The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Today's Mercury News reports on Google's Code Jam, a coding contest held at my workplace yesterday with a $10,000 prize. We had a company meeting in the afternoon, and the winners were paraded on the stage and the winners introduced. (As the Merc noted, all contestants were male. A co-worker and I had an argument about this: "I looked at the names and none of them seemed female." "There's a woman there." "No, that's a guy with long hair. I'm afraid we won't be able to let you out unsupervised.")

But the Code Jam contestants were overshadowed by another guest: Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev spoke to promote his Green Cross environmental foundation, and was the third in a series of political celebrities to appear at Google recently, the first two being Jimmy Carter and Al Gore.

Like Carter, Gorbachev had aged but was in good shape. (Carter is 80, Gorbachev 73). His fringe of hair had turned white; otherwise he looked more or less the same as in his heyday. His daughter Irina was present though Raisa was nowhere to be seen.

The talk was a disappointment. I had heard that Gorbachev spoke in Russian and at great length, and indeed he spoke through a translator and his answers were quite long. (I regret to say that I remember practically nothing of my college Russian; all I could recognize were a few simple phrases like "Sovietsky Soyuz" and "potomu shto.") Gorbachev's long-windedness was to no purpose and his speech consisted of a few personal anecdotes and some platitudes.

An example: Gorbachev was asked about his views on Russia, China, and America. Now China and Russia have both liberalized since Gorbachev's time in power, using different strategies and with strikingly divergent results. Also, Gorbachev's focus these days is on environmental issues. (At one point he said that when starting Green Cross, "We had a choice between actually cleaning up the worst environmental problems, or educating people on environmental issues." At which point I muttered, "It is easier to give speeches than to put on a radiation suit and clean up Chernobyl.") China's economic growth is an important issue for environmentalists, as China will be consuming more resources and generating more pollution.

Gorbachev addressed none of these interesting aspects. Instead he gave a bland stock answer about how he discussed trilateral relations with then-Vice President George Bush in 1988. Gorbachev said that it would be wrong for one country to play another off the third. A nice disinterested sentiment from the odd man out of the triangle, and anyway completely irrelevant to the world in 2004; America and China are superpowers, while the Russian economy is the same size as Denmark's.

Back when I was a teenager the USSR had an aged, ineffectual leader every year. Then in 1985 Gorbachev achieved power. He was young compared to the Politburo, or to Ronald Reagan, he had a pretty and fashionable wife, he instituted reforms. This Gorbachev was considered the intellectual and moral superior of Reagan, but that judgement was based on appearances. The Soviet Union was failing and needed reform; the Politburo turned to Gorbachev as the most prominent reformer, not the most prominent intellect. When Gorbachev instituted his reforms the result was that Soviet citizens were no longer motivated by fear, and the economy and political institutions collapsed. Gorbachev seemed as surprised as anyone else by this development. It was Reagan, not Gorbachev, who was the far-sighted revolutionary.



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