Most people are familiar with Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece “The Thinker” but, in the shadow of that great work, at the Rodin Museum in Paris sits another sculpture made from the artist’s skilled hand. The piece is known as “The Burghers of Calais” and it depicts a scene from 1346 after English King Edward III had laid siege to the French port city of Calais. In return for sparing the town’s citizens, Edward demanded the surrender of the city’s leaders and the sculpture shows the town’s six leaders with ropes strapped around their necks–a sign they were being called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

It is an exquisite piece of art and yet when it was unveiled in 1895 it was roundly condemned by critics and citizens alike because it did not conform to the traditional model of depicting heroes on pedestals with calm, confident and steady gazes. Instead, Rodin etched looks of concern, doubt, and even fear upon their weary faces. Worse yet, the statue placed the heroes on ground level–the realm of pedestrians.

This image immediately sprung to mind upon hearing of the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny–who Vladamir Putin had both poisoned and imprisoned–and is now widely understood to have died this past Friday, either indirectly or directly, at the hand’s of the corrupt Russian autocrat.

In the 2022 Academy Award-winning documentary “Navalny,” there is a the scene near the end of the movie where Alexei Navalny is about to board an airplane in Germany–a country where he can safely stay–but instead he has chosen to return to his native homeland of Russia where it is certain he will be imprisoned and, quite possibly, killed. As the scene unfolds, Navalny attempts to put on a brave face but as Daniel Roher, the maker of the documentary, said upon learning of Navalny’s death, “he was scared that day … you could see it in his eyes.”

This fear does not make Navalny less of a hero, it makes him a human. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Alexei Navalny lived this ideal. When asked why he was returning to Russia to face imprisonment, torture and death, he replied “I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs.”

When a monument or statue is ultimately built to honor Mr. Navalny in Moscow, as one surely will be, I hope the artist depicts him in a similar vein to Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais.” 


For the same reason that Rodin depicted his heroes at ground level with the all-too-human looks of fear on their faces: To remind all of us that, first, heroism is something that is not beyond the ability of anyone to attain; and, second, to serve as a visual reminder to us, the living, that true courage isn’t the absence of fear but rather the ability to step through that fear in the cause of something greater than ourselves. 

In a world desperately crying out for real heroes, we should all stand eye-to-eye and in solidarity with the real-world example of Alexei Navalny and ask ourselves this question: What can we do in the name of the higher ideals of justice, democracy and freedom?

Jack Uldrich is an author, a futurist, and former naval intelligence officer and Defense Department official.