Where are the real liberals?

So-called liberal opposition protestors in Moscow. Source: Source: Yulia Ponomareva

So-called liberal opposition protestors in Moscow. Source: Source: Yulia Ponomareva

One glaring similarity between Russia and India these days is the fact that the word “liberal” is being misused, usurped and demonised.

At a well-know Georgian restaurant in Moscow’s city centre, a long-awaited reunion starts off happily. There’s the usual talk of funny and light moments from yesteryear and the normal pleasantries and observations that come from meeting people after a long time. The tension starts surfacing when everyone’s favourite topic pops up – Ukraine. An hour later, I end up fire-fighting in vain to keep two of my friends from destroying their relationship.

While most Russians support the government’s stand on the crisis in the neighbouring country, those who don’t agree with Vladimir Putin tend to take a really extreme position, with many of these people proudly claiming to be liberals. Broadly, one can call a liberal as someone who supports civil rights, free elections and certain freedoms, such as freedom of the press, religion and most importantly freedom of speech and the right of each person to their opinion. A respected Russian colleague of mine, who tends to be a bit reserved, possesses these qualities and has the right to call himself a liberal in the true sense of the word. But what I have noticed, both here in Russia and back home in India, is that a large number of self-proclaimed liberals do not respect the right of someone else to have an opinion that is different to theirs.

Those who hate Narendra Modi, who is the front-runner to become India’s next prime minister, refuse to see any good in the man. Their main grouse is the 2002 riots in Gujarat but then they go overboard to minimize any of his achievements. Where’s the balance one may ask? Personally, I would be happy to see the Congress-led government go out of power when the Indian election results come in, but then it’s hard for me to classify them as some sort of absolute evil. In India, though, many claimants to the title of liberal tend to be India-hating, self-loathing Anglophiles who still see the country through a colonial lens. These people are the most unbalanced and aggressive people when it comes to defending their views.

A large part of the liberal crowd in Moscow has a similar mindset when it comes to Russia. One of their biggest fears is that it may become very difficult for Russians to get a Schengen or UK visa. These people have never seen Lake Baikal or Kamchatka or even Sochi, and tend to look down on these places while fantasising about the Alps and European cities. A number of India’s own pro-West liberals have the same kind of concerns when they take a stand. So, the easy way out is to trash the country overseas in publications and documentaries in order get accolades from and free trips to the West. So, a blatantly biased piece of work gets legitimacy since it has Western approval.  I find it amusing that many Indians and Russians are more concerned about their standing in and their potential travel to the West than the impact of Western government policies on the security of their own countries. Such people would, in my humble opinion, be better off migrating to the West, but then, they would no longer be useful fools for those who need them to advance their own agenda.

When I showed my liberal pro-West Russian friends this link to a Wall Street Journal article about Joe Biden's son and a family friend of John Kerry joining a Ukrainian gas producer's board of directors, they didn’t utter a word. Surely, some influential elements in the US government are concerned about more than democracy in Ukraine, as this article proves. I don’t support the foreign policy of the US government, which in the last 6 decades has behaved like the successor to the British Empire. The latter had one East India Company, but the former has a large number of multinationals who are intent on a colonisation of a completely different kind. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t so much to like about the US. It is no doubt a great and diverse country with a lot to be proud of. I also admire European standards of living, but that doesn’t mean I can support the divisive policies of European governments overseas. No one is blameless in geo-politics, but oddly enough, I see conservatives in both India and Russia having a far more balanced and realistic set of views.

Real liberals are those who tend to support and fight for the right of everyone to have an opinion. There’s a very famous quote that has been wrongly attributed to Voltaire, but actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” India and Russia are in dire need of real liberals, something both countries seem to seriously lack at the moment. 

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