The amazing story of the VelHam Project showcases the power of people-to-people diplomacy, the collaborative nature of scientific and technological discovery, and the ability of the imagination to overcome threats to humankind.
Can We Talk?
The adults needed to talk but couldn’t so they turned to the children, and eventually it worked.
It was the early 1980s and the Soviet Union seemed to be in terminal economic decline — thanks to heavy defense spending, a weakening agriculture sector, and chronic dependence on oil revenues. At the same time, the United States was in the midst of an arms buildup that commenced soon after Ronald Reagan began his presidency in January 1981. In March 1983, as U.S. growth resumed following a severe 18-month recession, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — Star Wars to its critics — a defensive shield intended to make the U.S. invulnerable to attack.
A few weeks earlier, in a speech filled with biblical references, Reagan had asked his listeners to consider the Soviet Union and “pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray they will discover the joy of knowing God.” Reagan’s elevation of the Cold War into a sacred conflict “between right and wrong and good and evil” was part of his broader attempt to pull America out of what many saw as a post-1960s decline into secularist pessimism; the first half of the speech had focused on drugs and abortion. Taken together, Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and the Star Wars defense initiative turned the two countries’ decades-old ideological conflict into a fight to the finish. With the proud Soviet Union wounded and reeling, it was not an environment conducive to the reasonable exchange of views.
Yet there were people on both sides, official and unofficial, who wanted to change the relationship. At that time Carnegie Corporation of New York enjoyed a long track record of working in education and international development, but had somewhat less experience in conflict resolution and geopolitics. In 1982 the Corporation’s new president, David Hamburg, decided to direct the organization toward a major change in focus: avoiding nuclear war. The key idea was to strengthen channels of communication between the two hostile superpowers, with the hope that greater communication would lead to less risk of nuclear confrontation.
One of Hamburg’s new initiatives is of particular note. The so-called “VelHam Project,” which aimed to use innovative technology to enable regular communication between American and Soviet children, played a surprisingly important role in bringing the Soviet Union into the (very) young Internet Age. Most significantly, the project nurtured connections that, when the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991, helped to reduce dramatically the nuclear, chemical, and biological threats posed by a militarized superpower in a state of collapse.
What began among children became very, very adult.
This early post-Soviet period of cooperation was all too brief. Today, the United States and Russia again talk of using nuclear weapons and creating defensive shields. A veteran American policymaker writes of a “back-to-the-’80s” foreign policy while a Russian counterpart describes the two nations as in a chronic state of “pre-war.” The path toward cooperation in the 1980s was neither easy nor obvious, but the two sides found a way. How they did so provides lessons for today.
“You scratch a Russian, and you find a mystic.”
In the 1980s there were some unusual byways in U.S.- Soviet relations. On the Soviet side, one important, somewhat unlikely player was a plasma physicist named Evgeny Pavlovich Velikhov. The son of a prominent engineer, Velikhov had risen to be vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the main administrative body for Soviet scientific research. He also headed the Kurchatov Institute, a powerful research body charged with developing the Soviet nuclear program and other scientific endeavors such as nanotechnology. As head of the institute, Velikhov answered directly to the highest levels of the Soviet government.
Velikhov was about as far inside the Soviet military-industrial complex as it was possible to be. Yet he was also an optimist with a deep interest in how human consciousness can change over time. His period as a power player in Soviet science was one of chaos, the implosion of a superpower. But Velikhov saw the disruption as an opportunity for positive change. He did scholarly research on consciousness and sponsored an ongoing salon devoted to the subject. This brought him to what was called the human potential movement.
While rooted in the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow, dating from the 1940s, the human potential movement was very much a product of the American 1960s counterculture. Its initial home was the Esalen Institute, founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and headquartered at Big Sur, California, in a compound featuring spartan rooms, clothing-optional hot tubs, and views of the sea. The movement’s guiding belief that humans use only a small portion of their inner potential — and that there are ways of bringing the rest out — led to the (softer) self-actualization techniques embraced by the so-called New Age and the (harder) self-confrontational training regimen of est (Erhard Seminars Training), invented by Werner Erhard. A car salesman who had abandoned both family and birth name and split for California, “Werner Erhard” cobbled together his new name from a 1959 Esquire article that discussed the atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg and the German postwar economics minister Ludwig Erhard.
This was hardly the religion Reagan had in mind when he spoke of the struggle between good and evil. But the human potential movement’s belief that society had stagnated, weighed down by bureaucratic habit, tired thinking, and private despair, found many adherents — and not only in the West. Within certain educated circles in Moscow — living through the Great Stagnation (as it came to be known) under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev — the human potential movement had an obvious appeal.
