For a frightening 72 hours, American and Russian computer users frantically relied on some of the world's most complex technology -- and a few dozen telephone circuits -- to exchange news dispatches and messages of support during the attempted coup.
The expansion of communications channels and the proliferation computers within the Soviet Union helps explain why the coup's leaders never quashed the dispatches from the outside world that helped Soviets resist.
After years of isolation, it is now possible -- although not easy -- to exchange electronic mail and other computer data with the Soviet Union in much the same way as with other industrialized nations.
In those countries, electronic mail and faxes are routine transmissions, thanks to the international telephone network. A computer user in San Jose, Calif., with a modem and an account on one of dozens of commercial online services can dial into the local telephone network and send a message to a larger computer operated by that service. That computer, in turn, exchanges thousands of messages a day with similar computers via an immense web of telephone wires, fiber-optic cables and satellite links.
The problem with that approach when swapping data with the Soviet Union is that its outdated telephone system requires hordes of operators to connect international calls by hand. American computer users who want to call the Soviet Union can only dial Moscow directly and must compete fiercely for phone lines.
Soviet computer users have even more trouble sending messages, because few of them have local telephone lines that permit direct international dialing. So most Soviet-American data exchanges rely on bulk transmissions between large computers, requiring users on either end to make only a local phone call. The big computers must then compete for an international phone line.
But there are other routes for data to flow. If the coup leaders had tried, they might have found it difficult to sever all the connections with outside computers.
"Not many people [there] have real knowledge of how the networks work," said Jeff Lohrmann, acting director of the Peacenet network, a computer system in Palo Alto, Calif. Peacenet's GlasNet network in Moscow serves 75 Soviet computer users.
While Peacenet's usual link with Moscow is over international phone lines, it also rigged a backup link over a more tortuous route. That plan saw Soviet news dispatches gathered through a loose network of personal computer bulletin board systems in Moscow and Leningrad. The dispatches were sent by local phone calls to the Baltic states, then to Sweden, and then to a London computer network that maintains an open link with Peacenet.
A few enterprising users in Moscow got their messages out through a "back door": Helsinki. Many telephones in Moscow can directly dial Finland without having to deal with Soviet operators. That's how American businessman Bob Clough got his dispatches from his home in Moscow to the CompuServe online service.
"If you're used to the everyday hassles of dealing with Soviet telecommunications, you don't see any difference" between regular service and the overloaded lines during the coup, he said. "If this is your first time, you probably think the authorities are doing a good job of restricting access."
To set up a personal account with the Sovam Teleport, which has a satellite link to the Soviet Union, call Jennifer Childs at (415) 931-8500. The set-up fee is $100; usage charges for individuals are $25 per month plus 25 cents per minute online.
To reach GlasNet through one of the Institute for Global Communications' networks, call (415) 442-0220 to set up an account. IGC can also be reached through Internet, a international network of university and research computers. CompuServe starter kits are available at most stores that sell software.