The Bulgarian Computer’s Global Reach: On Victor Petrov’s “Balkan Cyberia”
By Alex LangstaffNovember 10, 2023
Balkan Cyberia: Cold War Computing, Bulgarian Modernization, and the Information Age Behind the Iron Curtain by Victor Petrov
Bulgaria. It is not the first place many people would think of. In the popular imagination (and in much economics scholarship), Bulgaria is a poster child for rural agrarianism and underdevelopment. Cold War Bulgaria conjures an even more inauspicious image as one of the most stalwart political vassals of the Soviet Union.
But by the 1980s, Bulgaria was one of the world’s major producers of computers. By conservative estimates, one in every 10 industrial workers was employed by the computer industry. The country held a 45 percent market share of electronic exports inside the Eastern Bloc. Its executives rubbed shoulders with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1980s California and sold the PCs powering India’s IT revolution. Its children were taught coding in communist youth groups, attended computer clubs, and swapped comic books depicting cyborg Lenins and a socialist ChatGPT. The country’s factories built pneumatic robot combines that could automate manufacturing, and its manufacturers supplied microprocessors for the state-of-the-art satellite Interkosmos 22 pinging around Earth’s orbit.
How did this happen? And why on earth haven’t we heard about this cyber-land before? The second question is easier to answer. We haven’t heard of it because it collapsed in 1990, and winners don’t like remembering losers. And because Bulgaria is classed as “peripheral.” It is on the margins of every map: Europe, the Cold War, the global economy, the digital revolution. Policymakers and trendsetting gurus don’t tend to look for answers to big issues in these “small” and unfamiliar places (unless doing so involves a happiness index). This is finally changing. Some of the best history books being written today are turning “to the margins” to find previously unrecognized laboratories of modernity.
Victor Petrov’s new book Balkan Cyberia: Cold War Computing, Bulgarian Modernization, and the Information Age Behind the Iron Curtain is a must-read for anyone interested in how the Iron Curtain was short-circuited in the digital age. Tracing the rise and fall of Bulgaria’s powerful computer industry, it is really three stories in one. The first interweaves the global supply chain geopolitics of sourcing products and markets for Bulgarian tech with the industry’s political, cultural, and social impact within Bulgaria. The second adds a new layer to regional accounts of state-building and economic development in postwar Europe. And the third turns what at first appears to be a Cinderella story of communist modernization into a stimulating inside-out history of late-20th-century capitalism. Petrov offers rich pickings for each story’s likely audience, whether security and tech policy fans of Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology (2022) or readers interested in the surprising dynamism of communism’s waning years.
Within these three stories, four plotlines are especially salient for the contemporary moment: the power of East–South markets; espionage’s role in tech innovation; the nonrole, or even pointlessness, of sanctions and embargoes; and noncapitalists’ construction of capitalism. Petrov argues that the enormous “Second World” market for tech and tech ideas in the Cold War must be taken seriously. We can’t risk being blind. The exchange of ideas and technologies between Bulgaria and India is a case in point, and is likely to haunt us in the future.
So will the complex symbiosis between the Bulgarian tech sector and state intelligence, which is emblematic of a much broader feature—still largely unexamined thus far—of the late-20th-century Information Age. The symbiosis of domestic expertise and foreign espionage drove Bulgaria’s tech takeoff, and it points to a bigger challenge: understanding how technological knowledge is generated when the “distinction between licit and illicit exchange becomes meaningless” in the production of entities like computers or algorithms.
As for trade embargoes and export license regimes for countries like China and Russia, they are flaunted as innovative and effective tools for controlling the spread of new technologies. But they are neither. The Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom)—opaque and understudied as well—was launched by the United States and its allies to “contain” the Soviets in late 1947. Balkan Cyberia shows that it actually energized Bulgarian tech ambition instead.
Japan was key here: it served as “the gap in CoCom’s armor.” It was a close US ally and anticommunist partner. But in the 1960s, it delinked trade from politics in an effort to expand its economy and grew to become the Soviet Union’s largest trading partner in the capitalist world. In May 1970, Bulgarian premier Todor Zhivkov became the first Bloc leader to visit Japan and subsequently fantasized about transforming Bulgaria into a “mini-Japan.” From the mid-1960s, the Fujitsu corporation embarked on a long relationship with Bulgaria’s nascent computer industry. It sold licenses for its top machines, taught FORTRAN and COBOL programming languages, and received Bulgarian specialists for multiyear spells at factories and Japanese universities.
Bulgaria’s first mass-produced computer in 1969, largely copied on a Japanese equivalent, was not the only outcome of this relationship. Petrov shows how a steady stream of future engineers, economic managers, politicians, and spies went to 1970s Japan and then brought back much more than microchips and computer prototypes. Stowed in their luggage were the illicit ideas of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics, the optimization models of management consultancies, and Singapore autocrat Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First. These texts became their inspirational blueprints. Something strange was happening in the heart of communist Europe.
Bulgaria proceeded to redesign its socialist economy to accommodate contracts and partnerships with nonsocialist firms. This meant fostering capitalist enclaves already in the mid-1970s, which were “judicially independent capital associations and islands of ‘bourgeois’ law in the central economy.” Major Western firms like American conglomerate Control Data Corporation looked for cheap manufacturing abroad and promised their Bulgarian counterparts that they would “fly under the embargo radar.” In a stunning measure of how far Bulgaria’s industry had come, they even stressed the interoperability of their own computing systems. In turn, Bulgarian tech sought to win American consumers. In an incredible side story, Petrov relates how a project was launched to win some of the multibillion-dollar US market for floppy disks, as well as China’s, by rebranding Bulgarian products and sidestepping sanctions. In the process, Bulgarian state firms displayed their full integration into the 1980s world of extraterritorial multinationals. They procured a British shell firm to ensure they only paid 4.5 percent US tax rather than 80 percent, and a British offshore holding company in Hong Kong to whisk away revenue. (Britain makes regular cameos as another chink in CoCom’s armor).