In general, the human potential movement was geopolitically agnostic. The exception was U.S.-Soviet relations, which it framed in terms of a failure to communicate and a psychosocial need to create enemies. Esalen’s Michael Murphy, who had worked at telepathic communication with a well-known Russian psychic, traveled in bodily form to the Soviet Union in 1971, intrigued by what earlier American New Age visitors had described as a “race for inner space.” As Murphy sometimes said, “You scratch a Russian, and you find a mystic.”
When the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Esalen responded with the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program, initially financed by Laurance Rockefeller. Newsweek reported positively on Esalen’s “hot tub diplomacy” in January 1983. By the next year, Michael Murphy had rented a Moscow apartment and Werner Erhard was being shepherded around that city by an ambitious Russian-American TV journalist named Vladimir Pozner.
From Techno-Utopian Rock ’n’ Roll Bliss to Geopolitics: Spacebridges I & II
Esalen’s main public U.S.-Soviet project was called “spacebridges.” The first spacebridge was organized by New Age-y mystic Joseph Goldin, a Soviet figure unlike any other (he would eventually join Esalen’s board of trustees). Adam Hochschild described him in a 1986 profile for Mother Jones:
He wears nondescript corduroy pants, a skull-fitting black wool cap, and a thick blue denim work shirt. A thin fringe of beard surrounds his face. In his lapel he wears a tiny silver dolphin-shaped pin — a token of his friendship with Igor Charkovsky, a Moscow theorist who believes in human communication with dolphins and whose followers practice underwater childbirth. And in a country where all professionals have business cards in the same format — last name, first name and patronymic, academic degree, title, address — Joseph has stationery showing a drawing of a man’s head: the lower half is a face gazing at you intently, the top half is a partially completed, many-floored Tower of Babel. Around the edge of this head scrolls the Russian inscription: EXPEDITION TO HIDDEN HUMAN RESERVES.
Goldin was friends with Vladimir Pozner and Evgeny Velikhov (who once sprang him from psychiatric confinement) and was entirely at home in the fervid Moscow subculture.
The first spacebridge took place on September 5, 1982, in conjunction with the first US Festival, a massive rock concert held at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. The festival was financed by Steve Wozniak, who was rethinking his life after a plane crash and had taken a leave from Apple, the company he cofounded with Steve Jobs. Wozniak’s UNUSON Foundation (Unite Us in Song) poured $12.5 million into the festival. It also supported the first spacebridge — a live satellite link between 200,000 American festival-goers and 500 or so of their Soviet peers, led by Joseph Goldin, in a Moscow studio at Ostankino, the state TV broadcaster.
The next spacebridge, at the second US Festival in May 1983, took the conversation from rock ’n’ roll to geopolitics. Two one-hour links connected several hundred American and Soviet citizens in real-time video dialogues, a remarkable bridging of cultures connecting a festival tent in San Bernardino with a studio at Gosteleradio in Moscow. Evgeny Velikhov recalled the event in an interview earlier this year at his dacha in Pereslavl, about two hours’ drive from Moscow: “At some moment they gave the floor to me and I said that nuclear weapons are not real weapons because they have no real purpose. They are like a cancer. And at this moment all the auditorium on the American side stand up and make applause.”
Thirty-five years later Velikhov remembers the moment as a turning point for him, and it is extraordinary to watch. The momentum builds as the Americans begin to clap, then the Russians, then the Americans stand up — with a beaming Steve Wozniak in the front row — and the Russians stand too. A long account in Pravda concluded: “If it was impossible to see the lumps at the throats, that was only the failure of technology which can do almost everything but not everything.… There exist events which are the beginning of new epochs.… One wants to believe in this with all one’s strength.”
Spacebridge III: Think of the Children
For the third spacebridge, Carnegie Corporation of New York got involved.
A key player this time was Michael Cole, a University of California San Diego communication and psychology professor, who also dreamed of a new epoch in U.S.-Soviet relations, though not for New Age reasons. (The dolphin-loving Igor Charkovsky was not for him.) Cole was drawn to the pioneering Soviet psychologists Lev Vygotsky and A. R. Luria — serious scholarly advocates of what would become known as cultural-historical or sociohistorical psychology. Vygotsky’s major insight, as his student and collaborator Luria wrote, was that “the determining factor in the psychological development of the child and in the creation of the complex mechanism of the psyche is the social development of the child.”
In its emphasis on the social structuring of individual psychology, the Vygotsky-Luria Circle represented the virtual opposite of New Age mysticism and hyper-individualism. Cole became a translator and editor of Luria’s writings and, for more than three decades, was editor of the journal Soviet Psychology. Cole’s work with Luria and his milieu was a very rare instance of U.S.-Soviet scholarly cooperation in the social sciences.
