On Thursday morning, I ate a quick breakfast, finished sipping the last grains of coffee and turned on Zoom to meet with my friend, Chuck Sooter, who I first met doing voluntary mediation for Small Claims Court cases in Fullerton, CA. We have been meeting every other week, for several months, discussing whatever issues might interest us. Despite our advancing age, we share one thing in common: We have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Chuck’s latest interest had to do with polysemes or how different words can take on an assortment of meanings. But before we both began to give examples of polysemes, I had a pressing urge to bring up a topic of a different nature: Aleksei Navalny’s voluntary return to Russia. Here was a man who had come close to losing his life by poison, an act that surely possessed a Russian imprint, returning to confront his would-be killers directly, rather than choosing the much safer path of exile. Amazed at the personal sacrifice and risk by returning Navalny was making, I asked Chuck: “How could one be so brave?” To which he replied by mentioning Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela as two such people. Of course, there are others but in proportion to the world population, those that behave heroically during their lives are few and far between.
Because I knew Chuck had served as a U.S. Marine during the Viet Nam War, I did not doubt his courage, so I asked whether he would be able to match Navalny’s bravery. He said “no”, and oddly enough, I felt vindicated because I knew deep in my heart that returning to the bed of Hell that awaited Navalny most probably would not be the action I would pursue.
Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar-Sadat and Yizhak Rabin all held one thing in common from the rest of us earthlings. The cause they sought to achieve had a greater meaning than their own individual lives. In Sadat and Rabin’s case, each of them strove to make peace with the enemy of their people to reduce the bloodshed lost to war embraced by each country’s hatred toward the other. The others died in their efforts to achieve a sense of parity for the different groups within the boundaries of their nation.
Of the above leaders, Nelson Mandela was the only one that was not assassinated. But, nevertheless, because he spent 27 years incarcerated, he paid a huge price for his beliefs. After an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, no doubt Navalny knew the risk he took in returning to Russia to face the consequences. But he understood that his visibility was a much larger threat to Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial reign than his staying out of Russia and writing about the unfairness and inequities existing in Russia. Aleksei’s return was a direct hit on the governing regime insofar as he was able to let his people view a videotape showcasing the exorbitant life style evidenced by Putin’s palace. While being sentenced in court, he expressed his feelings directly to Putin’s evil and corrupt rule when he said: “Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants—that’s how he will go down in history.”
Great leaders and heroes share one important quality in common: Their foremost concern is not themselves, but rather the overall good of their people. This characteristic is quite the opposite of many politicians whose primary concern often is their own individual advancement. By virtue of the fact that they are heroic, these feats occur rarely. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if our elected leaders strove to set goals that are better for the vast majority rather than a particular group with whom they identify? The dearth of leadership in the West has allowed the leaders of China and Russia to gain in their influence and power. Although Aleksei Navalny’s actions have gone a long way, he cannot do it alone. Let us hope and pray the delegates that represent us put down their swords and work with their political opponents in a constructive way. When our leaders work together as allies, rather than enemies, they will fortify the armamentarium so essential for a democracy to survive. This then is not so much a plea for heroes, but rather for women and men that can go beyond their own self-interest to serve us all in a better way.
The above men that I have given as examples of heroes were first recognized as great leaders. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in the above, many great leaders’ lives are shortened by their brave, sometimes transformative, deeds. They then often become memorialized as heroes. I believe the fact that Aleksei Navalny has consciously placed himself in grave danger, by exposing the deceit and dishonesty of the ruling power of Russia, elevates him to heroic status. We can only hope that these courageous feats do not result in his tragic ending.