Today marks the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics – the most expensive Olympics in history and President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to bolster Russia’s reputation on the world stage. As Russia has though obviously been a major global player for centuries, it has also made a huge contribution to science and technology – some good and some… well, not so good. Here’s our pick of some of the most important Russian contributions to technology.
Is there a more quintessential Russian emblem than the AK47? The weapon of choice for rebels and insurgency movements everywhere, the AK47 has been used to suppress dissent in dozens of countries. Famed for being durable in almost any weather, thanks to the amount of free space between components, the firearm was invented in 1949 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, presumably because he thought that war and devastation wasn’t already depressing enough.
Perhaps more relevant to TechDigest readers, the gun is also a staple of pretty much every First Person Shooter under the sun, from Goldeneye to Call of Duty – making it as ubiquitous in games as it is in the endless cycle of violence in parts of Africa.
Sputnik was the first ever artificial earth satellite. It couldn’t do all that much – it just sent a beeping signal back to earth – but the act of getting it into space in the first place was a huge achievement in itself. Launched in the midst of the Cold War, it must have been a scary time for Americans. Though today we view America as the clear winner of that conflict, back in 1957 the story was different. The Russian-backed North Korea was booming compared to American-backed South Korea, the US was facing revolt at home due to the civil rights movement, and to top things off the Russians had a highly visible example of their technological prowess.
Luckily rather than be the harbingers of doom we could have expected, Sputnik was merely the first of hundreds – if not thousands – of satellites, which would revolutionise the way we communicate. Without satellites there’d be no global position system, no satellite TV, and communicating around the world would be much trickier.
Where would we be without the Soyuz space craft? Like the apocryphal tale of how NASA spent millions developing a space pen whereas the Russians just used a pencil, whilst America spent billions of dollars building the now-retired Shuttle programme, based on the idea of a space plane behemoth that could be reused, the Soyuz kept things simple and rocket-like. As a result, the Soyuz has outlived the Shuttles and is currently the only means we have of getting astronauts into space – at least until NASA get the Orion spacecraft ready… which looks to be 2020 at the very earliest. A clear victory for Russian technology!
Perhaps the best export from Russia is the game of Tetris. It was invented in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov before being ported to home computers available in the US. It really found fame though in 1989 as the title launched with the original Nintendo Game Boy, in which it sold millions and millions of copies.
Apart from being released on basically anything containing a microprocessor, Tetris has also had a huge cultural impact… though strangely no one has made a Tetris movie just yet.
Chat Roulette (2011)
Perhaps the most recent Russian technology to make a big impact isn’t one they should be particularly proud of. Chat Roulette was developed by Russian coder Andrey Ternovsky, and is a chat service like no other. Rather than have a list of contacts, a la Skype, you’re randomly paired up with someone else, so could end up talking to… well… anyone.
As you might imagine, being the internet this invariably involved involuntary interactions with people not wearing any clothes. Perhaps, umm, not the most dignified Russian achievement.
Most of the above innovations are quite old – what about Russia in the 2010s? Is the best modern web service it can do really Chat Roulette? As we reported earlier, the interesting thing about Russia is that services we take for granted, like Google and Facebook are not hegemonic there – there’s other players like Yandex and Facebook clone Vkontakte (who apparently employ Edward Snowden, in fact) – so there must be something in these services that stop Russian internet users jumping ship. There must be lots of innovation under the surface – so surely it’s only a matter of time before Russia gets another big western hit?