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Lunch with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Mass Software Council
One of the amazing benefits that I get for having done something important many years ago and still being around in my industry is that I get to meet all sorts of influential people in other fields. Today was one of the top such times. I ended up sharing a lunch table with ten other people and got to converse with our speaker, Mikhail Gorbachev, his longtime translator, Pavel Palazchenko, and his daughter Irina. When Mr. Gorbachev got up to leave, as seems to be his style, he shook my hand and gave me a hug.

Here's what happened: The Russian software industry association, RUSSOFT, arranged for Gorbachev to give a speech on his yearly trip to the US that highlighted the increased cooperation between the US and Russia around IT. Their software association has a close relationship with the Massachusetts Software Council and chose our meeting as the venue. With the help of various generous sponsors, especially Jeff Taylor of Monster.com, we were able to raise the money to cover the costs (there are lots, especially when you need to get someone and their associates from place to place on a very tight schedule).

After our yearly ceremony honoring Massachusetts teachers with the Massachusetts Software Council Education Foundation Above and Beyond Awards, eight Russian software companies gave two-minute introductions to themselves. They were basically all outsourcing providers of development talent. Each tried to outdo the other in telling us how talented and educated their employees are. These are not call-center operations -- they are companies who have the engineers many of whom we would have hired if they had moved here. This was followed by an analyst's overview of the Russian software market by Joseph Feiman of Gartner. He pointed out that the Russians have strength in application development but not in call centers, business process stuff, etc. This was in turn followed by local politicians (mayor of Boston Thomas Menino and the heads of the two halves of the state legislature Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini) giving their greetings.

Finally, Mr. Gorbachev spoke for about 45 minutes. Here are some of the mechanics (as an engineer and entrepreneur, I love hearing such details, so I'll put them down here to share and remember). When he arrived at the hotel and entered the room we all stood while the Russian national anthem was played. He spoke in Russian, which most of us don't. They disconnected his mike from the PA system and routed it to a little mixer on a table in front of him where Mr. Palazchenko sat, listening on earphones and speaking into another mike, which we then listened to. Those of us near the front could hear Gorbachev a bit through the air, but the loudspeakers had the translation. Mr. Palazchenko has been working with Mr. Gorbachev for many, many years, and you could see the two worked quite well as a pair throughout the time they were here.

 
Mikhail Gorbachev and his translator Pavel Palazchenko waiting to be introduced and during the speech (Mr. Palazchenko is in the lower right)
 
Mr. Palazchenko doing his job and the setup used
 
After being introduced, some of the crowd.
Here are rough notes about some of what he said. It is hard to listen to a translation, and the room was noisy, so don't depend upon it.

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He started by reacting to a mention of building bridges by one of the introductions. He departed from his prepared notes. Now we are building bridges after rigid confrontation in the Cold War. He recalled answering a question about how he first described Ronald Reagan when he met him at a summit as "a dinosaur", and learned later that Reagan answered the same question about him as being a "diehard Bolshevik", but after a few days of hard work together they signed an agreement which included the thought that nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. The leaders of two nations with 90% of nuclear weapons said nuclear war was not an option. The bridges formed then need repair and new ones need to be built, ours (IT) is one of them.

Today, April 12th, is the anniversary of the day Yuri Gagarin went into orbit as the first person in outer space. The US then sent their education people to Russia to learn about the Russian educational system. Learn from each other.


It is a little after the 20th anniversary of perestroika, the restructuring of the Russian economy he introduced. People ask him the simplistic question "Did it win or lose?" His simplistic answer: Yes. They will not turn back the clock in Russia. They ended the Cold War working together, and continued working with others. Some new leaders (Yeltsin's era?) think they can change things in 3-4 years. The strategy had been one of evolutionary reform, both economic and others, instead they went to shock therapy and cowboys (apologies to cowboys), which slowed the Russian economy. That was an interruption of perestroika.

How do we live in this new rapidly changing world? A story: A French delegation went to China and asked the Chinese prime minister what was the impact of the French revolution around 200 years before on the world and China, and he answered: Too soon to tell. Some are already passing judgment on perestroika. Need to do lots of working together. Politics in and of itself is not capable of understanding what happened.

Now, back to his prepared text - that was all in reaction to the question about building bridges.

