More computer chatter in USSR -- if phone connections are good

As part of its effort to bootstrap itself into the high-technology era, the Kremlin has drawn up plans for creating data bases accessible by personal computers. The idea is hardly new in the West, but here in the Soviet Union data banks accessible to large numbers of people are still rare.

The Kremlin says it wants to change that, but there are some substantial obstacles in the way. The chief problem seems to be a Soviet proclivity for collecting massive amounts of information in central repositories, then keeping it in close embrace.

No official figures are available, but most Western analysts estimate that Soviet personal computer production is still only a few hundred units a year. By contrast, thousands of personal computers were sold in the United States in 1984.

Consequently, what data bases there are here remain inaccessible to most of the public. Pravda, the official Soviet Communist Party newspaper, likened the situation to building a huge, high-speed circular highway but neglecting to ``build access roads to it.''

A single US computer time-sharing service, Compuserve, has 252,000 subscribers, according to a company spokesman. But Pravda indicated that only 1,400 subscribers representing some 53 organizations were hooked up to a leading Soviet data base containing social science research.

Yet the social science data base, according to Pravda, contains over 300,000 documents, and there are plans to add some 220,000 documents annually over the next five years. The total should top 1 million documents in the next few years, Pravda said.

Clearly, it will be a difficult task for a country that keeps most foreign language periodicals and books off limits to most of the population and makes it difficult for researchers to read them in libraries.

Already the Soviet Union is linked to data bases in other East bloc countries and Cuba. The Soviets also have access to some Western data bases, sometimes through affiliated organizations in neutral countries. (Occasionally, however, the US shuts down such links -- as it did in a central European country not long ago -- on grounds that the Soviets are misusing them to gain sensitive technological information.)

One fundamental problem, according to a knowledgeable Western analyst, are the limitations of the Soviet telephone system. Signal quality is erratic, static sometimes overwhelms conversations, and connections are, at times, inexplicably cut.

And the Soviets are especially sensitive about data transmission over telephone lines. The reason, according to some Western diplomats, is Soviet concern about security.

This country no longer allows direct telephone service to the West, apparently because it wants to prevent dissidents and the disaffected from talking directly to the outside world. The possibility of ``data bursts'' being used to send information into and out of the country must be that much more worrying, according to Western analysts.

Pravda says some new attitudes are needed.

``Because of the rapid development of computer techniques, it has become necessary to change one's conventional ideas about the possibilities of electronics,'' the newspaper said.

It called for increased computer ``networking,'' better and more reliable hardware, and innovative uses of new technology. The newspaper -- which itself has changed little in appearance since its founding in 1912 -- predicted that news articles might someday be distributed overnight via phone lines connected to printers in individual households.

The Soviet military is not, of course, unaware of the value of having computer-literate recruits. A recent article in Red Star, the official Army newspaper, called for increased use of personal computers throughout the Soviet military.

The article, by the director of a military engineering academy in Moscow, said, ``Without the introduction of computers and a profound mastery of them, it is impossible today to train highly qualified personnel capable of successfully solving complicated military and training exercises.''

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