However, really not much is known (in English) about computers from behind the Iron Curtain.
A Brief History of Why This Is a Thing
One thing that is for sure: in the 1970s, the Soviet Union, in an effort to keep up with rapidly-evolving Western technology, decided to put an end to all the custom hardware implementations (and poor reliability that comes along with small-run manufacturing) and simply pirate designs from the West. By studying patents for, say, the IBM/360 mainframe, the Soviets (and even domestic competitors to IBM) could begin to design similar computers. Furthermore, President Nixon's detente saw relaxed export restrictions on computer hardware in 1974. For what couldn't be imported or smuggled into the Eastern bloc physically (Zilog Z80-based systems were prevalent, such as a ZX Spectrum clone, as well as the "Pravetz" line of famously unreliable 6502 Apple clones), they would copy and manufacture their own designs of systems, especially involving DEC's PDP-11 systems and Intel's 8080 chips, and they would devote time to copying, rewriting, or reverse-engineering the popular software that went along with them as well.
Amidst the copying, which ran rampant in the Eastern bloc among both hardware and software, one interesting innovation was the advent of DEC's various PDP-11 architectures being shrunken down into a single chip, such as the K1801BM1, for which the Soviets were designing "microcomputers" by 1981. At that very moment in history, IBM was taking the western world by storm with the introduction of their PC 5150, and totally caught DEC off-guard. DEC scrambled to answer IBM, but the production of the DEC Professional line of microcomputers was too little, too late. As such, most people remember PDP-11 systems as mini-fridge (or larger)-sized minicomputers, rather than desktop micros. However, many Soviet microcomputers were based on these PDP-11 clones, including the "Elektronika 60", the computer which Tetris was originally programmed on.
Fast-forward to mid-2017, as I am having lunch at Google I/O, and a thought exploded in my head. Instead of going with common Western European computers or Japanese computers which are popular among hard-core gaming enthusiasts and hardware collectors, why not go for something out of the Eastern bloc? We never hear anything about those machines.
The Three-Month Sales Cycle
Shortly thereafter, I was paging through the For Sale section of the vcfed forums and found this interesting post offering three Soviet DVK-3 PDP-11 clone computers -- well, looks like I could turn my thought into a reality! Now, at the time, I didn't know the first thing about Russian computers, not even that their power system runs at 240V rather than American 120V. I discussed various issues with the seller for the next 3 months or so:
- Does it work? - Among the three computers, one fails memory tests, two don't even come up. Oh, wait; one works, one fails memory tests, and one just prints random dots on the screen.
- How much does it cost? - It is not easy to search for such things unless you know Russian and/or can type it into Google, and then you are relegated to looking at online forums because their primary auction website is closed. Some common low-end computers and peripherals are offered on eBay fairly consistently, though.
- What will it take to ship it here? - About $1,050 was the original estimate from CDEK, the shipping company. As such, this is a serious piece of computer, not just the little home-user hobbyist kit you can find on eBay. Luckily, CDEK ended up charging less than that, but the savings were spent on other additions & protections noted later.
- What kind of power does it take? - Well, 240V of course, but also at 50Hz, not 60Hz. He offered me some solutions for a step-up transformer, and of course, the local makerspace has a fancy transformer and frequency converter I ended up using to run tests and find out exactly what I needed.
- What kind of media will it come with? - Floppy drives & hard drive. The floppy disks did not end up making it through customs.
- Does the hard drive work? - The hard drive would not boot the OS, and the HDD controller seems to cause a memory error for that matter.
- How do I interface with the hard drive? - The HDD is basically an ST-412 clone, 10MB MFM.
- Does it have documentation? - There are various booklets that come with it. The document called МАТЕМАТИЧЕСКОЕ ОБЕСЛЕЧЕНИЕ ЭВМ, which Google Translate said was "Mathematical Destruction of Computers," was not included, but I got a .DOC file of it which is evidently a PDP-11 assembly instruction reference. I ended up receiving a "Passport" (technical reference) for the MC1201.03 mainboard and two programming references, one seemingly centered around DEC's RT-11 OS, errors, tests, and assembly language, and the other possibly discussing ФОДОС (FODOS) which seems to be a bit more custom.
- What do I do if it needs to be fixed? - Donate it to a museum. The rest of the world makes DIP-socket chips with pin spacings of 0.1" (2.54mm), but Soviets only made chips to that standard for export only. Most of their serious-grade stuff was made at a "metric inch" of just 2.5mm, meaning that for all but the smallest chips, replacing any failing chip with an equivalent American version would be difficult.
- How can it be packed for such a long trip and not break tragically? - The seller built a large crate for me that exactly enclosed the original box and Styrofoam packaging that came with the system to begin with.
- Which shipper will be the gentlest on it? - Well, I hope UPS won't bust it when they take it from CDEK.
- Can we get shipping insurance? - No. And also, CDEK wouldn't provide a crate for international use, thus why the seller had to build one.
And Now, the Fun Part...
Fortunately for me, on September 5, a large Russian crate was placed on the corner of the retaining wall on my front yard. (I was hoping to catch the UPS guy to tell him to deliver it around back; what ended up happening led to a 90-minute struggle to lug this large crate up the rest of the hill, over the front stairs, and around side of the house.) Once I got it into the garage, I unpacked it and made sure it was in one piece -- indeed it was! -- but was immediately overwhelmed with some sort of stench and got a runny nose quickly after opening the box. There was a lot left to do before I would feel comfortable powering it on for the first time, so I put it all back in the crate and went back to work.
I must say the Russians have done a great job of communicating and sharing information about this system. There are plenty of grainy photocopies of old books and schematics to be found online, and numerous forum posts that translate into broken English. There is apparently even a community of people making new hardware for these systems, just as people make new hardware for old Commodores, Apples, and so on. And, as one Imgur comment says, "In Moscow, these are just computers." Not retro, but still things people use every day, so one would hope they'd be well-documented!
A large crate appeared atop my front steps. The hydraulic lift cart is waiting patiently for me to get some bricks to elevate the 150-lb. wooden crate to a level where I can easily push it on.
The computer, with its original packing material
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I talk about