Political leaders and creative leaders of our two countries should engage in a dialog when we think of the new information technologies which are our road to the future. At the first Communist Party Congress that he held in 1986 he said for the first time as the head of the party that we are living in an interdependent and interrelated world. The interconnected world is a reality. A new world with new relationships, new kinds of exchanges. This was a right conclusion. Many people thought it was rhetoric, but today we continue to live in this interrelated world. How do we make this world livable? For everyone? This is a world of stress and poverty for over half the population. We cannot allow the world to continue like this. This is a delayed reaction bomb, the roots of terrorism, epidemics, etc. We must do a lot of thinking about this. If information technologies just work for the benefit of developed countries, while much of the rest of the world continues to live in a pre-industrial era, this is not the way to go. We need more justice, more humanism. These are the words of the late Pope John Paul II, when asked "Do we need a new world order?" after the Cold War. [I got goose bumps hearing him talk of the Pope -- they were both lead players resulting in huge changes in the world, and here he was speaking to our group of computer people. See this account of the Pope and Gorbachev from CNN.] We need one that is more just and more humane. People in the audience represent the cutting edge of the advance of technology and productivity that will let us develop our planet and its resources in a better way.

We are in an era of globalization that spreads to all areas of life. Globalization has divided the world even more, and the gap between the rich and poor even in the developed countries has grown. This is a real challenge. Don't blame globalization; it is an objective process that has developed over decades and centuries. It is all about governments. If we allow globalization to continue to be a blind process, then it will be Social Darwinism with "might makes right", with the mighty getting all the benefits of globalization. The leaders back in the days of the end of the Cold War were hoping that the money saved by ending the Cold War would give money to overcome poverty and backwardness, but this has not happened. Those that broke through into the new technology, including China, Malaysia, and South Korea, did better, but much of the world is still living with great problems. If we try to solve the problems with force, with military means alone, we will not succeed. The blows dealt to terrorism's infrastructure are good and right, but after that we should also think about people's lives, education, technology, and what can we do in a global world. In a global world it is not the group interests, corporate interests, or national interests that should be primary, even though they exist, but rather universal human interests for all of mankind. The business community still thinks in terms of profit alone. But if you ignore the problems of poverty and backwardness, the result will be a situation that our children and grandchildren will be impossible to sustain. Let us think about future generations.

The US is the only true super power now, with Russia transforming into a real democracy with modern economics. Some would like Russia to become part of the world economic community, but keep it suppressed for years to come out of fear that Russia could become a dangerous military power. But if you keep it an unequal partner while it becomes a free and democratic society which will take decades, then Russia will react badly. But Russia has worked through problems in the past and we should work with them with trust and say goodbye to old philosophies and look to work together.

Will the US leadership be by domination or by partnership? His experience convinces him that the model of leadership through domination and imposition will be rejected by the world. Leadership through partnership is what people throughout the world will accept and support. Not only in fighting terrorism, but also in other areas. A secure, just, democratic world order. A state of chaos will have no one feeling good. Russia was with the US on Sept. 11. There is no military solution. It is working together, addressing the challenges of terrorism, the environmental crisis, energy, and health. There are non-state unpredictable players. We live in a different world than we used to.

Russia is changing. Polls they conducted show that the young support perestroika and all that it does and means. Putin, in talking about the start of his second term, talked of policies of modernization, helping small businesses, etc. Some complain it is moving too slowly and there were mistakes made. People still support him but we should listen to some of the complaints of problems. They should continue the policy they said they were going to do.

There is lots of opportunity because of the level of education, etc., in Russia. Students doing so well in computer contests show their students want to do well and the education system still works. [There was repeated reference by the Russian speakers to the international computer Olympics where Russian students have repeatedly done exceedingly well. This is of great pride to them.]

Talking about a united Europe. Could be a big competitor to the US, but competition is good and we need strong competition. He looks to Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan, as an economic entity. All these working together.

He spoke at an IT conference in 1996 in Virginia, and at the time didn't know the world "outsourcing" but sensed it and said people should work together, not just leave to go to the US, and it's happening. The process is underway. IT exports from Russia are $750 million, almost $1B including Ukraine, etc., with 50% annual growth, following India closely. He recalls talking about this with Indian leaders when he was in power, but then it all slowed under Yeltsin, but India continued and succeeded. Now Russia is back on track, making new technology parks for emerging companies.

We have an opportunity for cooperation. Let's not miss it. We need to understand each other and respect each other. Without trust there is no cooperation, so let us work together.
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After the speech there was a reception for Software Council trustees, invited dignitaries, sponsors, etc. People got to walk up to Gorbachev and say a few words and some pictures were taken. I was warned in advance that he doesn't like the press of crowds and doesn't like posing for pictures. I tried to take mine from a distance and took none of me with him nor when I was near him. Here are some (there's one where someone gave him a Red Sox hat to wear):


 


 

After the reception, there was an even more exclusive lunch for a few dozen of us. For some wonderful reason (thank you Joyce Plotkin!) I got seated at Gorbachev's table. Counterclockwise, it was Mr. Gorbachev, his translator, Ray Kurzweil (the inventor and writer), me, Gorbachev's daughter Irina, and Mass Software Council president Joyce Plotkin. Others at the table were George Bell (uPromise, Software Council chair), John Cullinane (Software Council co-founder, software industry pioneer), Bob Metcalfe (Ethernet, 3Com, VC, etc.), and Jeff Taylor and Andy McKelvey of Monster. I got to spend lunch listening to Gorbachev answer questions, and ask a few myself, and talk with his daughter.

