The Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture | UCLA | March 6, 2023


The below is a transcript of my speech:

Thank you, Professor Raustiala, for the generous introduction. I also want to thank the Burkle Center for International Relations, Hillel at UCLA, the Daniel Pearl Foundation, and especially Daniel’s family for the chance to celebrate Daniel’s life.

Daniel Pearl was an American hero, and his story is a fundamentally American one. As a journalist, he traveled around the world in search of truth, no matter the risk. This act – searching for truth in spite of grave personal danger – is a critical component of defending the American values of freedom and democracy in the face of a coordinated authoritarian assault. It represents the best of us, and in a world beset by disinformation from all corners, truth is our first line of defense. Truth unifies; it is a common language that we can all understand. That is why it’s often the first thing that dictators or wannabe authoritarians attack. And without people like Daniel Pearl, who are willing to take the hard path and fight for it, they might very well succeed. Because as those of us from unfree regimes know all too well, there are a million ways to lie, but only one way to tell the truth. And in the words of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Pearl gave “the last full measure of devotion” to fight for that truth.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, I aspired to the ideals of freedom, democracy, and truth that Daniel Pearl embodied. Along with millions of others behind the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, I aspired to the America that he represented. When the Soviet Empire rolled tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to crush a popular revolt against the communist dictatorship, freedom-loving citizens in these countries looked to the West for support. Even as the Soviet Union spread ideologically-motivated lies, due to my privileged status as a chess prodigy, I had the rare honor of access to sources of information from the Free World, unencumbered by Kremlin propaganda. 

The Soviet Empire oppressed its citizens and minorities. I helped evacuate Armenian families during the 1990 Baku pogrom––and I watched as 11,000 Soviet soldiers stood by while xenophobic mobs attacked my friends and neighbors. After the pogrom, I met Mikhail Gorbachev in his Communist party office in Moscow for the first and only time. I told the Soviet leader about the tragedy that I witnessed in Baku, but instead of reacting, instead of thinking about how he could help, all Gorbachev wanted to do was talk about Communist party politics. Meanwhile, Daniel Pearl, a proud Jewish-American, and the countless dissidents from around the world who call America home show everyone that it is possible to celebrate and champion people of all ethnicities and faiths while staying true to yourself and your own culture.

It’s hard to exaggerate how important these examples are to those of us born and raised in the unfree world. Seeing the values of freedom, democracy, and diversity of opinion in action gave hope to people like me behind the Iron Curtain. Today, they are the same values brave Ukrainians are fighting and dying for.

But today’s culture warriors have forgotten the values that make this country a shining city on a hill. Ideologues like Noam Chomsky and John Mearsheimer, and demagogues like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump think America should retreat from the world stage and abandon the historic moral leadership that won the Cold War. They accept a bleak and morally blind version of realpolitik.

Of course, they have different motivations for their sermons , but the tragic thing is that they end up in the same place. Some are motivated by a rigid ideological worldview where only the US can be imperialistic and only the West can be guilty, even if that means carrying water for the likes of Putin. Others will say anything for ratings, views, and power. But at the Renew Democracy Initiative, we stand against both forms of extremism: the ideologues who think America is fundamentally and irredeemably oppressive, and the demagogues who cynically accumulate power at the expense of American values.

In their haste to retreat, the forces of appeasement would return us to a world where might makes right. Where you can trade away Ukrainian lives like pieces on a chessboard. They would have us return to the Scramble for Africa, Kremlin imperialism, and a world where great powers can make the so-called “hard choices” to carve up the world in “negotiations” and “diplomacy” with occupiers. We should all strive to be more like Daniel Pearl and the truth-seekers he represents and less like the Chomsky’s and Trump’s of the world.

Today, one year into Putin’s latest war, people are finally beginning to recognize that this is not only a war of conquest, but a war between tyranny and democracy. I should also note that this war didn’t actually begin on February 24th last year. In fact, Ukrainians have been fighting and dying for their freedom for almost a decade now, since Putin first invaded in 2014. But that too is not the true starting point of our current crisis. We can trace that back to 1991. As the Free World was celebrating the end of the Cold War without offering a new vision for the advancement of liberal democracy, the forces of authoritarianism were regrouping. Over the last 30 years, they have attacked democracies––spreading misinformation, tampering with elections, invading democratic neighbors, and attempting to assassinate dissidents. Meanwhile, too many democracies turned a blind eye. Whether driven by naivete, greed, or a belief that history had finally ended, we allowed the cancer of dictatorship to spread almost unchallenged. Authoritarians interpreted western happiness as weakness; and its prosperity as complacency. We made little effort to extol the values of liberalism in a coherent way. It’s no surprise that according to Freedom House, democracy around the world declined for 16 straight years. And when democracy retreats, dictators see an invitation to advance.

America’s stampede from Afghanistan was the moment Putin decided to launch his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In our haste to run away, America threw millions of Afghani women who had experienced freedom for the first time under the bus. We abandoned interpreters, independent-minded judges, and all those who shared our values and stuck their necks out for us. And at that moment, Putin sensed weakness.

Appeasement will not work in this crisis. Dictators like Putin don’t stop unless we stop them. And we can stop them, if we just decide to. The forces of democracy are always stronger than the forces of dictatorship. Ukraine’s determination on the battlefield represents something that dictators can never understand: the will of a free people to defend their freedom. The example that Ukraine offers us is one that can inspire people the world over–even in my home country, Russia. Ukraine today represents the frontlines of freedom. When Ukraine wins, democracy wins.

