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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



or the heroic, the performance of actions that are exceptional in their social significance, correspond to the interests of the mass of the people or to those of progressive classes, and require personal courage, firmness, and readiness for self-sacrifice.

Heroic ideals have evolved over the many centuries of human history. Initially they were embodied in the spontaneous forms of moral consciousness that arose among the masses and oral folk tradition, especially in the so-called heroic epic. Later these ideals became the subjects of literature and the arts and of special theoretical disciplines—ethics, aesthetics, sociology, and psychology.

The question of the historical nature of heroism was first posed by the 18th-century Italian philosopher G. Vico, who viewed heroism as a characteristic feature of a particular phase of human development only, of the so-called “age of heroes,” which preceded the “age of men.” Seeing heroism as linked with the conditions of life in ancient society, Vico denied the possibility of heroism in the subsequent “rational” stage of history. This concept was further developed in all its aspects by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, for whom the distinguishing feature of the “heroic age” was the coinciding of individual independence, personal action, and the universal significance of the personal action. For Hegel “the heroic age” was the period that preceded the establishment of a fully developed state of order and law. However, history has shown that even the establishment of a bourgeois state, based on law, produced its own heroes in the struggle against feudalism. “But unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and battles of peoples to bring it into being” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8, p. 120). The ideologists of the Enlightenment (J. J. Rousseau in France and G. E. Lessing and F. von Schiller in Germany) and those of revolutionary romanticism (Lord Byron in England, K. F. Ryleev in Russia, and G. Mazzini in Italy) developed the concept of the heroic personality in revolt, struggling for national and political freedom and the “natural” equality of men. Among the reactionaries of romanticism, by contrast, the hero was counterposed to the people, the “crowd,” and was even idolized in the “cult of the hero” (T. Carlyle in England); in the second half of the 19th century in the philosophy of Nietzsche (Germany), the hero was given the moral right to use violence. These ideas were developed even further by the reactionary currents of bourgeois thought in the 20th century, which emphasized the individual hero’s exceptional qualities and linked heroism with militarism, for example, D’Annunzio in Italy and A. Rosenberg and A. Bäumler in Germany.

In the liberation movement in 19th-century Russia the problem of the heroic individual was posed in connection with the training of the professional revolutionary in the writings of such Narodniks (Populists) as P. L. Lavrov and S. M. Stepniak-Kravshinskii and such anarchist ideologists as M. A. Bakunin and S. G. Nechaev. However, the idealization of the isolated act of heroism or the exploit of the lone individual already began to be criticized by N. G. Chernyshevskii, who observed, “those individuals who … do not seek assistance for their undertakings in the independent activity of the mass of the people as a whole will find themselves powerless” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 4, 1948, p. 71). This criticism was carried further by the Marxists G. V. Plekhanov and, especially, V. V. Vorovskii, who showed how inadequate “individual heroic efforts of self-sacrifice” were for the success of the revolution (Soch., vol. 2, 1931, p. 290). The heroism of the masses becomes the necessary condition for the victory of the socialist revolution and of the new, communist order. It was precisely in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism that the Marxist-Leninist conception of heroism was developed extensively. The distinctive feature of this conception is the merging of individual exploits or the heroic initiatives of particular groups with the heroic actions of the masses. Heroism rests not only on the moral strength of the individual but also on the material strength of the revolutionary mass movement. The October Revolution, the building of socialism and communism, and the Great Patriotic War all gave rise to heroic exploits among the people, both in armed struggle and in heroic day-to-day labor. The heroism of labor was expressed in socialist emulation, shock work, and Stakhanovism, as well as in the movement for a communist attitude toward work. The initiators of these movements became national heroes in the USSR. In Lenin’s words, the task of achieving the victory of socialism “cannot possibly be fulfilled by single acts of heroic fervor; it requires the most prolonged, most persistent, and most difficult mass heroism in everyday work” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, pp. 17-18). Two honorary titles created in the USSR were Hero of the Soviet Union (1934) and Hero of Socialist Labor (1938). In other socialist countries the heroism of labor has also become a mass phenomenon.

The struggle of the peoples against fascism, as well as the struggle for national and social liberation since World War II, gave rise to various forms of individual and mass heroism. The stubborn struggle of the Vietnamese people against US imperialism year after year became the symbol of and practical model for heroism. The variety of forms in which feats of heroism have appeared has been reflected in different theories of heroism, some of which make generalizations based on the success of one or another heroic action. Thus, in countries of the Far East and Latin America, concepts have arisen that would limit heroism to “armed action.” Various extremist theories have appeared in connection with activism in the youth movement and especially student activism—for example, the concept of “being more left than the left,” or being more revolutionary than anyone else. Some religious theories of “heroic nonresistance” have been revived—for example, self-immolation by Buddhists in South Vietnam. All these forms and concepts require unlimited self-sacrifice and courage from the individual. However, the isolation of individual actions and the impossibility of applying such methods on a massive scale result in a departure from the main liberative and revolutionary aims of the movement. “Our victories were due …,” Lenin wrote, “to our ability to arouse the energy, heroism, and revolutionary effort on the most important task of the hour” (ibid., p. 305). The greatness of a heroic feat derives not from abstract individual self-sacrifice but from its world-historical content, from its place in the progressive movement of the peoples toward the victory of communism, assuring peace, work, and freedom to humanity.


