Leaning in to Lenin: In Defense of Fremont’s Bolshevik Statue


David Volodzko, the new editorial writer hired by the Seattle Times, has opened a “conversation” with the Fremont district over the statue of Vladimir Lenin. He thinks the statue should come down. Judging from the hundreds of reader comments on the article, much of Seattle disagrees with him — as do I.

Lenin was the leader of the Bolsheviks, the hard-left faction that toppled Russia’s multiparty government in 1917, seized power, and ruled by terror. Lenin and his cohorts — Trotsky, Stalin, and others — created the world’s first Communist state, which became America’s ally in World War II and our enemy in the Cold War. Lest we forget: next January 24 is the centenary of Lenin’s death.

Volodzko recalls his grandfather Josef, a refugee from the Soviet Union, and also from a Nazi concentration camp, telling him that the Russia Lenin built was even a worse place than Nazi Germany. And Seattle has a statue of the man. Volodzko appreciates that the bronze Lenin gives people here the opportunity to paint the tyrant’s hand red for blood, and to splash his body with the blue-and-yellow of Ukraine. Then again, Seattle people decorate the world’s first Communist ruler with Christmas lights, Easter-bunny ears, Halloween spiderwebs, and the girly garb of Pride Month.

“I guess they think it’s cute,” he says.

People also dress up the Fremont Troll and the “Waiting for the Interurban” statue a few blocks away in Fremont. To the arts cognoscenti all three statues are kitsch, though they attract more tourists than most of the stuff our artists sell to the government.

Unlike abstract art, the Fremont statues do have obvious meaning. The Troll dragging a Volkswagen into his den recalls a Norwegian folk tale. “Waiting for the Interurban” seems more serious until you notice the face on the dog — the artist’s comeuppance to a public-arts bureaucrat.

Is the meaning of the Lenin statue to celebrate the man? An out-of-towner and a new columnist might think so; this city, after all, has a Marxist on its city council — and not for the first time. There’s a whole history of communists in Seattle. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party’s national chairman, James Farley, famously referred to “the 47 states in the Union and the Soviet of Washington” — and it was a reference to the politics of this city. On the University of Washington campus is a memorial to UW students who fought in Spain for the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit organized by the Communist International.

 So, do people here revere the Reds? Not really. Among the more than 120 comments readers have appended to the Times’ article, I found not one that cast Lenin as a good guy.

Another thing: Like the Space Needle, which people think of as a symbol of Seattle, the bronze Lenin is a private object on private property. It would be altogether different if the city council had bought him with tax dollars and stuck him in a public park. But private owners have certain rights in our world, if not in Lenin’s. “You can’t just remove it,” writes one Times reader. “It is not a commissioned piece of art.”

Actually, it was. It was commissioned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and put up as public art in Poprad, a Burien-sized town in what is now the Slovak Republic, in 1988. A year later, when the Czechoslovak state fell in the Velvet Revolution, the statue came down. In 1993 an Issaquah man, Lewis E. Carpenter, found it in a Slovak scrapyard waiting to be sold to a foundry. He thought it a shame that the sculpture by artist Emil Venkov was to be liquidated. “I’ve had a few idiots call me up and say that this had something to do with communism,” Carpenter told KING-TV when he had it in his backyard in Issaquah. “I don’t know anything about Lenin. It’s a piece of art. I just didn’t want to see it destroyed.”

Yeah, O.K. He was playing dumb — and Americans are the world’s idiots when it comes to history. Art, too, maybe. But when it comes to commerce, we are supposed to be good at it. In 1993, Carpenter mortgaged his house and paid $13,000 for the bronze Lenin and had the seven-ton sculpture cut in three pieces, then shipped to Seattle where the body parts were  reunited — for a total cost of about $40,000.

After Carpenter died in a car crash, the statue was almost melted down. It was rescued again by Fremonters, placed at the corner of Evanston Avenue North and North 34th Street, in front of a Taco del Mar (now the Sinbad gyros shop). Carpenter’s family announced that Lenin was for sale for $250,000. His market value has never reached that point, but he has not been taken off the market. Meanwhile, the Bronze Bolshevik has become another attraction in “Fremont, The Center of the Universe.”

The Times’ new editorial writer, David Volodzko, has just moved here from Georgia, where after much shouting they are taking down statues of Robert E. Lee. And here Volodzko finds a statue of a world-famous Communist, and the Seattle people putting bunny ears on him.

