Seattle has the largest public statue in the Americas of Vladimir Lenin. On July 7, the Seattle Times posted an opinion piece arguing that it should be torn down. I disagreed, and wrote a reply on the Seattle web PostAlley.org. I wouldn’t presume to defend Lenin on this page or anywhere else, but I did defend the statue as it has stood for years a couple of miles from my house.
The statue is 18 tons of bronze, 16 feet high. Done in Soviet style by Bulgarian artist Emil Venkov, it shows Lenin striding out from stylized flames with a vanguard-of-the-proletariat look on his face. City officials in Poprad, Slovakia, put him up in 1988. The next year, Communism fell and, soon after, they took him down. Lewis E. Carpenter, an American who had met Venkov, spotted the bronze figure of Lenin in a scrapyard, waiting to be melted. Carpenter made an offer to buy him. Officials in Poprad preferred to liquidate him, but the American was offering $13,000 in hard cash, and they discovered a higher public interest. Carpenter had the Old Bolshevik cut into three pieces and shipped to his home in Issaquah, Washington (also the home of Costco Wholesale). The statue ended up costing Carpenter about $40,000, and he had to mortgage his house to pay for it.
He wasn’t a communist. At the time, he told Seattle’s KING-TV, “I don’t know anything about Lenin. It’s a piece of art. I just didn’t want to see it destroyed.” He had been teaching English in a Communist country and dealing with Communist officials, so I’m not inclined to believe him ignorant of the Communist hero he was buying a statue of. But that’s what he told the TV people.
Carpenter envisioned his statue placed outside a Slovakian restaurant, much as the Mandalay Bay casino on the Las Vegas Strip had a decapitated statue of Lenin frosted with imitation bird turd to promote its vodka bar. (The bar and the statue are gone.) But Carpenter was never able to put his non-decapitated Lenin to work. Shortly after his TV interview, he died in a traffic accident.
Officials in Poprad preferred to liquidate him, but the American was offering $13,000 in hard cash, and they discovered a higher public interest.
Carpenter’s family wanted the statue melted down and made into something else. They sent it to the Fremont Foundry in Seattle, but the owner, Peter Bevis, talked them into saving it. An artist and a fisherman, Bevis was a saver of historic relics. He is most famous in Seattle for buying the streamlined hulk of the 1935 Puget Sound ferry Kalakala — “the silver slug” — in the hope of restoring it, but the cost was big enough to sink him. He sold it, but they buyer couldn’t swing it, either, and the vessel was scrapped.
Lenin was more fortunate. Bevis’s foundry was in Seattle’s Fremont district, which was just the place for a statue like that. A rundown area of biker bars in the 1970s, Fremont had been revived in the 1980s and 1990s as a “counterculture” neighborhood of artists, coffee shops, and ethnic restaurants. In the nineties, it gentrified somewhat when the California software company Adobe moved in, as did Tableau Software. The core of the neighborhood retained its bohemian flavor, with a Sunday street market and an annual solstice parade in which painted cyclists ride in the nude.
Into this neighborhood, whose unofficial motto is “De Liberta Quirkas,” — “freedom to be weird” in ersatz Latin — came the statue of Vladimir Lenin. The statue had the support of Fremont’s very capitalist landowner, Suzie Burke, and the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, which promotes Fremont as “The Center of the Universe.” The statue is now ensconced at Evanston Avenue North and North 36th Street, overlooking a busy street in front of the Dumpling Tzar pelmeni restaurant, the Sinbad Express gyros shop, and a reader of Tarot cards.
The core of the neighborhood retained its bohemian flavor, with a Sunday street market and an annual solstice parade in which painted cyclists ride in the nude.
Lenin is not Fremont’s only quirky statue. In 1991, under the north end of the Aurora Bridge — the old US 99 — came the Fremont Troll, a folktale monster with a grip around an actual Volkswagen. And since 1978, Fremont has had “Waiting for the Interurban,” a statue of five adults and a child waiting for the old streetcar that ran from Seattle to Everett until 1939, when U.S. 99 put it out of business. Looking out between their lower legs is a dog. The sculptor, Richard Beyer, was a member of the Fremont Arts Council, and had assigned the work to himself — and when fellow councilmember Armen Stepanian objected, Beyer put Stepanian’s face on the dog.
I’ve always wondered how many people who pass by that statue see the man’s face on the dog.
“Waiting for the Interurban” is Seattle’s most beloved statue. Usually when I drive by it, it’s dressed up in something or other — umbrellas, Covid masks, Hawaiian leis, umbrellas, etc. A few blocks away, people doll up Lenin, too, putting bunny ears on him at Easter and spiderwebs at Halloween, though recently they have been painting his left hand red or splashing him with the blue-and-yellow of the flag of Ukraine. Lenin, the Troll, and Waiting for the Interurban have become attractions on the tourist circuit. Seattle’s arts cognoscenti consider all three pieces kitsch, and not to be compared with the serious stuff they sell to the public authorities here.
