Contraband Apple II computers still power old Soviet museum

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entrance to the Lenin Museum
The Apple II has been a faithful comrade to the Lenin Museum.
Photo: mvstang/Flickr CC

The Soviet Union may have collapsed. But Vladimir Lenin, the country’s first leader, lives on, thanks to an audiovisual show still running on a small network of Apple II computers at a museum outside Moscow.

The Apple II is as revered by geeks as Lenin is by nostalgic Communists. Both proved revolutionary. And while the carefully edited story of Lenin might seem interesting to museum-goers, the unvarnished tale of the vintage Apple tech is more compelling.

The Lenin Museum in Gorki Leninskiye opened in 1987 and has a classic monumental feel with gilded display cases, black marble and heroic statues, according to the website Atlas Obscura, which published a story this week about the museum.

The Soviet government, which began planning the museum in 1972, wanted to revive interest in Lenin. It would take a modern presentation — but with equipment not easily found in the USSR.

Museum planners wanted to get their hands on an ES4000 from the British audiovisual company Electrosonic. The company designed accessories and software for multimedia shows that ran on the Apple II.

file photo of Apple II
The Apple II
Photo: Rama

Soviet law prohibited the museum from trading directly with foreign companies. While Apple II clones existed in the country, none worked with ES4000 hardware.

Five Apple II machines were smuggled into the USSR using a British front for the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Atlas Obscura reported.

Each computer powers a story cube – originally called “ideologic-emotional centers” – with motors, lights, moving mirrors and ghost projectors. The story cubes re-create historic moments in Lenin’s story.

Former staff members perform maintenance on the equipment. (They came out of retirement to keep the machines running.) The museum plans to upgrade its technology in 10 or 15 years.