, Yemen, Dhofar, Algeria, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Chad, Iran, Iraq, Thailand, Bolivia, South Africa, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, Angolia, Ethiopia, the Sahara, Indonesia, Somalia, Mozambique, Libya, and Sri Lanka. And the big ones were Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Many of these are still raging on today.
The Soviet empire grew to over 5 million soldiers. The US started with 2 nuclear weapons in 1945 and had nearly 300 by 1950 when the Soviets had just 5. The US stockpile grew to over 18,000 in 1960 and peaked at over 31,000 in 1965. The Soviets had 6,129 by then but kept building until they got close to 40,000 by 1980. By then the Chinese, France, and the UK each had over 200 and India and Israel had developed nuclear weapons. Since then only Pakistan and North Korea have added warheads, although there are US warheads located in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, and the Netherlands.
The buildup was expensive. Research, development, feeding troops, supporting asymmetrical warfare in proxy states, and trade sanctions put a strain on the government and nearly bankrupted Russia. They fell behind in science, after Stalin had been anti-computers. Meanwhile, the US was able to parlay all that research spending into true productivity gains. The venture capital system also fueled increasingly wealthy companies who paid taxes. Banking, supply chains, refrigeration, miniaturization, radio, television, and everywhere else we could think of. By the 1980s, the US had Apple and Microsoft and Commodore. The Russians were trading blat, or an informal black market currency, to gain access to knock-offs of ZX Spectrums when the graphical interfaces systems were born.
The system of government in the Soviet Union had become outdated. There were some who had thought to modernize it into more of a technocracy in an era when the US was just starting to build ARPANET - but those ideas never came to fruition. Instead it became almost feudalistic with high-ranking party members replacing the boyars, or aristocrats of the old Kievan Rus days. The standard of living suffered. So many cultures and tribes under one roof, but only the Slavs had much say. As the empire over-extended there were food shortages. If there are independent companies then the finger can be pointed in their direction but when food is rationed by the Politburo then the decline in agricultural production became dependent on bringing food in from the outside. That meant paying for it. Pair that with uneven distribution and overspending on the military.
The Marxist-Leninist doctrine had been a one party state. The Communist Party. Michael Gorbachev allowed countries in the Bloc to move into a democratic direction with multiple parties. The Soviet Union simply became unmanageable. And while Gorbachev took the blame for much of the downfall of the empire, there was already a deep decay - they were an oligarchy pretending to be a communist state. The countries outside of Russia quickly voted in non-communist governments and by 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Eastern European countries began to seek independence, most moving towards democratic governments.
The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in 15 separate countries and left the United States standing alone as the global superpower. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in 1999. 2004 saw Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia join. 2009 brought in Albania and Croatia. 2017 led to Montenegro and then North Macedonia. Then came the subject of adding Ukraine. The country that the Kievan Rus had migrated throughout the lands from. The stem from which the name and possibly soul of the country had sprouted from. How could Vladimir Putin allow that to happen? Why would it come up?
As the Soviets pulled out of the Bloc countries , they left remnants of their empire behind. Belarus, Kazakstan, and the Ukraine were left plenty of weapons that couldn’t be moved quickly. Ukraine alone had 1,700 nuclear weapons, which included 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Add to that nearly 2,000 biological and chemical weapons. Those went to Russia or were disassembled once the Ukrainians were assured of their sovereignty. The Crimea, which had been fought over in multiple bloody wars was added to Ukraine. At least until 2014, when Putin wanted the port of Sevastopol, founded by Catherine the Great. Now there was a gateway from Russia to the Mediterranean yet again.
So Kievan Rus under Rurik is really the modern Ukraine and the Russian Empire then Romanov Dynasty flowed from that following the Mongol invasions. The Russian Empire freed other nations from the yolk of Mongolian rule but became something entirely different once they over-extended. Those countries in the empire often traded the Mongol yolk for the Soviet yolk. And entirely different from the Soviet Union that fought the Cold War and the modern Russia we know today.
Meanwhile, the states of Europe had been profoundly changed since the days of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Marx. Many moved left of center and became socialized parts of their economy. No one ever need go hungry in a Scandanavian country. Health care, education, even child care became free in many countries. Many of those same ideals that helped lift the standard of living for all in developed countries then spread, including in Canada and some in the US. And so we see socialism to capitalism as more of a spectrum than a boolean choice now. And totalitarianism, oligarchy, and democracy as a spectrum as well. Many could argue reforms in democratic countries are paid for by lobbyists who are paid for by companies and thus an effective oligarchy. Others might argue the elections in many countries are rigged and so they aren’t even oligarchs, they’re monarchies.
Putin took office in 1999 and while Dmitry Medvedev was the president for a time, but he effectively ruled in a tandemocracy with Putin until Putin decided to get back in power. That’s 23 years and counting and just a few months behind when King Abdullah took over in Jordan and King Mohammed VI took over in Morocco. And so while democratic in name, they’re not all quite so democratic.
Yet they do benefit from technology that began in Western countries and spread throughout the world. Countries like semi-conductor manufacturer Sitronics even went public on the London stock exchange. Hard line communists might (and do) counter that the US has an empire and that western countries conspire for the downfall of Russia or want to turn Russians into slaves to the capitalist machine. As mentioned earlier, there has always been plenty of propaganda in this relationship. Or gaslighting. Or fake news. Or disinformation.
One of those American advancements that ties the Russians to the capitalist yoke is interactive computing. That could have been developed in Glushkov’s or Kitov’s labs in Russia, as they had the ideas and talent. But because the oligarchy that formed around communism, the ideas were sidelined and it came out of MIT - and that led to Project MAC, which did as much to democratize computing as Gorbachev did to democratize the Russian Federation.