He stands guard today atop a granite pedestal near a riverbank in Concord, Massachusetts – a stout, handsome farmer clutching a musket while scanning the horizon for the advancing enemy.
He is the iconic “Minute Man” statue, a bronze monument built to commemorate the first battle of the Revolutionary War. That’s when patriots fired “the shot heard around the world,” taking on the mightiest army of their era to preserve the birth of democracy in America.
Ukrainians are now building their own monuments to democracy, with their blood. For more than a week, the world has been transfixed by their battle to repel the mighty Russian army and preserve the birth of democracy in their homeland.
In recent days stories of Ukrainian courage have also been heard around the world: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turning down an offer to evacuate him from the country by saying, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride”; the besieged defenders of Snake Island who told a Russian warship to “go f**k yourself”; the images of Ukrainian civilians making Molotov cocktails and carrying assault rifles while heading to the front lines.
“Each passing day adds more stories that Ukrainians will tell not only in the dark days ahead, but in the decades and generations to come,” the author and historian Yuval Noah Harari said in a recent essay. “This is the stuff nations are built from. In the long run, these stories count more than tanks.”
But here’s another reason why the Ukraine struggle is so inspiring:
This is also the stuff that built the US.
The war in Ukraine isn’t just a geopolitical struggle – it’s a call to remember. The courage of the Ukrainian people is a reminder of what the US used to be – a “beacon of liberty,” where virtually every schoolchild memorized the “Concord Hymn” poem inscribed at the base of the Minute Man statue.
The Ukrainians are teaching Americans two lessons about democracy that many of us have forgotten.
Lesson 1: The most ferocious defenders of democracy are those who have been denied it
Ukrainian’s democratic tradition bears little comparison to the US at first glance. The country has been independent for only 31 years.
Ukraine also borders Russia, an oppressive regime that has installed puppet governments in the country before. The country is familiar with brutal leaders imposing their will on its people. The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin caused the deaths of nearly 4 million Ukrainians in the 1930s by engineering a famine. The German invasion of Ukraine in World War II led to the deaths of an estimated seven million people.
But that history of brutality is partly why so many Ukrainians are willing to fight so hard for democracy.
Freedom tastes sweeter for those who have never had it.
This is the same dynamic that helped make the US.
The most fervent believers in American democracy tend to come from groups that have been denied liberty and equality – either in the US or from their country of origin.
The first martyr in the fight for American independence was a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks, shot by British redcoats during the Boston Massacre.
The most decorated unit in US military history was a Japanese American regiment that fought during World War II. These “Nisei” soldiers volunteered for combat though they came from families that had their property confiscated and were placed in internment camps by the US government.
The first people who made a genuine democracy a reality in the US were Black civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, and other Southern cities. They forced the US to abandon its neo-apartheid political system by pushing Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
You can’t talk about exclusion in the US without mentioning immigrants. The country’s history is filled with spasms of intolerance and raw racism directed at immigrants. And yet many immigrants outwork, outvote and outfight many native-born Americans.
One in five Medal of Honor winners have been immigrants. Immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. Nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies – including Apple, Google and Amazon – were founded by immigrants or their children.
Many of these immigrants left countries run by dictators and convulsed by civil wars and political violence because of one American trait: Our democratic ideas.
“Since World War II, that has been the single most important driver of American influence and power,” said Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, in a recent interview. “Yes, we have a big military. Yes, we have a strong economy. But it’s our ideas that attract others. Russia under Putin doesn’t really have that power of attraction. He only has the power of coercion, and we are seeing that now in Ukraine in a brutal way.”
Lesson 2: Ordinary people are the true heroes of democracy
When a CNN crew recently interviewed Ukrainan President Zelensky in a bunker in Kyiv, the country’s capital, he said something that was revelatory.
A journalist asked him what it was like to go from being a comic actor to becoming a globally acclaimed wartime leader. But Zelensky was not interested in adding to the Western praise of his charismatic leadership.
“I’m not iconic,” he said. “I think Ukraine is iconic.”
It’s the kind of statement that would have made the “embattled farmers” who fought at Concord during the Revolutionary War nod in recognition. Ordinary people, not charismatic leaders, sustain democracy. This was an abiding belief throughout US history.
