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Soviets, lagging behind West, press for wider computer literacy

The Soviet Union is striving to instill what officials here call the ``second literacy'' among its citizenry: the ability to use computers. At present, the Soviets are far behind the West in their use of computers.

The centerpiece of the current effort is the introduction of courses on computers into every Soviet secondary school, beginning in September. But there are strong indications that only a fraction of the country's 60,000 schools will actually have computers by then.

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That's just one of the problems confronting the Kremlin as it tries to ensure that this country does not trail further behind the West in the application of computer technology.

The effort to introduce computerization to this country is being pushed from the very highest reaches of the Kremlin -- the ruling Communist Party Politburo.

The Politburo, according to an official account of a recent meeting, ``outlined measures to ensure the computer competence of students in secondary schools and extensive application of computer technology in the academic process.''

But already the country's leaders have discovered that decreeing that user and computer will be friendly with one another doesn't mean it will come to pass that easily. Equipment problems, a lack of trained teachers, and a widespread ambivalence toward -- if not distrust of -- computers here are some of the glitches the leadership is encountering.

The equipment problem is perhaps the most serious and tends to perpetuate the others. There are few Soviet computers available, so few people are using them.

The Soviets are known to be scouring the West, hoping to buy thousands of personal computers to import for the program and setting off intense competition.

Periodically, representatives of major Western computer companies slip in and out of Moscow to confer with Soviet officials. The negotiations are secretive and company representatives don't talk about them afterward. But companies are clearly eager to get a slice of the potentially huge Soviet market.

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Official pronouncements indicate that tens of thousands of personal computers will be needed in coming years, and perhaps millions before the end of the decade. Still, no firm contracts have been announced. And in a recent interview, an educational official said authorities have not yet decided which computer to introduce into schools here.

Meanwhile, the Soviets are stepping up production of their own computers, some of which are unabashed copies of Western products.

The premi`ere Soviet personal computer, the Agat, has been dubbed by some as the yabloko, the Russian word for apple -- not only because of its red exterior, but also because it appears to be a knock-off copy of the United States-made Apple.

There are references to other computers in Soviet literature, though Western analysts have yet to see some of them. The Agat appears to be the primary computer designed for school use, but another one -- the Timur -- is also apparently earmarked for some schools.

Another machine, the Elektronika BK 0010, has been spotted on display in Moscow. Designed to hook up to a standard television set, it appears to be similar to the home-entertainment computers widely marketed in the US a few years ago.

The Soviet Academy of Sciences declines to provide information about types of Soviet computers, production figures, and costs.

Leo D. Bores, an American eye surgeon who is also president of a medical software firm, encountered an Agat in 1983 and described it in the November 1984 issue of Byte magazine.

He says it appeared to be ``hard-wired'' (rather than having printed circuits) and worked slower than the Apple. Although his overall assessment was favorable, he concluded the Agat ``wouldn't stand a chance in today's international market, even if they gave it away.''

But, in fact, the Soviets charge quite dearly for it. The cost to schools, according to one authority, is ``several thousand'' rubles each. (The ruble is pegged at about $1.15.)

Some experts have suggested that, until computers are more widely available, schoolchildren should be trained in the use of electronic calculators. But even these are a luxury in this country, ranging from 25 to 40 rubles in price. The trade-unions newspaper Trud reported last year that government agencies were unwilling to produce cheaper models. ``Education loses,'' the newspaper complained.

And it appears that compatibility of Soviet computer equipment has been a problem. In an article last year in Izvestia, the official government newspaper, Anatoly Alexandrov, the head of the Academy of Sciences, wrote that ``different designers and ministries produced equipment which was quite good for its time but was incompatible in terms of software and components.''

The Soviets, according to some accounts, have now determined that both imported and domestically produced computers must henceforth be compatible with IBM standards. If those reports are correct, they could have important implications for companies battling for a part of the Soviet market.

No matter what the Soviets eventually do, they will not have a computer in every school by the time courses start this fall. A teachers' journal indicated that ``more than 1,100'' units would be distributed before this fall, but there are some 60,000 secondary schools in this country.

According to the newspaper of the Young Communist League, even by 1990 only one out of every five schools in Minsk -- one of the country's largest cities -- will have a computer.

Izvestia summed up the problem when it reported in April, ``There are not enough computers and not enough teachers trained to use them.''

Indeed, reports suggest that even some of the instructors who will be teaching computer courses this fall will not have had the opportunity to train on a computer.

To address this problem, two separate syllabuses will be followed. One is a ``practical'' one for schools equipped with computers. Other schools will teach only a ``theoretical'' course.

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