In the early 1960s Michael Cole spent a year at Moscow University as an exchange student. There he became friends with Vladimir Pozner, who would later play a central role in promoting U.S.-Soviet ties in the New Age mode. The two men’s fathers knew each other through the movie business and had introduced their sons. Cole’s father, the left-leaning screenwriter Lester Cole, was one of the Hollywood Ten — motion-picture figures who, at the height of the McCarthy era, refused to answer questions about their possible Communist affiliations before a Congressional committee and were subsequently blacklisted.
How did Spacebridge III come about?
On a visit to Moscow in 1983, Michael Cole and his wife were socializing with the Pozners when they were joined by Joseph Goldin. Three nights later they met Goldin again, this time accompanied by a representative of the Werner Erhard organization. Cole wrote in an unpublished Carnegie report:
Goldin, who was characterized by the Soviet cultural affairs officer in Washington as an “impresario,” and who could never be accused of thinking small, introduced the idea of doing a simulcast with UCSD [University of California San Diego]. In the manner of late evening conversations in Moscow when everyone has sampled the vodka and it is easier to imagine the world as a tractable place, Goldin spun out a fantasy of cooperation on a simulcast.
Cole’s hope was to have American and Soviet children talk to each other via a live video link. But project negotiations in California were tortuous, and in Moscow they proved to be equally Byzantine. A last-minute technical problem in Moscow had to be resolved by Evgeny Velikhov, while a last-minute funding problem in California was resolved by Carnegie Corporation in New York.
The premise of Spacebridge III was that two groups of children — American and Soviet — would watch a selection of films together and then react to them in a discussion moderated by Cole in San Diego and Pozner in Moscow. The program — “Moscow Calling San Diego” — can be viewed on YouTube. (As it happened, this was to be the breakthrough that launched Pozner’s highly successful career in television.)
The American side offered a clip from the film Sounder — the story of a family of black sharecroppers in Louisiana during the Depression, it was an unexpected critical and commercial success in 1972 — and some fairy-tale shorts produced by the actress Shelley Duvall, as well as footage of life in San Diego and at UCSD. The Soviets offered footage of Moscow and the Moscow International Film Festival and some fairy-tale films of their own. On July 20, 1983, at thirty seconds before 10:30 a.m., “Vladimir Pozner appeared on our large screen and monitors; shortly thereafter, we heard his voice,” wrote Cole. “It was an interminable thirty seconds more until he could see and hear us, and in the meantime we watched and heard his attempts to get a response from us. Once signals were clear — visually and aurally — each way, there was an indescribable moment of awe and exaltation that seemed literally to leap from San Diego to Moscow and back.”
In a 2017 interview at Carnegie Corporation in New York, Cole recalled one moment in particular, when Christopher Reeve as the prince in Sleeping Beauty
climbs through this background of monsters who are attacking him, and then there he is with the beautiful girl asleep in the bed, and the cameras in San Diego and Moscow zoomed in on individual kids. You could not tell who was an American and who was a Russian. Absolutely indistinguishable. As soon as you pulled back, you could see the whole context. The way in which the kids then explained their reactions was very different: the American kids would say, “I think this is a program about good and evil and this is how it makes me feel,” while the Soviet kids would say, “Well, I haven’t seen the whole film so it’s difficult to say, but based on what I have seen, one could say …” The American kids weren’t worried about any authority. The cultural differences were there big time.
And Cole was struck by something else. There were no cultural differences when you got down to the simple moment of Prince Charming bending over the sleeping princess. The question for all the children was: “What is going to happen next?”
The Rise of the Machines
Michael Cole knew that the spacebridge was about more than children talking. The project came under “our concern for improving U.S.-Soviet relations,” according to Carnegie Corporation director Fritz Mosher, a Harvard-trained psychologist and education expert assigned by David Hamburg to run the Avoiding Nuclear War Program. This new program addressed “the need to increase mankind’s sense of its common humanity — of being an extended family — as one way of reducing the chances of war.”
The Corporation was also involved in more direct discussions toward that same end, notably through the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC; pronounced see-sack), a project of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Founded in 1980, CISAC was co-chaired for much of that decade by Velikhov, and Hamburg attended from its early days. CISAC was in the tradition of the scientist-to-scientist talks organized as Pugwash conferences, established in 1957 and attended by both Velikhov and Hamburg.
“I do believe in friendships,” Hamburg said in a recent interview in Washington. He first traveled to Moscow in 1978 when he was serving as head of the NAS Institute of Medicine. On that visit Hamburg met his counterpart Evgeny Velikhov, and “although he was careful, I had the sense he was a kindred spirit. I think I said to him pretty frankly, ‘I don’t want to get you into trouble, I know these things are very controversial here, but I would really like to keep in touch with you.’”
In the very tense environment of the early 1980s, with Star Wars reviving the old prospect of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses — much resisted by American and Soviet scientists since the 1960s — venues like Pugwash had been weakened. So child-to-child talks assumed an unanticipated importance.
