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Soviet Union


Communications systems were controlled by the regime and were primarily used by it to convey decisions and to facilitate the execution of directives affecting the economy, national security, and administrative governmental functions. The Ministry of Communications, a union-republic ministry (see Glossary), was responsible for radio, telegraph and telephone transmissions, communications satellites, and the postal service. Several other governmental organizations were concerned with communications, including the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, the Ministry of Defense (for military communications), the Ministry of Culture (for educational broadcasts), and others that controlled and operated electronic communications for their own needs. Communications organizations were also on the republic and lower administrative levels.

Electronic communications systems in the Soviet Union, especially radio and television broadcasting, experienced a rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s (see Radio; Television and Video Cassette Recorders , ch. 9). Although telephone communications were also expanded in the same period, the rate was slower. By 1989 the Soviet Union had a powerful telecommunications system that sent radio, television, and telephone messages to almost any location in the world.

In 1965 the Soviet Union launched the Molniia (Lightning) satellite communications system linking Moscow to remote towns and military installations in the northern parts of the country. The Molniia system, the world's first domestic satellite communications network, retransmitted radio and television broadcasts originating in Moscow. It was used as the initial back-up teleprinter link for the "hot line" between Moscow and Washington. The system also transmitted signals to spacecraft in the Soiuz, Saliut, and other space programs. The Molniia system employed several satellites following elliptical orbits and several ground stations that exchanged signals with them as they came into range.

In 1971 the Soviet Union launched Intersputnik, an international satellite communications network, with thirteen other member nations: Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), East Germany, Hungary, Laos, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), and Vietnam. Algeria, Iraq, Libya, and Syria became members subsequently, and Nicaragua and Cambodia agreed to the construction of ground stations in 1986. Headquartered in Moscow and governed by a board representing the member nations, Intersputnik employed Molniia communications satellites to link the telephone, telegraph, television, and radio systems of member nations. Each member nation was responsible for building and operating its own ground station, and the Soviet Union had two dedicated stations--at Vladimir and Dubna. Intersputnik participants used centrally located ground stations to relay communications when they did not have direct access to the same satellite.

Communications satellites in geostationary orbits, i.e., the satellite's position remained fixed relative to a point on the earth, were first launched by the Soviet Union in 1975. In 1985 the geostationary, or Statsionar, system employed several different kinds of communications satellites, including the Raduga (Rainbow), Gorizont (Horizon), and Ekran (Screen). Since 1975 the Raduga satellites have been generally used to relay domestic message traffic between distant locations in the Soviet Union. They have also electronically transferred the daily newspapers Pravda and Izvestiia from Moscow to Khabarovsk for same-day printing in the Soviet Far East. The Gorizont satellites' main functions have been international communications with ground stations, selecting global, regional, zone, or spot beams as needed. Several Gorizont satellites have relayed electronic versions of Pravda and Izvestiia to Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk for printing and distribution. Some Western authorities considered Gorizont satellites capable of providing Soviet television programs inexpensively to Third World countries. Ekran satellites were used to relay radio and television signals to community antenna systems in remote areas.

The Ministry of Communications operated almost 92,000 post and telegraph offices and telephone exchanges, most of which were in rural locations. In 1986 it forwarded about 8.5 billion letters, 50.3 billion newspapers and magazines, and 449 million telegrams. In addition, it processed 814 million money orders and pension payments. Despite constitutional guarantees of privacy of personal correspondence, telephone conversations, and telegraph communications, in the late 1980s the regime continued to authorize extensive eavesdropping. Domestic and international mail was subject to being opened and examined by government censors. Foreign publications "which may cause political and economic prejudice to the Soviet Union" were generally prohibited, and parcels from foreign addresses were routinely searched for a wide variety of prohibited articles, including consumer goods and food products, and were returned or "lost."

Since the 1960s, the government has tried to expand and update the telephone system, which, by Western standards of availability and service, was woefully underdeveloped. In 1988 semiautomatic and automatic telephone exchanges were coming on line within urban centers, and direct long-distance dialing was expanding. To respond to a growing demand for better telecommunications, in the 1980s the Soviet Union turned to Western communications firms to acquire digital telephone switching equipment, for which the need was rapidly growing.

At the end of 1986, an estimated 33 million telephones were connected with, or had access to, the Ministry of Communications network. However, the total number of telephone sets connected to Soviet networks was 39.5 million, which indicates that 6.5 million sets were on separate networks not belonging to the Ministry of Communications. Of the 33 million sets within the Ministry of Communications system, 27.7 million were on urban and 5.3 million on rural networks. Furthermore, of this total, 18.5 million telephone sets were classified as residential, which meant not only sets in private residences but also ones located in communal areas, such as hallways of multifamily residences or in housing projects. Indeed, according to official Soviet data, only 28 percent of urban and 9.2 percent of rural families had telephones in 1986. In early 1987, for instance, 13.3 million requests were made for installations of telephones in cities alone.

Other telecommunications systems, using both cable and microwave carriers for facsimile and data transmission systems, although under expansion by governmental authorities, still lagged behind the user demand for their services. User needs, however, determined neither the availability nor the quality of communications services in the Soviet Union. Government planners, following directives of the CPSU, allocated resources for communications and transportation with little reference to individual users. The regime gave precedence to the communications needs of decision makers and to the transportation needs of the national economy. Thus, it favored development of railroads, which served as the major long-distance transporter of freight. It also emphasized pipelines, as well as the maritime and air fleets, all of which grew substantially during the 1970s and 1980s. In contrast, the regime limited development of private automobiles and maintained a road network that primarily served areas with substantial industry and urban populations.

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The overall Soviet transportation system is analyzed by Holland Hunter and Vladimir Kontorovich in "Transport Pressures and Potentials." A detailed study of the transportation of extracted energy resources by rail, water, and pipeline can be found in Matthew J. Sagers and Milford B. Green's The Transportation of Soviet Energy Resources. A brief but useful transportation overview is also found in J.P. Cole's Geography of the Soviet Union. An insight into Soviet urban transportation services is provided in Paul M. White's Planning of Urban Transport Systems in the Soviet Union. Holland Hunter and Deborah Kaple's The Soviet Railroad Situation assesses railroad operations, and Soviet and East European Transport Problems, edited by John Ambler, Denis Shaw, and Leslie Symans, treats Soviet railroads within the East European context. For current reporting on Soviet railroad developments, the following trade publications may be consulted: Rail International, Schienen der Welt, Railway Gazette International, and International Railway Journal. For a comprehensive summary of Soviet railroads including operating statistics, locomotives and rolling stock, trackage, new construction, and technical data and characteristics, the latest yearbook of Jane's Railway Systems is an excellent source. A useful evaluation of rural trucking problems is in Judith Flynn and Barbara Severin's "Soviet Agricultural Transport," as well as in Elizabeth M. Clayton's "Soviet Rural Roads." D.M. Long's The Soviet Merchant Fleet is a good work to consult on the state of Morflot. Useful background material on the Soviet civil airline from its inception to its maturity can be found in Hugh MacDonald's Aeroflot. For Aeroflot operations in the 1980s, including service, flight crew proficiency, accidents, and handling of hijackings, the two-part article by Michael York, "Flying with Aeroflot," is helpful. For information about aircraft, the latest Jane's All the World's Aircraft should be consulted. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of May 1989

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