"The Computer Does Not Believe in Tears": Soviet Programming, Professionalization, and the Gendering of Authority
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"The Computer Does Not Believe in Tears"
Soviet Programming, Professionalization, and the Gendering of Authority

The head of the computational laboratory checks programs only on an exceptional basis—for this task we have mathematicians-programmers; there are two of them in our laboratory, and the authors erroneously keep on calling them "girls."

—The Strugatsky brothers, Monday Begins on Saturday

By the middle of the 1960s, the Soviet press routinely exalted computers as the "machines of communism," and the new programming profession had become familiar enough to make a programmer the main hero of a science fiction novel. The Strugatskys' immensely popular Monday Begins on Saturday—the title referring to a kind of work that knows no holidays—is a satirical fable where scientific research masqueraded as magic.1 The novel opens with a fantastical institute staff headhunting a young programmer, Aleksandr Privalov. At the heart of the plot is the inculcation of the protagonist with a scientists' work ethic as Aleksandr befriends other male co-workers interested in using the computer to advance their research projects. A critique of consumerist society and ever cautioning against the subversion of the meaning of human happiness, Monday Begins on Saturday depicts scientific experts as the true holders of socialist values, finding ultimate self-realization in their work. Its strong didactical agenda notwithstanding, the novel gained [End Page 709] immediate popularity thanks to its delightful satirical commentary on the techno-scientific ambitions of the party-state.2

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A Fictional Programmer, Aleksandr Privalov, Writing Commentary on the Strugatskys' novel, 1965

Illustration by E. T. Migunov.

The Strugatsky brothers, astute observers intimately familiar with the Soviet academic milieu, captured in their story the contradiction between the limitless promises of the new machines according to public discourse and the actual social status of the new experts, the programmers.3 In an almost postmodernist fashion, an "addendum" to the novel contains the main protagonist's comments to the authors' text, an excerpt from which serves as the opening quote to this article. The fictional programmer's correction of the inappropriate reference to "girls" playfully revealed the existence of [End Page 710] two images of programming that would be familiar to Soviet readers. The tension generated by the discrepancy between these images—a high-status, sought-after male occupation as represented by the main protagonist versus a low-status, supervised, and error-prone job made the domain of anonymous females—is the analytical focus of this study.

It is well known that women made up half the labor force in the late Soviet economy. However, notwithstanding Marxist ideological guidelines on the equality of the sexes and the numerical equality of female and male graduates by the late 1970s, the majority of female labor remained concentrated at the bottom of the job pyramid. Even as about 10 percent of women rose to the level of leadership in industrial enterprises, the common wisdom rationalized the male/female achievement gap by invoking women's lower level of commitment and lesser fitness for positions of authority.4 The case of programming not only fits this well-known general pattern but reveals how such gendered stereotypes were reproduced and negotiated by individual participants, male and female, who were able to achieve positions of intellectual, pedagogical, or managerial leadership.5 Expanding my research on the formation of an international community of computer experts during the Cold War, I ask: how did a new Soviet occupation employing significant numbers of women become associated with a masculine ideal practitioner?6 I argue that while the female presence reflected the gender structure characteristic of the late Soviet workforce, the masculinization of authority in the field involved a combination of three factors: the Soviet mathematical and cybernetic tradition, the field's [End Page 711] status as an up-and-coming profession, and integration in the international community.

Multiple analytical stakes are at the heart of this argument. My account corrects the misleading notion that socialism succeeded in resolving the notorious "women question" plaguing today's information technology (IT) industry.7 But first and foremost, my focus on programming and professional identity formation challenges the established narrative about the Soviet...