Michael Cole and Fritz Mosher had already worked together at Carnegie Corporation on child psychology and human development projects. Building on the successful spacebridge experience, they designed a U.S.-Soviet project that involved the use of computers in children’s education — what became known as the VelHam Project (for Velikhov and Hamburg). In the Luria-Vygotsky spirit, they wanted to investigate what social mechanisms might be formed by U.S. and Soviet children, raised in antagonistic societies, working together in computer-based learning. One had to start somewhere.
Velikhov had done academic work on human consciousness and its relationship to social processes. In one scholarly paper, he and his coauthors argued that “the process by which new states of consciousness form is the source of both pedagogical and social optimism. It is in such moments that something new emerges: new actions, new images, new views of situations, and ways of thinking.” The researchers referred to the emergence of these new states of consciousness as “phase transformations.”
Cole tapped Alexandra (Sasha) Belyaeva, a psycholinguist he had known since the 1970s, to help with the project. She ran a communications laboratory within the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, which meant that Velikhov was her ultimate boss. Belyaeva’s husband, Spartak Belyaev, was a senior physicist at the Kurchatov Institute, under the presidency of Evgeny Velikhov, as was nuclear physicist Alexei Soldatov, who would also play a central role in developing the Soviet Internet. It was at Kurchatov and, especially, in the Belyaevs’ Moscow apartment, that the VelHam Project — with the crucial support of Carnegie Corporation — would take off and, not least, that the Internet would come to Moscow. Whether the world was about to witness the emergence of “new states of consciousness” was hard to say, but it was a place to begin.
In his public report on the VelHam Project, Cole describes years of frustrating bureaucratic struggles following Spacebridge III. The problems were mainly on the Soviet side and involved funding. While Velikhov, Belyaev, and Soldatov were very senior scientists and well connected in the Kremlin, they were being paid to develop militarily useful technology, not to educate children. (The “pioneer club” that slowly developed in and near the Belyaev apartment — Velikhov’s own children attended — was part of a fundamentally countercultural milieu quite at odds with the rigidities of the official Soviet system.)
The project could survive because the state needed scientists like the Kurchatov team. Such scientists had a degree of freedom plus relatively high salaries and perks — but were fully aware that they served at the pleasure of the state. Velikhov’s own family members and colleagues had been sentenced to labor camps. He early on adopted what he describes as “my double life,” at once serving the system while preserving psychological and social space for something different and more free. Yet his life of autonomy was only relative, and ultimately dependent on continuing to develop weapons systems to counter whatever the U.S. was concurrently developing. For Soviet scientists, much depended on bureaucratic power, which Evgeny Velikhov had mastered.
However, Velikhov’s main priority in the VelHam Project was not children but computers. He had been a computer specialist in the early 1970s; his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev was solidified when he introduced the then national party secretary for agriculture to computers around 1977. Velikhov had cultivated not only Steve Wozniak but also Apple CEO John Sculley, Tom Watson, Jr., and Richard Garwin at IBM, and the electrical engineer and mathematician Ivan Selin at American Management Systems (a former “whiz kid” in Robert McNamara’s Defense Department), as well as a raft of future Silicon Valley movers and shakers.
But the Soviet system was not interested in personal computers, or the networks they enabled, both of which presented an obvious threat to central control. Empowering individuals to exploit technology at home, or to communicate freely across borders, was not in line with Soviet orthodoxies.
Therefore, as far as the Soviets were concerned, there was no money for VelHam. The hope was that the Americans would provide the money and technology, and that educating children would outweigh the political uneasiness about personal empowerment. “They couldn’t build a computer in the Soviet Union except in the military,” David Hamburg recalled, “and it was so sealed off — the military sector — that they could make no economic progress by building computers.” Hamburg was noncommittal about the provision of computers per se, but he recalls Gorbachev then suggesting that perhaps providing them for children would get the door open. Cole and the Americans were determined not to contradict American laws (loosened somewhat in 1985) by transferring technology, or to contradict Carnegie’s mission by sending money to Moscow that might or might not be spent properly.
Between 1983 and 1987 there was a lot of negotiating going on. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, he brought Velikhov on as his science advisor. David Hamburg visited Moscow a few months later for a CISAC meeting and discussed Gorbachev’s prospects with Velikhov; soon Hamburg was meeting with Gorbachev himself. The new general secretary spoke frankly of Soviet backwardness, citing its inability to produce computers as an example.