Kalinin, M. I. O kommunisticheskom vospitanii. Moscow, 1958. Pages 55, 213-15, 258, 412-16.
Lafarge, P. Soch., vol. 3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931. Pages 82-90.
Lunacharskii, A. V. Geroizm i individualizm. Moscow, 1925.
Hegel, G. W. F. Estetika, vol. 1. Moscow, 1968. Pages 189-201, 266-70.
Bruno, G. O geroicheskom entuziazme. Moscow, 1953. (Translated from Italian.)
Renaud, A. Geroizm: Primery geroizma i nravstvennost’ energii iz istorii vsekh vremen i narodov. St. Petersburg, 1896. (Translated from French.)
Pisarev, D. I. Soch., vol. 4. Moscow, 1956. Pages 7-49.
Shestakov, V. “Kategoriia geroizma v istorii etiki.” Vestnik istoriimirovoi kul’tury, 1960, no. 2.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


See also Bravery.
Greek hero without whom Troy could not have been taken. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad]
Trojan hero; legendary founder of Roman race. [Rom. Lit.: Aeneid]
those accompanying Jason to fetch Golden Fleece. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 26]
hero of the civil war between two royal houses of ancient India. [Hindu Lit.: Mahabharata]
king and hero of Scotland, Wales, and England. [Arthurian Legend: Parrinder, 28]
Bagradian, Gabriel
leads heroic defense by a group of Armenians against the besieging Turks; is killed by a Turkish bullet. [Ger. Lit.: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in Magill I, 291]
rider of Pegasus; conquered monsters and Amazons. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 42; Kravitz, 43]
saved Danes from monster Grendel. [Br. Lit.: Beowulf]
Spanish knight renowned for exploits against Moors. [Span. Hist.: EB, 4: 615–616]
“the Achilles of the Gael.” [Irish Myth.: Benét, 239–240]
challenges horseman, rescues a lady, and earns fame as a doughty soldier. [Fr. Lit.: Dumas The Three Musketeers]
boy who slew Goliath. [O.T.: Samuel: 18:4–51]
Durward, Quentin
seeking his fortune abroad, he saves the life of King Louis XI, wards off attacks by the king’s enemies, and distinguishes himself in a seige. [Br. Lit.: Quentin Durward]
Edricson, Alleyne
knighted for chivalry by the Black Prince. [Br. Lit.: The White Company in Magill I, 1108]
kills proud sea-kings, saves a king and queen from death, and defeats her brothers in battle. [Nor. Lit.: Haydn & Fuller, 275]
Grettir the Strong
Viking adventurer whose exploits are related in The Grettisaga. [Icelandic Lit.: Magill I, 335]
monkey deity, conqueror of demons, builder of a stone bridge from India to Ceylon. [Hindu Myth.: Collier’s, IX, 214]
slew Hipparchus, brother of the tyrant Hippias. [Gk. Hist.: EB (1963) XI, 198]
King Priam’s son; dies fighting for Troy. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad]
completed tasks requiring great bravery, strength, and ingenuity. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 448]
Hereward the Wake
last of the English; dies defending home-land. [Br. Lit.: Hereward the Wake, Magill I, 367–370]
Hornblower, Captain Horatio
victorious captain of HMS Lydia and HMS Sutherland. [Br. Lit.: Captain Horatio Hornblower]
leader of the Argonauts. [Gk. Myth.: Payton, 347]
saved her city from the onslaught of Holofernes by beheading him during a drunken sleep. [Apocrypha: Judith 13:4-10]
Leonidas Spartan
king held off thousands of Persians at Thermopylae with a few hundred men. [Gk. Hist.: Bénet, 578]
stole divine fire for man’s sake. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 33]
Richard the Lion-Hearted
(1157–1199) nicknamed the Black Knight; performer of valorous deeds. [Br. Hist: EB, VIII: 566; Br. Lit.: Ivanhoe]
Rogers, Buck
25th-century adventurer who combats menacing aliens and other villains in order to save the world. [Comics: Berger, 93]
chief paladin of Charlemagne; renowned for his prowess. [Fr. Lit.: NCE, 2344]
hero of Israel. [O.T.: Judges 13–16]
killed many great heroes, won the fabulous hoard of the Nibelungs, and was made invisible by the blood of a dragon he had slain. [Ger. Myth.: Nibelungenlied in Magill I, 653]
crusader renowned for his fighting helps capture Jerusalem from the infidels. [Ital. Lit.: Jerusalem Delivered; Ital. Opera: Rossini Tancredi]
hero of Attica who slew the Minotaur, conquered the Amazons, and helped drive off the Centaurs. [Gk. Myth.: Hamilton Mythology, 152]
the Nine nine heroes — three each from the Bible, from the classical period, and from medieval romance — who were frequently grouped together. [Pop. Culture: Brewer Dictionary, 694]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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