Tetris: The Game That Challenged Soviet Control and Conquered the World

Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (left) stands with Henk Rogers (right) in Moscow's Red Square. Credit:
Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (left) stands with Henk Rogers (right) in Moscow's Red Square. Credit:

The state controlled almost all aspects of daily life in the USSR, including entertainment. However, everything changed in 1985 when Alexey Pajitnov created an unapproved computer game based on a puzzle game from his childhood. The game consisted of random pieces that players would rotate to fill rows, and when each row was completed, it was deleted. Because his computer had no graphical interface, Alexey modeled the blocks using spaces and brackets. He named it "Tetris," combining "tetra," the Greek word for four, and "tennis."

A Viral Video Game

The game became popular among anyone who had access to early computers and quickly spread through Moscow via word of mouth. By the following year, it was being played all across the Eastern bloc. It was the unofficial Soviet response to Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong.

Alexey began researching how to sell the game's rights through the state, and when the Soviet government realized the potential of licensing Tetris to Western companies, they began negotiating with several potential partners. However, the USSR was unaccustomed to negotiating with the West and often suspicious of their business practices.

The original Tetris game
The original Tetris game

A Legal Battle for the Ages

Robert Stein, a software salesman for Andromeda Software, saw the game's potential and contacted Alexey to obtain the license rights. They came to an agreement via fax. Robert then on-sold the rights to publisher Mirrorsoft without signing a formal contract with the Soviet state. When the Soviet state found out, they let Robert know that he did not in fact have official rights, and all games produced and sold in the West were illegal.

As negotiations continued, several companies claimed to hold the rights to Tetris on different platforms and in different regions, including Atari and Nintendo. After a complicated legal battle, the judge ruled in Nintendo's favor. Atari Games withdrew its version from sale the very next day. Alexey had yet to receive a single dollar of royalties. In April 1996, the original license sold by the USSR expired, and the rights to Tetris reverted back to Alexey.

The game's simple yet addictive gameplay captured the hearts of millions, becoming one of the most beloved video games of all time. The success and international recognition of Tetris challenged the Soviet government's control over entertainment and technology, making it a remarkable testament to the power of creativity and innovation in the face of oppression. 

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