“We tried and we tried, and no success. Then, Galya suddenly twiddled — doot, doot, doot — with her fingers, and we were connected. I said to her, ‘Galya, remember this: you were the first one to connect Moscow to the Internet!’” — Alexandra (Sasha) Belyaeva, from a 2017 interview
“There was a great deal of synergy,” Velikhov recalled. “Joseph Goldin was there thinking about global linkages, but the telebridges idea was still just based on television technology. Then there was the appearance of personal computers, and then the presentation of how personal computers could be used for school and education. Then at the same time, computers, of course, began to be used by the defense industry. This was all together.”
Soon Michael Cole found himself visiting VNIIPAS, the All Union Scientific Research Institute for Applied Computerized Systems. VNIIPAS was the Soviets’ highly classified and constantly guarded communications agency, which controlled the two lines (to Helsinki and to Vienna) connecting the Soviet Union to the wider world. Cole recalled his first visit to VNIIPAS in 1985: “It was quite amazing what the facilities were, because there was a line to Vienna, for atomic energy stuff, and there was another line that went through Helsinki. The line we used was the one that went through Helsinki. There was a soldier, a kid, sitting there watching the messages go by on a screen, with a stop button if he didn’t like what was happening. There was this trickle. There were guys with Uzis standing outside the door.”
A crucial shift came with the visit to the U.S. in the summer of 1986 by Sasha Belyaeva and Vladimir Teremetsky, an engineer at VNIIPAS. The group of visitors also included a Soviet software designer and a programmer. The idea was partly to build geek-to-geek relationships between the Soviets and their American counterparts. The tech emphasis brought the attention of the FBI, which even a year afterward was still interviewing project participants.
“We pretty much agreed,” an American active in the VelHam project recalled in an unpublished memo, “that we were all engaged in odd behavior but nothing to worry the FBI; our unusual moves never betrayed one country or threatened the security of another…. It was so hard to do the project work that we doubted that anyone could be masquerading as a worker on the project while primarily being employed as a spy.”
Finally, in February 1987, Cole and Velikhov cosigned an agreement for a joint project in children’s education: “Protocol of the Meeting of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the US Scientific Consortium for Studies of the Application of Computers in Education.” The protocol, which Sasha Belyaeva had worked for years to achieve, gave VelHam a place in the Soviet system and access to (limited) funding. Item #7 of the protocol read: “Exploration of possibilities for computer networking for education (hardware, software, and psychological aspects). Theoretical and empirical research and development of classroom local networks, regional, national and international networking for education.”
The Fifth Dimension; or, We’re Off to See the Wizard
Soon after, the Belyaevs’ apartment became headquarters for a transnational experiment in children’s education and a geek academy for the early Russian Internet. “At my house, day and night,” Sasha Belyaeva recalled in a recent interview in Moscow, “a brilliant group of kids put together connections and built the modems by hand.” They talked to American researchers every night, asking hundreds of questions. One time she was sitting on her knees with scientist Galya Soldatova (wife of Alexei Soldatov) when they made the first connection. At first, they despaired: “We tried and we tried, and no success. Then, Galya suddenly twiddled — doot, doot, doot — with her fingers, and we were connected. I said to her, ‘Galya, remember this: you were the first one to connect Moscow to the Internet!’”
The scholarly part of the project was followed with great interest on the American side. The children played computer games and communicated with one another in their native languages; the results were printed out and pored over by Belyaeva in Moscow, Cole and his team in San Diego, and Fritz Mosher at Carnegie Corporation in New York. Later in the decade the program expanded to five centers in the U.S. and three in the Soviet Union.
The Wizard/Volshebnik was a powerful, kind, and responsible being who cared, equally, about Soviet and American children. The Wizard, in a way, was what was missing from U.S.-Soviet relations.
After much experimentation the VelHam program settled into using a platform that posited an imaginary electronic world called the Fifth Dimension, complete with its own constitution. The Soviet and American children worked together to solve problems and learn about each other along the way. (“We also found out that American kids don’t drink tea!”) There was an Artillery game. There was a maze. And there was a Wizard; in Russian, Volshebnik. The Wizard, who governed the Fifth Dimension, understood the children in their own languages, gently settled their disputes, nudged them toward solving their problems, and proposed new tasks.
“We often write to the Wizard for help and game advice, and our progress,” explained the children at one Fifth Dimension club. “The wizard assistants help us a great deal. They teach us about the computers, the games, and help us to write to the Wizard. We do not know who the Wizard is. Some of us think the Wizard is a man, and others think the Wizard might just be a computer of some sort. Anyhow, we’re always trying to figure out just who the Wizard really is.”
The Wizard was often (though not always) Michael Cole. Most importantly, the Wizard/Volshebnik was a powerful, kind, and responsible being who cared, equally, about Soviet and American children. The Wizard, in a way, was what was missing from U.S.-Soviet relations.
The connection of the Soviet Union to the U.S. via the Internet was developing alongside the games and the ministrations of the Wizard. The crucial link was VNIIPAS.
