Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize

2017 Citation Recipient

Benjamin Peters

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

Established in 1983, the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize, sponsored by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) and the Stanford University Center for Russian and East European Studies, is awarded annually for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences published in English in the United States in the previous calendar year.

Winner: Benjamin Peters
Title: How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet (MIT Press)

Benjamin Peters’ richly insightful monograph, How Not to Network a Nation, is one of those gems of Cold War history that has lain buried beneath the crusts of time, and that only a scholar with Peters’ intellectual curiosity, methodological rigour and sheer determination to peer into the least propitious nooks and crannies of the Soviet past could have unearthed. In it, he traces the history of OGAS, the failed and now forgotten Soviet precursor to the Internet. He does so through an astute comparison with its better-known and more celebrated American cousin, ARPANET. Drawing on previously unknown archival sources and fascinating interviews with those involved in the design of the two systems, Peters provides a counterintuitive, but compelling, account of their respective fates, inverting established Cold War platitudes: that of US capitalism as inherently dynamic, individualistic and inventive and Soviet communist society as invariably state-shackled and stunted. For it turns out that while ARPANET benefited from strong state management, OGAS floundered when loose central control allowed damaging rivalries to stymie its progress. In fact, Peters accomplishes a stunning double reversal: not only was ARPANET centrally driven, but it was for that very reason more successful; likewise, it was precisely because the Soviet OGAS system relied on internal competition (according to our own stereotypes, a good thing that allows talent to flourish), that it failed.

By applying a multidisciplinary framework to a seemingly anachronistic topic of marginal interest, Peters extracts revelations of considerable (and, indeed, contemporary) importance across a range of areas (the inner workings of the Soviet state, the distinctive features of Soviet science, the history of the digital revolution, and the logic of networks). The first chapter in which he offers a “global history of cybernetics” is by itself of enormous value. His discussion of McCulloch’s “heterarchy” (“multiple competing regimes of evaluation”) is another highlight, as is his analysis of the tolkachi, the “pushers” who mediated informally between the Soviet state and individual production managers. Written in an engagingly wistful tone and with lapidary elegance, Peters’ How Not to Network a Nation is a worthy winner of this year’s Vucinich Prize.

Honorable Mention: Martha Lampland