There was a time when most young men were expected to join the military or go into government as part of some form of public service. This expectation also applied to the wealthy and the famous. That’s part of the reason why former president George H.W. Bush, the grandson of a steel industrialist and scion of a wealthy family, enlisted as a fighter pilot in World War II.
Actor Jimmy Stewart turned down an offer to stay stateside as a flight instructor and volunteered for combat duty as a US Army Air Force pilot. He flew 20 bombing missions in harrowing combat conditions, an experience he rarely talked about after the war.
This attitude, though, wasn’t confined to World War II. It was there at the nation’s beginning. It was Nathan Hale, an American Revolutionary War officer, who reputedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
And it wasn’t confined to the military. There’s a generation of Americans who entered the Peace Corps because of what President John F. Kennedy declared at his 1960 inaugural address:
“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can for your country.”
When asked what he learned from studying US history, historian Howard Zinn once said, “Democracy is not what governments do; it’s what people do, too.”
His message: Don’t depend on saviors.
“Don’t depend on the founding fathers, on Andrew Jackson, on Theodore Roosevelt, on Lyndon Johnson, on Obama,” Zinn said. “Don’t depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done, because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it’s done so only because it’s been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing.
“Lincoln was pushed by the antislavery movement,” he added. “Johnson and Kennedy were pushed by the Southern Black movement…”
This power of ordinary people is what Zelensky evoked when he released a taped appeal to the Russian and Ukrainian people before Russia’s invasion. He said there was one group that could ultimately prevent war: “Regular people. Regular, normal people.”
It’s a lesson many contemporary Americans have seem to have forgotten. Our political discourse is driven by searches for a savior: a charismatic leader who will vanquish the other side; a pivotal Supreme Court appointment that will finally “take back” the country, a commentator who will “destroy” opponents on TV.
Many have stopped believing that ordinary people can change anything because of political gridlock.
The spirit of democracy in the US feels like it’s under siege
More Americans even now doubt the power of their democratic ideas. One recent poll showed that 64% of Americans believe their democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” Another recent poll found 72% of Americans say the US used to be a good model of democracy for other countries to follow but has not been in recent years.
It’s not as if the democratic spirit has been extinguished in the US. The 2020 presidential election was held during a pandemic but saw the highest voter turnout in a century. The nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd that same year have been described as the largest movement in the country’s history. And there was a palpable hope early in 2020 that the pandemic would bring Americans together.
But that burst of civic participation was followed by 19 states passing voter restriction laws. The pandemic became a political wedge issue. And the US still lags behind most developed nations when it comes to voter turnout.
Today it’s Ukranians – not Americans – who are embodying Kennedy’s exhortation: They’re asking what they can do for their country, not the other way around.
Ukrainian citizens are blocking Russian tanks with their bodies. Ukrainians are leaving safety and well-paying jobs in Europe to go fight for their homeland. Famous figures like Ukrainian boxer Vasiliy Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, are giving up lucrative paydays to go home and join a defense battalion. Ukrainian tennis star Sergiy Stakhovsky left his wife and their three young children in Hungary to join the fight in his homeland.
And now Americans and other foreign fighters are traveling to Ukraine to defend the country.
These stories don’t just inspire, they force people in the West to reexamine our cynicism, Tom McTague wrote in a recent Atlantic essay.
McTague said the US and Western Europe have lost their sense of being a force for moral good and taking on heroic struggles in the cause of freedom. Instead we follow cynical opportunists in shows like “Succession” and “Billions” and pragmatic, cautious leaders who lack any overt idealism, he said.
Ukraine changes that, McTague said. One of the reasons why Zelensky reduced hardened politicians – and even a translator – to tears in his appeals to freedom is because “Western countries don’t have this type of leadership anymore: unembarrassed, defiant belief in a cause.”
In standing up to Putin, McTague wrote, “Ukraine is articulating a certain idea of itself that is righteous and dignified and heroic – virtues we long ago dismissed as old-fashioned. How tragic it is that Zelensky’s idea has to be attacked for us to be reminded of ours.”
It would be more tragic if Americans could no longer remember the ideas we stand for at all.
Our country’s history is filled with brutality. It is also riddled with hypocrisies. Yet that’s why monuments like the Minute Man still stand. They remind us of who we are at our best, that democracy is something worth fighting, and dying for.
Ukrainians know that. We used to know that.
Their story echoes our story.
Let us not forget.