• 04.30.96

Speaking with the Enemy

The fallout of techno-glasnost.

In 1989, techno-glasnost brought John Gage and Sun cofounder Bill Joy to Russia for meetings with that country’s computer elite. Gage describes the fallout as a funny — and instructive — example of the cost of closed minds and closed systems.


“There was a big Unix event that brought together the smartest people in the Russian computer underground. All of a sudden Boris Babaian, the guy who built all of Russia’s supercomputers, holds up a glass of wine and describes, in 90 seconds, the architecture of Elbrus III, Russia’s newest, not-yet-built supercomputer. It was amazingly close to the architecture Bill Joy had been thinking about for the next generation of Sun machines. My first thought was: This guy can get shot for saying this. Remember, it was 1989. My second thought was: He really has to come to Sun so we can talk about his ideas.

“About six months later, Boris and three of his people show up at Sun. It happened to be the day that a top guy from the National Security Agency was visiting as well. Now this is an agency that’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars spying on people like Boris Babaian. So we’re sitting in the cafeteria, and I look up, and who’s walking over to the table, carrying his little cafeteria tray, heading directly for me, with a big smile on his face — but Babaian! So I say to the NSA guy, ‘Tom, you’ve got to meet Boris.’ And Tom says, ‘I can’t.’ I’m stunned. ‘But you’ve spent lots of taxpayer money spying on Babaian, and here he is!’ Tom says, ‘But if I talk to him, I’ll have to meet with our internal security people. It will be a long debrief, and I can’t afford it. I’ve got big meetings coming up. I don’t have the time to meet him.’

“It was amazing. But Tom was caught up in an environment where speaking with the enemy is bad.”