The Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion has had repercussions far beyond that country’s borders, prompting urgent reconsideration of everything from energy policy to authoritarianism to European history. For me, it’s also been a crash course in the heroic, as we watch Ukrainians risk and sometimes lose their lives to defend their country, their homes, their principles, their rights and their future. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was much admired for refusing to leave Kyiv as the Russian army marched toward it, but ordinary people have also demonstrated courage, defiance and commitment.
Often they did so with wit and panache, as with the Ukrainian sailor’s famous “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” reply to a demand to surrender. People studied first aid, made Molotov cocktails, joined the resistance, helped neighbors and strangers. While millions have fled the country, the great majority of Ukrainians remain, some of them sheltered by strangers in safer parts of the country, some taking refuge in basements and, in Kyiv, subways and bomb shelters. Maryna Hanitska, the new director of the Borodyanka Psychoneurological Nursing Home, stayed with the facility’s residents for the weeks during which Russian soldiers pointed guns in her face, the buildings lost heat, water and power, and some died of the cold and used her hidden mobile phone to send information to the Ukrainian military.
The journalist Nadezhda Sukhorukova, who survived in a basement as Mariupol was smashed to shards, wrote, “someone was bringing water to the corner of one of the streets every day from the city water canal. An ordinary city resident carried it in a huge barrel on his own initiative. He comes every day, and then stands under shelling and fills people’s bottles with free drinking water. I don’t know the name of this man and I hope he gets out of this hell alive.”
It’s not just Ukrainians. Russians risked prison and police brutality to protest the war. In Belarus, people sabotaged the railroad lines being used to ship Russian war equipment to Ukraine. In Poland, people set up aid stations on the other side of the border, took refugees into their homes, set up community kitchens, gathered toys (even while Middle Eastern refugees suffered in the cold and died on other Polish borders). Citizens of other nations went to Ukraine to join the defending army in a mobilization often compared to that of the international brigades in the Spanish civil war.
I have seen heroism many times before – in the pipeline resistance at Standing Rock, by the Zapatistas in Mexico, in the Arab Spring and the Syrian and Kurdish resistance. I’ve seen it not only in those taking physical risks but in those dedicated to the greater good and living their ideals. Still, even the word heroic seems odd or anachronistic now. The word is mostly retired now, or only pulled out for the gaming and blockbuster films and boys’ toys featuring action figures possessed of exceptional physical capacity, usually used to endure and inflict violence. And of course that is a physical rather than moral capacity that can be used just as readily to commit rape and genocide as to defend human rights.
Too, there is more to heroism than physical courage. It is first of all a commitment to something beyond the self in times of peace as well as war. It can be the steadfast dedication to a goal or principle, the choice of the more difficult but idealistic path, the commitment to others. It can be a disruptive force, since it’s a characteristic of human beings who prize meaning, purpose, solidarity, and principle more than the things money can buy and corporations can sell. Selfishness and self-absorption make us good consumers and obedient citizens, or rather people not much bothering with citizenship as participation in public life and the collective good. Much entertainment and marketing can be conceived as a sort of feedback loop encouraging a shriveled, bereft version of human nature.
In that version, the goal is always personal, as well-being, as product-enhanced conventional beauty or handsomeness bringing attention to some, as the acquisition of a lot of stuff, as security, ease, status, comfort and pleasure. Often there’s no clear line between entertainment and marketing, as celebrities become products or spokespeople for products. If there’s a banality of evil, there’s an evil in banality as this drastically reduced version of who we are and what we can aspire to and should desire.
These versions don’t militate against the more expansive versions of who we can be and what we can love; they just ignore them. This week, a new climate project offered ideas and guidance to screenwriters to rectify the stunning absence of climate in most film and television now, noting “A climate story simply speaks to what it feels like to be alive right now. Yet, watching the vast majority of scripted TV shows and films today, you’d have no idea that Earth is in crisis – and us with it. And so the world depicted in the stories we watch and love is no longer an honest portrayal of the world we live in.” Surveys show that most people do care about climate, but the mainstream gives us versions of human nature in which ordinary people have little or no political power and the people around us are indifferent or oblivious, feeding inaction and despair.
The heroic as I’d like it defined is at odds with this kind of rampant individualism just as citizens are the antithesis of consumers. If the consumer is focused on acquisition and the self, the citizen is focused on participation and the wider realms of the community or the nation or the world.
Ukraine matters for its own sake, of course, and there is a very direct war between imperialism and authoritarianism and self-determination being fought. But Ukrainians, even as they receive aid from around the world, are giving us all something, a crash course in human capacity and in other versions of human nature than we are usually offered. We in the US face our own neofascists and would-be authoritarians, as we around the world face a climate crisis brought on by fossil-fuel interests’ selfishness and shortsightedness. Reminding us of who human beings can be, what it looks like to stand on principle, why it’s worth fighting whether or not you believe you can win, is a gift Ukrainians have given us. They remind us who we can be, and in facing the other crises of our time, who we need to be.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism