Friday, June 26, 2009

Who's in Charge of Heroes?

Who gets decide who's a hero? Why do people become heroes--and how does a country's perspective change over time? I pondered these questions as I read a recent article in the Kyiv Post, Ukraine's best-known English language newspaper, about Ivan Mazepa and the Battle of Poltava. Tomorrow is the 300th anniversary of that battle, where Peter the Great and the Russians defeated the Swedish army in a turning point in a war with Sweden. Poltava is in Ukraine, and the meaning of that battle and of the hetman Ivan Mazepa, is a source of controversy between Ukraine and Russia today.

Ivan Mazepa, a Ukrainian hetman, or chief, allied himself with the Swedes. To Russians, he's a traitor, to today's Ukrainians, he's a hero, representing a nation's bid for independence. I was fascinated to read that the Russian Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine against glorifying Mazepa, saying, "We would like to remind the Ukrainian leadership that playing games with history, especially with a nationalistic overtone, has never led to anything good," a statement that can only seem ironic coming from the former Soviet Union. Russia's president has recently established a commission to counter what he describes as efforts to falsify history by Ukrainians and others (his own effort to play games with history perhaps).

Ukrainians argue that they have the right to decide who will be a hero in their own country, and that although their nation's history has been linked to Russia, it is an independent nation, and should make its own decisions. So to Ukrainians, Mazepa is a hero, on the 10 hrivna note, and with streets named after him.

Suffice to say, this is a discussion that will probably last another 300 years. As I read the article I thought about the hero-making process in this country. When I grew up, the lives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony weren't taught in schools--today, to many Americans, they are heroes. Who made them heroes? In this country, it's a hard to define process--partly official (say, a holiday for Martin Luther King), but also sometimes the long efforts of individual people. Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women's rights, was long ignored, until the efforts of a group of local women brought new attention to the site in the last few decades, leading to the National Park that exists there today.

We've come to assume that all of our heroes may have some flaws--but accept them nonetheless. For a look at one American hero, warts and all, take a look at Maira Kalman's latest installation in her gentle, beautiful views on America, "And the Pursuit of Happiness," for the New York Times about her visit to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.

Top to bottom:
Ivan Mazepa
The Battle of Poltava
Harriet Tubman
Two of Maira Kalman's works for the NY Times


Alex Martynov said...

Hello Linda!

I'm myself from Ukraine and just stumbled across your blog.
It's interesing to read foreigner's thoughts about my country. Thanks for unprejudiced opinions.


Linda Norris said...

Hi Alex--
Thanks for reading the blog. I suspect I have my own prejudices, as we all do, but I tried to approach my time in Ukraine as I do everything--with an open, interested eye--and as such, found myself greatly rewarded with fascinating things during my time there.