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Russia’s long-time chips failure coming home to roost

In 1962, two Americans who spied for Russia and defected, Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr, proposed to turn the new Russian city of Zelenograd (“green city”) into a microelectronics and computer development and manufacturing center. 

Zelenograd thus became the heart and soul of Russia’s effort to build modern electronics for its military. But it soon failed in its mission and the legacy of failure continues to this day.

Sarant and Barr, engineers who worked on classified US defense projects, mainly involving radar, had been part of the Rosenberg spy ring in the United States. Someone tipped them off that the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were imminent.

Around the same time, British scientist and spy Klaus Fuchs was arrested in the United Kingdom. During World War II, he played a major scientific role at the US nuclear bomb-making site in Los Alamos.

Nikita Khrushchev took up Sarant and Barr’s proposal and turned Zelenograd into the heart of Soviet efforts to catch up with the US in electronics, including small computers and integrated circuits. Barr, who was a brilliant engineer, designed the first digital computers for Russia’s nuclear submarines and spearheaded the drive to build integrated circuits.

During the 1980s, the US launched a program of export controls and law enforcement efforts against Russian-backed “techno-bandits” who were supplying Russia with sophisticated equipment for their new electronics industry. Russian spying also went into high gear, going after US semiconductor designs needed to make Russian weapons more capable and “smart.”

There is a huge contrast in how the US dealt with Russia and its other emerging strategic rival, China. Russian development was stymied by strong controls while the US openly aided China in developing its now huge electronics industry.  

One of the reasons Russian equipment destroyed in the Ukraine war is chock full of microchips made in the US, Europe and Asia is the plain fact that Russia cannot make them on its own. The export controls of the 1980s set the stage for Russia’s great microelectronics failure, which continues to afflict Zelenograd even today.

Russia’s two important semiconductor companies, Mikron and Angstrem, are located in Zelenograd. Angstrem was last reported in bankruptcy and there are also legal claims against former directors of its Angstrem-T division concerning “missing” equipment.

Mikron, the last great semiconductor hope for Russia, is working to develop technology that is already more than 2o years old, perhaps as out of date as 30 years. But the company is promising, not delivering.