At first the VelHam team’s every online communication required a trip to VNIIPAS. Later the Belyaevs got used to having modems in their apartment. Led by Alexei Soldatov and often working out of the Belyaev apartment, a small team of programmers began to build Soviet capacity for Internet communication. They formed two overlapping groups: DEMOS and RELCOM.* An additional, more hot-tubby East/West link was established through the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, organized in 1985 by the lifestyle entrepreneur and former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Joel Schatz. Run through a sort of tech collective in a converted auto shop at 3220 Sacramento Street in San Francisco, the Teleport was backed by Henry S. Dakin, whose family fortune came mainly from the manufacture of teddy bears.
Sasha Belyaeva came to accept that her apartment was turning into a sort of startup café. Spartak Belyaev was less enthusiastic. Sasha remembers: “I was testing these modems — I don’t even know where they came from, whether Spartak brought them, or whether Velikhov sent them — modems the size of this closet. Some people would bring them and lay them out in the big room in the apartment. After that, Spartak then told Velikhov, ‘My house has become your project — but as for me, I’m getting the hell out of here.’ It was a joke, of course; but then, it was true.”
*An acronym for “RELiable COMmunications”; an early Soviet computer network, launched at the Kurchatov Institute, August 1, 1990
Geeks and Generals: “If these guys win, we lose.”
Deana Arsenian, then a young Carnegie Corporation program officer, worked with the VelHam project while also monitoring the progress of Carnegie-sponsored efforts to advance security talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Many have wondered how U.S. intelligence had managed to miss the fact that the Soviet Union was collapsing. Arsenian had not missed it. On a March 1988 trip, she saw that glasnost was “still blossoming.” But in a confidential report following a November 1989 visit to Moscow, she wrote:
One of Gorbachev’s major tasks has been to reactivate and mobilize the stagnating society, and to instill in the people a sense of individual and collective responsibility for changing things. Gorbachev has failed to motivate the people politically or economically.… What one hears, sees, and feels at present is very different from the complaints of 1988. The criticism now is far from well-meaning. It is negative and bitter, reflecting a mood that the problems have only gotten worse during the period when the solutions were supposed to have been found.
The Soviet Union was indeed undergoing a “phase transformation,” but it was far from the “new state of consciousness” that Evgeny Velikhov had envisioned.
In 1991, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was, by his own account, still trying to save the Soviet Union. He sought to decentralize decision-making to enable the “autonomy and independence of our peoples and the sovereignty of their republics, but also retention of the Union State and integrity of our country.” Nevertheless, the pace of dissolution only picked up as the years of economic deprivation seemed to be culminating in complete collapse. On August 19, 1991, hardline Soviet leaders, led by KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, declared themselves leaders of the Soviet Union in what was known as the August Coup, or Avgustovsky Putsch. Gorbachev was put under house arrest at his dacha. Independent media were shut down. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Republic, holed up in Moscow’s White House, seat of the government, and declared his opposition to the coup. The putschists mobilized army units and prepared to attack the White House.
The putschists, however, had overlooked the Internet. The RELCOM team, led by Alexei Soldatov, were determined to keep their connection to the West open even as the putschists, eager to convince Soviet citizens and the outside world that they were in control and that resistance was futile, moved to suppress all independent communications. Polina Antonova, a Moscow programmer, wrote online to a friend in the U.S.: “Moscow is full of tanks and military machines — I hate them. They try to close all mass media, they stopped CNN an hour ago, and Soviet TV transmits opera and old movies. But, thank heaven, they don’t consider RELCOM mass media or they simply forgot about it. Now we transmit information enough to put us in prison for the rest of our life.”
Andrei Soldatov, coauthor of the essential book The Red Web: The Kremlin’s Wars on the Internet (and son of Alexei Soldatov), looked back at the geek revolt in an interview in Moscow earlier this year: “They understood from the beginning that they were already on the side of Yeltsin. They knew that if the putschists succeeded, their business, their ideas would be completely destroyed. These putschists were so Soviet. Usually when you have putschists they try to project some idea about the future, like getting rid of corruption. But these guys, they didn’t talk about corruption, they talked about one thing: We have to get back to the Soviet past. And of course for geeks, they understood that they were not part of the Soviet past. If these guys win, we lose.”
On the first day of the coup, RELCOM decided to deploy its network of geeks across the Soviet Union as quasi-reporters. “They came up with an idea,” Soldatov recalled. “Maybe at one given moment we would ask all the subscribers in all these towns just to look out the window and report what they see. That would give some picture of what is going on.” They would look out their windows, “because, you know, these are all engineers. They’re not going out into the streets. So they literally all looked out of the windows and said, ‘We see nothing. No tanks. Actually, nothing.’” It was clear that the power of the putschists did not extend across the country.