So how can we fight to create the world that Daniel Pearl died for? What can we do to support democracy today? First, find and support those doing good right now. Find non-profits, volunteer groups, and other humanitarian aid organizations helping in Ukraine right now. And secondly, on an individual level, spread the message about the stakes of this war. Remember and remind those around you that Ukrainians aren’t just fighting for their own families, but for millions of families around the world who also wish to live in freedom.

On a personal level, I am proud that the Renew Democracy Initiative has committed $8 million in charitable aid to Ukrainians as they defend the Free World. RDI’s Gift of Warmth Campaign has provided over 100,000 meals and 15,000 sleeping bags. And every day, our five water filtration systems allow up to 150,000 Ukrainians to stay in their homes rather than become displaced due to lack of drinkable water. In addition to material aid, we are fighting back against Putin’s disinformation campaigns. But there is a lot more work to be done not only globally, but also domestically. And we hope you’ll join our fight against tyranny around the world and rising authoritarianism at home; against those who would see our elections compromised or freedom of speech suppressed.

Material aid is vital, but we must also rally our fellow Americans around supporting the freedom, democracy, and truth that Ukraine is fighting for, the values that Daniel Pearl embodied and lived for until the very end.

Believe me, the culture war doesn’t matter if you’re trapped in an authoritarian regime. And make no mistake: it could happen here. Democratic decline is like falling asleep in the snow. It happens slowly, slowly; and then all of a sudden. The threats are not just Putin’s aggression and clandestine activities, but extremist ideologies right here at home.

This is the message that RDI’s 120 Freedom Fellows, dissidents from authoritarian regimes all around the world, have been carrying across the country. From the front pages of CNN to college campuses like Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and now UCLA – our message is clear: there is more that unites us than divides us. Keeping our democracy intact is more important than any partisan fight. Dissidents like our Freedom Fellows remind us of the values that make America great, and why moral leadership is necessary to keep us great.

Daniel Pearl was an American hero, not because of the color of his skin, or his gender, his ethnicity, his faith, or his political party. He is an American hero because he believed in the values of freedom, democracy, and truth, and he was willing to risk his life for them. What can we do today to honor his memory? To paraphrase another U.S. president, ask not whether these values still matter today, but ask whether we are still worthy of them.”


This article is a reprint. You can read the original at The Daily Bruin.

By Anna Johnson

“Russian chess grandmaster and political activist Garry Kasparov delivered this year’s annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture on Monday evening.

The lecture series – sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for Internal Relations, the Daniel Pearl Foundation and Hillel at UCLA – celebrates the memory of Pearl, a journalist who was abducted and killed by terrorists in 2002 while reporting in Pakistan. It features journalism and international relations leaders’ insight on pertinent international problems, according to the Burkle Center website.

In addition to being a leader of the Russian pro-democracy movement, Kasparov is a former chess world champion who held the title of youngest-ever champion at the age of 22 from 1985 to 2000.

The event was hosted at the UCLA Anderson School of Management Korn Convocation Hall. It began at 4:30 p.m. with an address from Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s father, to introduce Kasparov, who he said is unafraid to make his voice heard despite adversity.

“What Kasparov’s life symbolizes is the idea that talent, prominence, fame and success in any field comes with responsibility to pay back one’s debt to society by making our voice heard despite the risks involved,” Judea Pearl said at the event.

Kasparov opened his address by discussing the importance of advocacy for freedom and democracy. He then voiced how Americans may take both for granted, pointing to his early experiences under the Soviet communist regime.

“People here, when they doubt democracy, I don’t think they understand what is at stake,” Kasparov said at the event. “You are born and raised in a country that’s free.”

He said America is not immune to a rise of authoritarianism and tyranny, adding that prominent American figures such as former president Donald Trump and Fox News host Tucker Carlson have become demagoguelike.

“Democracy decline is like falling asleep in the snow. It happens slowly, slowly, and then all of a sudden,” Kasparov said in the lecture.

He also denounced attacks on democracy such as in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and urged the audience to support nonprofits, volunteer groups and humanitarian aid organizations that support Ukraine.

Matthew Orihuela, a third-year economics and political science student and Burkle Center intern, said he was intrigued by the parallels Kasparov drew between democratic regression overseas and in the United States.

“I thought it was really interesting to hear how backsliding into authoritarianism can be applied to the U.S.,” Orihuela said. “We’re not just seeing it from an outsider perspective looking across oceans. It can be seen in our own backyard if we’re not careful.”

Mischa Gureghian Hall, a second-year global studies student and Burkle Center intern, said opportunities to hear from international leaders are important for UCLA students, especially regarding current international crises such as the war in Ukraine.

Hall said students can benefit by acquiring broader perspectives that allow them to better connect to their community, particularly at a university with such a diverse international presence as UCLA’s.

“It’s an incredibly, incredibly valuable experience for UCLA students to get to hear from the mouth of one of the leading dissidents in Russia – from one of the leading opposition leaders who has been on the ground in this fight,” Hall said.

Kavin Balakrishnan, a second-year computer engineering student and lecture attendee, said although at first he had expected to hear about chess at the discussion, he was interested to learn about the global political and socioeconomic climate instead.

Rukraj Agrawal, a second-year computer science student and lecture attendee, said he was particularly interested in the power that came from a Russian citizen speaking out against his own government. He added that Kasparov’s perspectives reminded him of the importance of holding his own government accountable.

“I really liked when he said, ‘When you have success and fame, you need to use that to use your voice to influence the world,’” Agrawal said.”


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