It’s almost odd now that in the years leading up to February 2022 a lot of people became convinced that modernity was a post-heroic age. Heroes — and less often heroines — belonged to Greek or Norse mythology, or to warrior societies long gone, it was said. But then Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine, a much smaller country, for its stubborn insistence on being free.
Less than a month on, heroes and heroines are everywhere. Most obviously, there’s Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former actor who improbably became head of state — and initially a mediocre one at that. Since Putin’s invasion he’s grown in stature beyond all expectations.
“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he replied to American offers to bring him and his family out of the country and to safety. In army fatigues and with bags under his eyes, he’s since been inspiring his people to fight, and lobbying the world to assist.
But most heroes are less visible. They include the ordinary husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, and wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who were dentists, accountants or teachers a month ago, but are now donning flak jackets and learning how to point guns or throw Molotov cocktails at the tanks of an invading superpower.
Just as heroic are the women and men trying to get into, rather than out of, places like the besieged and battered city of Mariupol, in order to be — and maybe die — with their loved ones in the rain of Russians rockets.
Then there are the mothers, aunts, grandmothers or friends who daily and nightly overcome their exhaustion and despair to bring the children to safety in western Europe, or whatever other alien land they can escape to. Not least, and not infrequently, there are the children themselves. Many see the strain on the adult faces and become brave to ease the grown-ups’ pain.
But heroism isn’t the prerogative of any one nation, even one that’s fighting for its very existence. One of the bravest people in the world this week was Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer at Russia’s main TV network and propaganda outlet.
In her forties and the mother of a girl, 11, and a boy, 17, Ovsyannikova is as vulnerable to Putin’s Reign of Terror as any Russian. And yet she risked up to 15 years in prison — and who knows what else? — when she held a home-made sign behind a news anchor on live television, telling Russians about the war and the lies about it they were watching.
There are countless other Russian heroes like Ovsyannikova whose names we may never know — some just daring to know the truth, others resisting however they can. They are the ones Putin had in mind when he urged Russians to spit out “scum and traitors … like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.”
We bow to them. Those of us in the rest of the world who are still sitting in the relative safety and tedium of what we thought modern life was supposed to look like recognize their heroism. And we are in awe.
Long gone is the time when Thomas Carlyle, a preeminent British intellectual of the 19th century, defined heroism as being about “Great Men,” whether demi-gods, prophets, poets, priests, men of letters or kings. By the the middle of the 20th century, thinkers like Joseph Campbell already realized that heroes had to be neither Great nor Men, but could have “a Thousand Faces.” What makes them heroic isn’t identity but story.
Typically, according to Campbell, they begin as ordinary people in an ordinary world. But then they receive “a call” — a Russian invasion, say — that makes them depart from that prosaic normality. They cross a threshold into an abnormal world — war, flight, resistance — where normal rules no longer apply. From this point on, they follow a “road of trials,” leading up to an “ordeal.”
Should they pass these tests, physical or psychological, they will earn some sort of “boon” — freedom for Ukraine, maybe, or the safety of a child in a foreign land. Becoming a hero means bringing this boon back to the ordinary world, to be ordinary once more, but forever changed.
Doesn’t Campbell’s description fit the lives of the people mentioned above? Zelenskiy started out ordinary, and is now being compared to Winston Churchill during Britain’s Darkest Hour — I think of him more as a Spartan Leonidas holding out against Xerxes, in the form of Putin.
Ovsyannikova reminds me of the White Rose. It was a group of students and one professor, centered around the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, who told the truth about Nazi atrocities during the Third Reich, notably by dropping leaflets down an atrium at the University of Munich. Within a year, in 1943, they were beheaded.
Yes, heroism is about courage, and therefore danger. But even evil people can face risks. Heroism also requires integrity, as in today’s battles between truth and lies, in any country, even our own. It means sacrifice for something larger than us — loved ones, a country or an ideal.
Being heroic and strong “doesn’t mean big,” Zelenskiy said this week as he addressed America’s Congress. It means “brave and ready to fight for the life of [...] citizens and citizens of the world. For human rights, for freedom, for the right to live decently, and to die when your time comes, and not when it’s wanted by someone else.”
Some of us foolishly began thinking this attitude was old-fashioned. Putin’s war has reminded us that it’s instead timeless, and therefore modern and imminent. Some day — maybe soon — the call may come for us too, the as-yet-ordinary. Let’s hope we rise to it.