This was the Soviet Union’s first experience of citizen journalism. The Avgustovsky Putsch failed.
A Full Spiritual Unity
The months following the coup attempt saw a power struggle between Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, a struggle Gorbachev lost. He resigned on December 25, telling the Russian public in a broadcast that he had been decisively undermined by “a policy of dismembering the country and disuniting the state.” It was a fait accompli, one that Gorbachev accepted with ample bitterness.
Gorbachev, his allies, and many of his opponents were worried about the presence of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert in a Soviet Union in political free fall. The Americans were worried, too. Fortunately, a certain sub-rosa infrastructure of personal connections and trust had been built up over the course of the 1980s between Soviet scientists and military leaders and their American counterparts. The groundwork had been done.*
“There was a significant life experience, not only mine, but in my surroundings, an experience of not just a simple cooperation, but a full spiritual unity in the informal international scientific community.”
— Evgeny Velikhov
The main forum for this ad-hoc network was CISAC (the arms control discussion group where Evgeny Velikhov and David Hamburg got to know each other) that brought together the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, represented, respectively, by Velikhov and NAS head Frank Press. Velikhov later wrote that under the Reagan administration CISAC “became virtually the only bridge of communication on issues of arms control between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A.” Press called it “the unpublicized CISAC.”
Velikhov and his allies created a semiformal network of Soviet groups, notably the Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace and Against the Nuclear Threat, founded in spring 1983 in response to President Reagan’s Star Wars initiative. They worked with their American counterparts at organizations like the Federation of American Scientists, as well as with a leading Soviet think tank that researched North American economic, military, and energy policies.
Like the human potential enthusiasts and the border-destroying Internet geeks, these American and Soviet arms controllers formed a creative demimonde peripheral enough to official channels to have the freedom to develop new ideas, yet connected enough to the centers of power to make those new ideas actually happen. “There was a significant life experience,” Velikhov later wrote, “not only mine, but in my surroundings, an experience of not just a simple cooperation, but a full spiritual unity in the informal international scientific community.”
The extraordinary successes of this community had come over a period of less than a decade:
· In August 1983 the Soviet Union declared a unilateral moratorium on testing anti-satellite weapons.
· After Gorbachev became Soviet premier in 1985 (with Velikhov serving as his unofficial science advisor), the Soviets unilaterally banned underground testing of nuclear weapons.
· Velikhov next rallied the American community, particularly the Natural Resources Defense Council, behind the idea of setting up private seismic monitoring in the Soviet Union and the U.S., so that both sides could verify compliance without having to risk direct government involvement.
· By August 1986, they had succeeded in installing seismic monitoring equipment on Soviet soil — something every U.S. administration since Eisenhower’s had attempted, and failed, to do.
· In February 1987 Velikhov and other denizens of the demimonde (Soviet and American) lobbied Gorbachev to abandon the Soviet policy of linking negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe to an American renunciation of Star Wars. By the end of that year an INF treaty was signed.
· The INF/Star Wars delinking also gave momentum to strategic arms limitation talks, which culminated in START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I), signed in July 1991.
One month later came the August Coup.
*Key figures on the Soviet side: scientists Evgeny Velikhov and Roald Sagdeev; Sergei Rogov and Andrei Kokoshin in the Soviet defense policymaking hierarchy; and military figures Colonel General Evgeny MaslinNN and Colonel General Viktor Yesin. On the American side: Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia; scientists and scholars Wolfgang Panofsky (Stanford), Frank von Hippel (Princeton), Richard Garwin (IBM), Jerome Wiesner (MIT), and Frank Press (NAS); civilian defense officials William Perry, Ashton Carter, and Rose Gottemoeller; and policy advisor John Steinbruner.
Nukes on the Loose
Carnegie Corporation of New York had been facilitating U.S.-Soviet discussions for nearly a decade, success following success. The August Putsch threatened to undo all that work, when the KGB’s Kryuchkov and the generals placed Gorbachev under house arrest.
William Perry, later U.S. secretary of defense, was at a Carnegie Corporation-funded Track II U.S.-Soviet meeting in Budapest when the coup happened. At a 2013 conference in Georgia (U.S.), he recalled that Track II meeting as the “most interesting” he had ever attended. Two Russians who had been invited
… strangely were not at the meeting. And we soon find out the reason they were not at the meeting was that they were in the White House with Yeltsin under siege! Of course we were quite apprehensive about their welfare at that time. But before our meeting was over, the coup had ended and they showed up at our meeting and gave us a very detailed debriefing on what had happened.… And shortly after that, several of us met in Senator Nunn’s office.… I thought the highlight of the meeting was a briefing made by Ash Carter, who gave an absolutely compelling argument of the danger of what he called the “Loose Nukes Problem.” … I would say that was in many ways where the Nunn-Lugar legislation was created.