Can noncapitalists build capitalism, asks Petrov? Benjamin Peters’s trailblazing study, How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet (2016), outlines why the Soviet Union failed to develop an internet while the United States succeeded, and the book offers a surprising explanation: “The [US] capitalists behaved like socialists while the [Soviet] socialists behaved like capitalists.” In other words, the United States’ internet precursor ARPANET was achieved through strong government support and subsidies, whereas the Soviet attempts were torpedoed by the “self-interest” of its bureaucrats and experts. The Bulgarian case is different because it did succeed—partly due to the fact that Petrov’s protagonists were able to outplay the capitalists at their own game. They copied the code and then rewrote it.
The tandem question of whether autocrats can build democratic, participatory technologies already seems well answered today (yes, they can). The idea that state-of-the-art tech can’t prosper in repressive spaces is clearly delusional. But we are still unsure about whether this means we need to rethink democracy itself. Petrov largely sidesteps the story of Bulgaria’s own police state. For this, we can read Martin K. Dimitrov’s excellent Dictatorship and Information: Authoritarian Regime Resilience in Communist Europe and China (2023), a major work in its own right, which explores how China and Bulgaria grew information-collection “ecosystems” that were extensive but surprisingly analog.
Petrov reminds us that state-sponsored tech booms do not occur in a cultural vacuum. Personal computers were hard to buy and often out of stock for Bulgarian consumers, but there was still considerable trickle-down to everyday life, notwithstanding barriers to access. In one particularly interesting section, he considers the formation of a young generation of socialist cyber-nerds through comics, magazines, and clubs. In 1984, Bulgaria’s communist youth organization sponsored a successful network of such computer clubs. They grew from 28 in 1985 to 530 by 1987, spread across the country in factories, schools, and youth centers. They also opened in Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, as well as Havana, Addis Ababa, Pyongyang, and Hanoi. A new magazine, Computer for You, supplied young subscribers with entire code packages, creating a cyber republic of letters that was replete with interviews, forums, and satirical cartoons. Surprisingly, it was insulated from censorship. One cartoon, published before preustroistvo (communist Bulgaria’s period of reform and liberalization from 1986), even showed a man accusing his computer of writing a denunciation to the secret police against him.
The most prodigious outgrowth of this cybernetic culture was science fiction, widely circulated and accessed through comics and book series. Petrov shares some of these, including fantastic premonitions of hallucinating AI bots, like The Missed Chance: Stories from My Computer (Propusnatiyat Shans, 1981), in which a computer linked to the national library’s databases produces stories for a bored writer until he realizes that it has been mockingly throwing his own writing at him all along.
Jaroslav Švelch’s superb book Gaming the Iron Curtain: How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games (2023) also offers insight into the cultural footprint of late communist computing. Švelch shows how, in the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc was a dynamic laboratory for digital game designs that interwove personal expression with political protest. He follows a generation of teenagers in Czechoslovakia who reworked newly available computers and a “cottage arcade industry” to design some of the very first “protest games” for home computers. Hobbyists merged Atari visuals and gameplay with the realities of late socialism: boredom, police violence, and fantasy. You can even play one of these original protest games, The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989, converted by Švelch and translated into English, online. It was written months before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 was launched in the same square. Just be careful of the regime’s fearsome riot police and their truncheons.
When communism collapsed, so did Bulgaria’s enormous computing industry. Billions of state assets evaporated through the acquiescence or direct involvement of Party elites, who reinvented themselves overnight as capitalists and democrats. Balkan Cyberia is also a personal story for Petrov in this regard. In 1989, his father was training for a high-flying career in Bulgaria’s socialist cyberworld where “everything was forever, until it was no more.” Petrov recalls growing up in 1990s Varna playing Prince of Persia and Duke Nukem on the Pravetz PCs that communist Bulgaria had built, and his father pointing to the once-thriving, now-empty electronics factory that had employed him. But communism’s last generation of teenagers still had the final word.
Bulgaria became the world’s leading exporter of computer viruses. In December 1990, The New York Times reported that 90 of all the 300 known viruses designed to attack IBM computers came from a faraway country on the Black Sea. John McAfee complained that Bulgarian-made viruses represented one in 10 of inquiries received by his antivirus firm. Young Bulgarians, an industry figure named Veselin Bonchev explained, had “quickly acquired software-writing skills, but had little or no chance to apply them constructively.” Viruses with names like Nomenklatura and Made in Bulgaria plagued global systems. On the ruins of Bulgaria’s communist utopian cyber-economy, the most prolific and feared virus writer of all, named the Dark Avenger, emerged to wreak havoc on the world’s computers at the moment Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the end of history. Was it really? And who was this Dark Avenger? Was it one person? A group or collective? A nation, perhaps? We still don’t know. But with Victor Petrov’s groundbreaking book, at least now we have the story of the Bulgarian computer and its astonishing global reach.
Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in history at NYU and will be a residential fellow at the École normale supérieure in Paris.
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