 Well, it’s not the same. Statues of the Confederate generals were put up so Americans could venerate them. Lenin was put up as merchandise, and as neighborhood marketing. “Here is a classic symbol of overwrought totalitarianism, dropped in the middle of an anarcho-libertarian neighborhood, available for all to mock and ponder the horror of,” writes one of the Times’ readers. “He gets a yellow rubber duck on his head for Easter,” writes another. “He is used as a pole to string Christmas lights at Christmas, the ultimate capitalist holiday. He is not exactly an object of respect.”

Another Times reader writes, “When I drive by it, I like to laugh and tell it, ‘We won.’”

I’m with that guy, except that I think of it in reverse: You lost. I imagine Anna Louise Strong, Seattle’s historic apologist for Stalin and Mao, coming back to life and seeing Lenin done up in proud Socialist Realism with a duck on his head. The red lady would not be pleased.

As one of the Times’ readers writes, “Most people have no clue who Lenin was or what he did.” Americans get our history from the movies — and what has Hollywood offered? There was Warren Beatty’s Reds, the story of John Reed, a “useful idiot” from Portland, Oregon, who traveled to Russia to witness Lenin make history. But that movie is 40 years old, and, apart from a cold splash of realism from anarchist Emma Goldman (played by Maureen Stapleton), it takes John Reed’s credulous point of view.

Having a 16-foot-high statue of the world’s first Communist leader gives the Times’ new editorial writer the chance to do what Maureen Stapleton did in Reds. And if the image of Vladimir Lenin brings back painful memories, maybe that’s good, too. Some things should not be forgotten.



Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Interesting defense of Seattle funk, Bruce. One small quibble: you and the Times’ newbie don’t know where Lenin is located: intersection of Evanston and 36th. Originally it was 34th, but that spot got waterlogged and the statue threated to topple over. Also that’s no longer a Taco del Mar.

  2. Bruce — Nice try, but you are wrong and Volodzko is right. The Lenin Statue has long been an iconic symbol for Seattle’s systemic Left to thumb their noses at the more conservative establishment: Neener-neener, stick it to The Man! More lazy radicalish faux protest. So typical and tedious. Fremont is the center of omphaloskepsis that’s for sure.

    Just for fun, I once put a giant pair of Groucho glasses on the Lenin Statue.
    Borrowed a ladder at 3 am to reach his face. I then handed out flyers saying “Marx Meets Lenin,” brought to you by the “Kapitalist Urban Liberation Art Kollectiv,” or KULAK.
    The irony was lost on all but a few.

    Also ironically, the neighborhood would not exist as it is without the generous and decades-long support of staunch Republican and free-market capitalist Suzie Burke. Love that lady! She deserves a statue in Fremont. Take down Lenin and put up Suzie, I say! But don’t hold your breath.

    Meanwhile, I hope David will bring some badly needed balance to The Times’ editorial board. You and I both tried that over the years, with mixed results. Debate is what makes America great. Scrap Lenin, salute Suzie!

  3. We should lighten up on the Lenin thing. In fact, on the whole statue thing. What about those dumb metal structures on the north end of the Ballard Bridge? I hate ‘em so let’s rip ‘em out! Take the long view. Think Shelley’s •Ozymandius•. Did he just decay? Or did some malcontent tear him down?

  4. Bruce — So now Volodzko has been fired, apparently for seeming to defend Hitler as worse than Lenin.

    I actually once defended the Ayatollah Khomeini in a column after Scoop Jackson called him “anothet Hitler,” which I thought was a bit hyperbolic. But they didn’t fire me. Maybe they should have. You and I both wrote some dumb things over the years and somehow kept our jobs. But who reads editorials and columns anymore, anyway? A shrinking number, I fear. Or maybe that’s a good thing….

  5. Meant to say less evil than Lenin.
    Damned old journalists can’t get anything right. We need a news council to hold them accountable!

  6. Sure – accepting the premise that Lenin is in some way public art in Fremont, even if it isn’t – we thumbed our noses at the more conservative establishment.

    That’s entirely different from Volodsko’s complaint, though. The statue didn’t honor Lenin and his ideas, it declared that “at long last” – half a century after the McCarthy censure – they don’t matter. The red peril has lost its power to frighten anyone in Fremont. Here, Lenin, hold these christmas lights.