Ray was most interested in discussing the problem we have in the US with the declining enrollment in engineering schools. We used to have 60,000 engineering graduates each year, but it's been dropping, which bodes poorly for us. China has about 300,000 (or something else large). Gorbachev said in Russia it's over 200,000, I think. We asked why. He said that they value engineering, and the hard work that it represents. He says that both engineering and liberal arts are needed, though there are waves of interest in each. We talked about the need for long term encouragement from the top of the country to keep up the interest. Ray talked about the measurable jump in enrollments thanks to John Kennedy's work (and I guess the reaction to Sputnik and Gagarin). Ray also talked to him about nuclear disarmament.

I asked Mr. Gorbachev which information technologies he used. He said he used a cell phone, a computer, a laptop, and the Internet. He does not use email. He uses the web a lot for getting information. He doesn't use search engines much.

He said that in Russia the Internet is pretty free (as in freedom), and with the major media outlets state controlled publishing on the Internet is the main source of real journalism and discussion. He doesn't read blogs much (and then only Russian ones). When I likened the use of the Internet there to the pamphlets of the US Revolutionary times (as Chris Daly wrote recently) he agreed strongly.

I asked him, as one who changed the world, what advice he'd give kids today who want to change the world, and he said, as I recall, to have a dialog with people, to help overcome prejudices and misunderstandings. In a toast he made before leaving he said that only monks and nuns do their thinking alone. We need to work together.

I talked with his daughter Irina for a while, too. She started out as a medical doctor (in research, I think), but when Gorbachev started his foundation she was tapped to run it. She's since taken a year of business training. Keeping up with her father is a real tough job. He may be 74, but he's quite fit and on the go. Very determined. They like to exercise. He walks, she jogs, I believe. Outdoors -- never on a machine. In the fresh air. (Yet they kept complaining about the cold in Boston today, they of the fabled Russian winters?) She said he was as friendly as he seemed, but also very determined and strong in his convictions.

Talking with her, and listening to him, you get a feel for how important interpersonal relationships really have been to the changes in the world. There may have been big forces at work, but the actual deciding to "do it now" and guidance through execution was done by real people who had trusts, worries, strengths, and weaknesses just like everyone else does in their day to day endeavors. She spoke of the personalities of Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, etc., and their drive, yet the humanity they had.

I was struck by how personable he was and warm. Looking you in the eye when he spoke with warmth and looking for understanding, not driving home something that was only his and looking through you.

Maybe there really is something to this questioning about how leaders get along when they meet. Their advisors may be driven machines, but when members of the "club" of leaders need to work together, it's still two people trying to read each other's soul with the weight of their country on their shoulders. [When you write about meeting a world player, I guess the writing runs away with you trying to see what you learn. After all, this is where ultimately the buck stops and some of us would like to know how it really works.]

Talking to Gorbachev was quite comfortable because he seems so open to it and responsive and attentive. It was a little awkward, though, because I am not used to talking with an interpreter that way. You want to look at Mr. Gorbachev straight in the eye and relate to him as he is relating to you, yet you are hearing the words in English from the person on your left, who is also a participant in the conversation (sometimes as a go between and sometimes as a direct respondent) and who has been working so close for so long with the person you are talking to. This was especially true with the technology questions, where they both probably use the web the same way and share URLs, etc. (I asked about RSS, but Mr. Palazchenko didn't know what that was but seemed more interested in learning more than in blogs.)

When it was time for Gorbachev and his people to leave for their plane to their next stop, he got up and shook Ray and my hands and gave us each a warm hug. (He also gave Joyce, who headed the arrangement for this whole thing, one, too.) What a treat! We were both blown away. We took a cab together back home (we live a few doors apart) and I sat down to write this.

That's it. That's what I remember at this point. I now have it down in writing so I can share it with others and use it to help me remember for the future.

With my work finishing on my "Developer's Introduction to Copyright and Open Source" (I hope to go to final duplication in a week or two), my mind has been deep into Open Source and its issues. The repeated theme this morning of cooperation among different groups, working together, relationships, etc., fits in well with the changes being brought about there, too. There are some big forces at work here.

- Dan Bricklin, April 12, 2005

Ray Kurzweil posted his report on Renee Blodgett's blog on April 20th.

- Dan Bricklin, April 21, 2005

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