David Gleason: How Learning Russian Led to My Amazing Career in High Tech

October 02, 2018

Beyond the Forest: David Gleason

Introducing Beyond the Forest: David Gleason's Humanities Alumni Profiles.

Growing up in Silicon Valley when it was known mostly for its apricots, David has always been fascinated by the dynamic interactions between technology, business and society. An alumnus of the inaugural class at Merrill College, he still cherishes the time spent there and the educational foundation it provided that has guided him throughout his career.


This article kicks off the series Beyond the Forest, by Russian Literature alumnus David Gleason. The rest of his article, How Learning Russian Led to My Amazing Career in High Tech, is available on his Medium page. 


When I was a junior at Homestead High School, in Sunnyvale, CA, I enrolled in a Russian language course. My family is not Russian, and I don’t believe I had ever met a Russian, other than the high school teacher, Mr. Alexis Ephraimoff, who was very popular with students for his wonderful stories and jokes. He taught both Russian and Chinese, and I considered both, but decided on Russian due primarily to two events that had occurred about two years earlier.

The first event, a world-class track and field competition, had taken place at nearby Stanford University stadium, over two days (June 30 — July 1, 1962): a dual meet between the men’s and women’s teams of the Soviet Union and the United States. The event made headlines in the local papers for a week prior, and was nationally televised.

This was during the Cold War, when Americans widely viewed Russians with suspicion, fear and hostility. The dual track meet was a drama that, at least to me, felt like a symbolic clash between good and evil: the Soviet athletes all wore blood red uniforms, with the fearsome hammer and sickle on their chests; while the American athletes were dressed in pure white uniforms, with a crest of the Red, White and Blue flag.



A banner from the US-USSR track meet, Stanford, 1962

Before a cheering crowd of 90,000 fans, both teams competed fiercely. After the events ended, each team retreated to a corner of the field and sat with their colleagues; the Soviets wore blue sweatsuits, while the Americans wore white sweatsuits. Suddenly, a few Soviet athletes jumped up and ran across the field to their American counterparts, pulled them up by their arms, joined hands with them and they all jogged a victory lap together, laughing and smiling in good will. The audience, at first stunned and confused, soon erupted in a roar of delight. Adults in the stands stood and cheered; some even wept. It was a visceral display of how the power and emotion of sport can transcend even the nastiest politics.

And because it was the Soviet athletes who initiated the gesture, it showed, at least to me, a humanity of which I had been unaware. American media of the day portrayed Russians as grim, hostile, suspicious and beyond trust. What I saw on that track was humor, joy, emotion, friendship — humanistic qualities we all share. It was shocking, and it intrigued me and left me wondering what it meant. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I realized there was something very wrong with the narrative I was hearing on the nightly news.


athletics-gleason.jpeg World record holder Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, USSR, Men’s Long Jump, before a packed Stanford Stadium.

That event alone might have been enough to encourage me to study Russian, but in October — just three months later — a very different, sinister event unfolded. Soviet transport ships secretly carrying nuclear weapons to Cuba were blockaded by the U.S. Navy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted. President John F. Kennedy gave an ultimatum to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles and stop the shipments, and we were suddenly on the brink of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Soviets withdrew their missiles and the crisis was averted, but the anxiety and shock lingered. What really happened, and how, has been revisited and debated every since.

I believe it was this jarring, confusing coincidence of events — the wonderful, joyful track meet followed so quickly by the sudden threat of war over Cuba — that motivated me to learn about these strange, distant and unknown people in Russia and the other fourteen Soviet republics where the primary language was Russian.

I enrolled in that high school Russian language class two years later. At first it was just curiosity, but over time, Russian became a major force in my life. As I continued to study and learn the language, and then the literature, I became increasingly intrigued by this society of which I knew almost nothing, other than the cold war headlines in the newspapers and on TV, which by then I knew were limited and misleading.

The study of Russian opened a door to a fascinating culture and history, but even more, it broadened my view of life and how to find my place in the world. It provided me with a special skill that led me to careers, opportunities, and remarkable adventures around the world I might never have had otherwise.


I took two more years of Russian in junior college, then continued at the University of California, Santa Cruz, declaring Russian Literature as my major. I got my degree and then did some graduate work in Russian and Slavic Linguistics at UC Davis. But I worried about how to make a living with a degree in Russian; we used to joke, “a degree in a foreign language and a dollar can get you a cup of coffee.”


I remember one brief incident at UC Santa Cruz that has stayed with me my entire life. I was speaking with my Russian literature professor, the novelist, poet, biographer, and translator Richard Lourie, about how difficult it seemed to major in Russian and then find a career. Lourie gave me a wonderful piece of advice: he said, “It doesn't matter what you major in. What matters is that you go deep, dive in and really learn. Learn how to learn, to be curious, and how to find answers. Regardless of your major, learn that skill; it’s the thing that will matter most in your life.”


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