  7. The Hitler tweet reveals a tone deafness that’s very consistent with his Lenin statue article. People like that need Twitter editors, if they’re going there.

  8. I think most Seattleites are capable of getting the irony of Lenin’s statue smack in the middle of Fremont, which proudly hosts a naked summer solstice parade….if it were downtown Seattle next to the courthouse, it might be confusing.
    The only thing offensive to me me is this statement:

    “Americans are the world’s idiots when it comes to history.”

    My nephew, at 14, when he beheld that statue, thought a moment and said, “Well, Lenin was not as bad as Stalin.” At 14! So, please. Enough of the old, ‘dumb American’ myth. Generally, the person voicing that thought means, “every American but me.” I very much like your editorials, but that is just wrong.

  9. Let’s raise a glass to irony, which has always been in short supply in this town. Ivar used to do it well, pulling our legs with his stunts. Same with Vic Meyers, a bandleader who got into politics as a stunt. I also fondly remember Herman Adelist who ran for mayor in favor of a salmon stream in downtown Seattle. Not to forget: Charley Chong!

    • And don’t forget Richard A.C. Greene, who won the primary election for State Land Commissioner and campaigned floating on an inner tube in Hawaii. His platform: “Go forth and commission the land.” Sadly, he lost.

      • I remember Greene. One of his planks was, “Give Eastern Washington to Idaho, and if they don’t take it, declare war on them.”

    • Ivar Haglund opened Seattle’s first aquarium during the Great Depression. He drummed up customers by sitting on a stool outside, strumming a guitar, or maybe it was a banjo, and taking song requests. He would also made up songs on the spot about all the attractions awaiting inside.

        • I grieved when I learned that Ivar’s billboards on the bottom of Puget Sound weren’t placed there in the ’50s and then forgotten. That it was all a hoax. But it was a pretty good ad stunt! Ivar would have heartily approved.

  10. Give Tacoma some credit too for another bandleader candidate, Red Kelly, who ran for governor on the OWL Party ticket–Out With Logic, On With Lunacy.

  11. And thanks, Bruce, for affirming the good sense of the Seattle Times’ letter writers. I’ve always thought the painted blood justified the statue’s being there.
    One historical note: It would be delicious if Rich Beyer had placed a “public-arts bureaucrat’s” head on the dog in his “Waiting for the Interurban.” But the unhappy subject was Armen Stepanian, the unofficial “mayor of Fremont,” who pioneered consumer recycling there years before the city got into it and feuded with Beyer over something or other. Stepanian subsequently shaved his beard.

    • I wrote a small piece about this in the P-I, printed Sept. 30, 1996. It said:

      “The face is a relic of a dispute between sculptor Richard Beyer and aluminum recycler Armen Stepanian, the one-time honorary mayor of Fremont. Both were on a Fremont Arts Council committee to choose a sculptor. When nobody applied, recalls Fremont artist Roger Wheeler, Beyer chose himself.
      “Stepanian objected. ‘He didn’t think it was an appropriate piece, he didn’t think it would look good there, and he didn’t thing that the chairman of the committee to pick an artist should pick himself,’ Wheeler says.
      “Stung by the attack, Beyer had the last word: He put Stepanian’s face on the dog.”

  12. Good to have an excuse to remember some of this area’s other quirky moments. Eric rightly cites credit due to Bandleader Red Kelly. His OWL party was a wonderful send-up, complete with candidates running for statewide offices. For a time I treasured the descriptions in the state Voters Pamphlet. Wasn’t Lucy Bang Bang running for something?

  13. Good seeing familiar names above. I want to add my own defense of the Lenin statue belonging in Fremont. The most suitable place for such a statue is a neighborhood that would never take it seriously, and Fremont has long been up to the task. It’s been a self-consciously quirky place for decades. The naked bicycle races were already mentioned. Let’s also hear it for Fremont selling the best pot and other drugs in the 1970s. Remember Bananas? My mother, who lived on Phinney Ridge, typically gave a 10-minute rant about the hippies taking over Fremont. That’s not the Soviet’s Lenin in Fremont; it’s the neighborhood’s ironic reinterpretation of him.

    • Mavis, I have no idea if this is true: But there used to be those two taverns right by the Fremont Bridge. And a few patrons would try to ‘beat the bridge’ on their Harleys as it was going up. I so hope that’s true.


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