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.