Funded by Carnegie Corporation, the subsequent report, Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union (1991), was cowritten with a team of Harvard University researchers by Ashton B. “Ash” Carter, later secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. The briefing in Senator Nunn’s office had been brought about by David Hamburg. And Nunn had first met Velikhov back in 1988, on a Congressional visit to Moscow organized by the Aspen Institute with funding provided by the Corporation.
At the 2013 conference in Georgia, Nunn stressed an important historical footnote:
… because the conference in Budapest was also sponsored by Carnegie and the previous conferences, which had been sponsored over the last seven or eight years between the Soviet members of Duma and so forth, policymakers and senators, were sponsored by Carnegie. I would not have known [Soviet defense officials] Kokoshin or Rogov if it had not been for those conferences. Now can you measure that? I can measure it, because in my mind I would not have gone to Moscow; I wouldn’t have been in Budapest; I wouldn’t have had anybody I knew that I trusted. And at that stage there probably would have been no Nunn-Lugar.
The initial legislation, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program (known colloquially as Nunn-Lugar), passed in November 1991 over strong opposition: its critics could not see the sense in spending American money in the ex-Soviet Union, on nuclear security or on anything else. Yet Nunn-Lugar soon enabled the removal of all nuclear weapons from the ex-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine — from everywhere but Russia. Over time it led to the destruction of nearly a thousand intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), of some 500 ICBM silos and 200 mobile ICBM launchers, of some 30 nuclear weapons-carrying submarines and nearly all the ex-Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missiles. All the Soviet nuclear air-to-surface missiles were dismantled. Nearly 8,000 nuclear warheads were deactivated.
The demimonde had won its greatest victory.
Somewhere Outside of War’s Own Logic
Could such cooperation happen again? Could Evgeny Velikhov’s “full spiritual unity” ever be reawakened in the international (scientific, political) community? “It’s like with water boiling,” was how he put it in the interview at his dacha. “You increase the temperature and the water starts to boil. We start in different ways, in different directions, but at some moment the situation opens and you increase the temperature enough to start general development.” Velikhov’s view was shaped by his understanding of human consciousness and how it has the potential to change. But at some point after 1991, the pots stopped boiling.
Evgeny Velikhov’s motivations were essentially spiritual, or mystical. Mystical faith in spiritual communities and new forms of consciousness, in pedagogical and social optimism and new ways of thinking, is seldom associated with military-industrial complexes. But the fundamental reality that Velikhov and his strangely powerful subculture were facing was potential planetary destruction.
The imagination needed to avoid doomsday must come from somewhere outside of war’s own logic. As unlikely as it seems, a discernible line can be traced from humans talking to dolphins, and children listening to the Wizard, to a government’s destruction of nuclear warheads.
Is there a path out of our own, blocked present?
In a series of discussions in Moscow in the summer of 2017, I met with senior figures in Russia’s nongovernmental foreign affairs hierarchy. The mood was uniformly glum. As in 1983, there seemed to be no way forward. Two powerful and well-armed countries with no real reason to go to war are nonetheless talking of little else.
Yet the model that achieved so much in the 1980s remains: small groups of people with a shared goal of change, who have built trust in each other. When the historical opportunity comes, if it comes, they are ready to rise up to meet it. The (potential) disaster of the August Coup became an opportunity for positive change on an unheard of, almost fantastic scale. That is what happened.
Whatever opportunities might be offered by the times, these will mean little if the ties among people … are not already in place to create the moment the visionaries are waiting for.
During my Moscow discussions there was at least one area that seemed to offer possibilities. Presidents Trump and Putin, meeting earlier in the year at the G20 summit in Germany, had proposed a joint cybersecurity commission. The idea was met with immediate ridicule. Hadn’t Putin interfered in America’s 2016 election — via cyberspace? Wasn’t Russia sponsoring cyber espionage? And President Trump — how to assess such a mercurial head of state? Under the weight of widespread disbelief and distrust Trump quickly withdrew the proposal.
And yet. Cyber means lots of things, but perhaps most importantly it means command and control over strategic weapons. The cyber debate at that level is essentially the same as the old nuclear debates of the 1980s: it is about confidence in the other side. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, in a period considerably more terrifying than the present, allowed the growth of a trust network that dramatically advanced the cause of avoiding nuclear war. It was a quirky network. The stages of its progress were nearly random. Computers for children! Heightened consciousness! The Fifth Dimension! Yet, as Sam Nunn recounted, it worked. If we are to emerge from our current impasse, something like it will need to work again. The experience of the New Age optimists, the Internet insurgents, and the arms controllers suggests that whatever opportunities might be offered by the times, these will mean little if the ties among people, and the trust Sam Nunn emphasized, are not already in place to create the moment the visionaries are waiting for.