Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why Western compliments are so confusing for others

There are public figures who are loved outside their nations more than within. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of Soviet Union, who died in Moscow last Tuesday. The world, which is usually a reference to a region that is not one’s home, paid rich tributes to him while his homeland prepared for a modest funeral that would not be attended by its current president Vladimir Putin.

When a politician is loved more by foreigners than by his own people, does it mean that he is adored only by those who do not know enough? Or that the ‘global’ affection was meant to encourage him to go down a path that would favour foreigners at great cost to his own nation? We get more clarity when we don’t dwell on the nature of the politician, but on who these foreigners are that adore him.

It never so happens that a Russian or a Turk or a Syrian is first loved in Bolivia or India or South Africa. Or that Thailand gives a prize to an exceptional Brazilian. ‘International’ adoration emanates only from the West. When a person is loved more outside his nation, it means only one thing—that the West likes him.

The West is not only a bloc of nations in North America and Western Europe, but also a highly successful theology, with a sophisticated system of transmission. It has a monopoly over the idea of goodness, and also the capacity to transmit it across the world. And every now and then, the West extols a politician, activist or artist who has done something agreeable. What is extraordinary about most such tributes in the modern world is that the subject of Western adulation is almost always reviled by his or her own countrymen or not taken so seriously by them.

When Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the leader of the Soviet Union in 1988, he amplified the truth that the old communist experiment was a disaster and that the Russian economy was in poor health. He said that Russia had no choice but to reform—economically, by freeing public enterprise from government control, and also by freeing the voice of the people. He yearned for a truce with the West. But his economic policies, which seemed theoretically sound, created chaos in practice. At the same time, his attempt to create freedom of expression seemed to have succeeded and it brought about a great openness that exploded into rebellions. Several regions wanted to sever links from the failed state. Thus, an unintended consequence of his policies was the end of the Soviet Union. In 1990, he was awarded the West’s favourite backslap for good boys—the Nobel Peace Prize. A few months later, he was forced to resign as Soviet president.

I spoke to Ira Snissar, an ethnic Russian from Kazakhstan, a republic that gained independence from Russia in 1991. Snissar, who works in India’s non-profit sector, was born around the time when Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and her childhood was spent in years of turmoil—acute scarcities of what were until then basics, “the years of corruption and chaos and shootings on the road, and a time when nuclear scientists began to drive taxis".

Before Gorbachev tried to make the world a better place, Snissar’s father was an engineer with a secure government job. In the years of uncertainty that Gorbachev unwittingly unleashed, he lost his job and had to figure out entrepreneurship. “He disliked Gorbachev," Snissar says, “My father was not a communist ideologue by far, but he was proud of Russia and he blamed Gorbachev for ruining Russia. To us, the younger generation, we hardly spoke of Gorbachev. He was not such an important figure."

So often, if we speak to the locals of a nation, we see that they see their historical figures very differently from how the West portrays them.

At first glance, it may appear that Mohandas Gandhi was an exception. His stardom in Britain was not contradicted in India. Yes, there were Indians who disliked him; he was even assassinated by one whose ideology has gone mainstream, but it would be hard to argue that Gandhi was reviled in India. He was loved in his time, and is loved as much today out of national habit. But the global consensus on Gandhi is a feature of his time. His stardom in Britain contributed to his rise in India, to his initial stature. A bit like how, years later, the Caucasian ethnicity of Mother Teresa was crucial to her legend. The fame of Gandhi is more a reflection of the power of Western transmission in a simpler time when information was controlled by a small elite. In a more democratic world, a Gandhi cannot happen—that is, a public figure who is adored by both the West and by his or her own people.

The principle works with hate too. There are politicians who are hated more outside their nations than within. In fact, some of these leaders are wildly popular in their home countries. They are also known as “strongmen". And the foreigners who hate them are, at first, the West, who then transmit that hate across the world.

Before he attacked Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin was a man who was hated more outside his nation than within. Now, it is unclear whether he has retained his popularity in Russia. The Burmese aristocrat, Aung San Suu kyi, was at first loved more in the Westernized world than in her own nation. Today, she is despised more in the West than in her own nation.

A global emotion, it appears, is always moral, with low stakes; a local emotion is always grey with high stakes.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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