Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs visits the Soviet Union

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Soviet Apple flag
This was Steve Jobs' one and only trip to the Soviet Union.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

July 4: Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs visits the Soviet Union July 4, 1985: Steve Jobs visits Moscow for the first time, with the aim of selling Macs to the Russians.

During his two-day trip, Jobs lectures computer science students in the Soviet Union, attends a Fourth of July party at the American embassy and discusses opening a Mac factory in Russia. He also reportedly almost runs afoul of the KGB by praising assassinated Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Steve Jobs heads to Russia

Coming shortly after reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, Jobs’ trip to Moscow came at a tough time for the Apple co-founder. Losing a political war with Apple CEO John Sculley left Jobs in virtual isolation after being abandoned by the higher-ups running the company. Looking for something to do, Jobs went on a trip overseas where he visited Paris, Tuscany and eventually Moscow.

In Paris, Jobs met future-U.S. President George H. W. Bush, discussing the idea that distributing Macs to the Russian people could help provoke “revolution from below.” At the time, the less-powerful Apple II had just launched in Russia, a country that remained very guarded about allowing technology to become available to the masses.

Intriguingly, Jobs claimed he had the “feeling” that the attorney who helped organize his trip to the Soviet Union “worked for the CIA or the KGB,” although he never elaborated on this in public.

The trip was, however, notable enough that it received a mention in Jobs’ FBI file. The dossier noted that while in the USSR, Jobs met with an unnamed professor from the Russian Academy of Sciences “to discuss possible marketing of [Apple Computer’s] product.”

In other strange happenings during the visit — which totally sounds like it should be adapted as a TV miniseries — Jobs apparently became convinced that a television repairman who came to his Moscow hotel room “unsolicited, for no apparent reason, was actually some kind of spy” (as noted in Alan Deutschman’s 2000 book, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs.)

Trouble with the KGB

The apparent trouble with the KGB came up in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Jobs. Isaacson wrote that Jobs “insisted on talking about” Trotsky, the Bolshevik leader exiled as an “enemy of the people.” Trotsky was later assassinated in Mexico under orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

“You don’t want to talk about Trotsky,” a KGB agent allegedly told Jobs. “Our historians have studied the situation, and we don’t believe he’s a great man anymore.”

Jobs ignored this advice, according to Isaacson. “When they got to the state university in Moscow to speak to computer students, Jobs began his speech by praising Trotsky,” he wrote. (For what it’s worth, a partial transcript of one of the speeches Jobs made in Russia at this time makes no mention of Trotsky.)

The beginning of the Russian Newton revolution?

Jobs seemingly suffered no ill effects from the reported run-in with the KGB. Unfortunately, his trip’s results seem similarly uneventful. No Russian Apple division came to be. That probably makes sense, given that Jobs’ summer of 1985 was more about “busy work” to keep him away from Apple management than accomplishing anything productive.

The trip generated a final intriguing tidbit, though. Apple VP Al Eisenstat stayed in the same Moscow hotel as Jobs. One night, Eisenstat was awakened by the sound of a nervous computer programmer knocking on his door.

When he answered it, the coder pushed a floppy disk into his hand. Upon Eisenstat’s return to the United States, he discovered the disk contained accurate handwriting recognition software.

According to several members of the Apple Newton team I’ve spoken to, this code became the basis for the handwriting recognition built into the Newton MessagePad.

More details on Steve Jobs’ Russia trip?

Anyone know any more details about Steve Jobs’ Russian odyssey? Leave your comments below.