Lenin had stood in Fremont for 28 years when the Seattle Times hired David Volodzko as a new editorial writer — the same job I had from 2000 to 2013. He specializes in foreign relations and human rights. Volodzko’s webpage says he has 15 years’ experience in Japan, South Korea, China and India. An ethnic Russian, he made his debut in the Seattle Times opinion section with a full-page criticism of his new city’s statue of Lenin. It was titled, “Dear Fremont: We Need to Talk about Lenin and Your Statue of the Genocidal Tyrant.”
Though it faces a public street, Lenin is privately owned and on private property.
Volodzko recalled his grandfather Josef, who “had come to the United States after escaping a Nazi concentration camp. The only thing worse, he said with bitterness in his voice, was the Russia Lenin had built.” And Seattle has a statue of him! “A tutu for Pride Month, a Halloween get-up, a Christmas star. I guess they think it’s cute,” he wrote. “Apparently Lenin’s bloody legacy is OK.”
Volodzko continued: “Some claim the statue is critical of Lenin because it depicts him marching with guns and flames instead of playing with children or reading. Others say it’s just a joke. Still others claim it’s another oddball feature of quirky old Fremont, like the Fremont Troll or the summer solstice festival . . . None of these arguments work.” He had just come from Georgia, where people were taking down statues of Robert E. Lee. Could Lee be anathema and Lenin OK?
A few days later, PostAlley.org posted my reply. First of all, I wrote, the statues of Confederate generals were mostly on public property — in town squares and city parks. Though it faces a public street, Lenin is privately owned and on private property. “It would be altogether different,” I wrote, “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.”
In 2017, when a protest was made over a small monument erected in 1926 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in a private Seattle cemetery, Mayor Ed Murray called for that monument, and also the Lenin statue, to come down. “We should never forget our history, but we also should not idolize figures who have committed violent atrocities and sought to divide us based on who we are or where we came from,” the mayor said. The monument was later wrecked by vandals, but Lenin remained. Two years later, when Republican legislators in Olympia offered a bill to create a “work group” to replace the old communist with something better, Fremonter Suzie Burke reminded them that the statue was on private property.
If the statue was iconic to the Left, I would be hearing them defend it, and I hear nothing.
It was also doing different work. The statues of Robert E. Lee in the South functioned as objects of historical pride. Seattle’s Bronze Bolshevik, who was rescued from liquidation by Europeans who hated him, functions here as neighborhood marketing. Lenin was a bad guy, but he was never our bad guy. His 16-foot bronze is also merchandise, said to be available from the Carpenter family for $250,000. Apparently the market value of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov has never reached that point, though if a real buyer came along, I wouldn’t be surprised if Suzie outbid him.
The Times readers who left comments on Volodzko’s article mostly disagreed with him. I quoted several of them in my reply, including one who wrote, “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.” Another wrote, “He gets a yellow rubber duck on his head for Easter . . . He is used as a pole to string Christmas lights at Christmas, the ultimate capitalist holiday. He is not exactly an object of respect.”
My favorite comment was by a reader who said, “When I drive by it, I like to laugh and tell it, ‘We won.’” My response was, “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.”
John Hamer, a conservative who had Volodzko’s job at the Seattle Times years before I had it, posted a note on my reply:
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.
It’s true that the Left has been a part of this capitalist town for more than a century. In recent years, there were the anarchist protests at the World Trade Organization conference in 1999, the election of a Trotskyist, Kshama Sawant, to the city council in 2013.
I don’t hang out with the Left, and I don’t imagine Hamer does, either. But they do make a noise. If the statue was iconic to them, I would be hearing them defend it, and I hear nothing. The Russian Communist Party defended the statue, if anyone cared, but to the best of my knowledge, the Seattle Left was silent.
Volodzko, with his long experience in journalism, had to have known better. But he pushed on.
I like the thing. It’s a piece of history. It helps people to remember communism. Americans have movies, some really good ones, that will never let us forget the evil of Nazism. We have only a few that offer a similar treatment to the Reds (not Warren Beatty’s Reds), and can you think of any movies about Lenin? How many kids today know who Lenin was? Maybe some kid who sees the 16-foot-high statue will ask, “Dad, who was that guy?” If the statue angers Russian Americans, and they lecture Seattle about what a tyrant he was, I think, “Good. Tell us about him. We need to know.” As for me, I like being able to gaze upon the founder of 20th-century communism and recall that next January 21 he will have been dead for 100 years.
And you lost.
As did Volodzko. On July 7, the day his piece was posted on the Seattle Times web page, Volodzko was led into a Twitter argument on who was worse, Lenin or Hitler. There is no profit in such arguments. Volodzko, with his long experience in journalism, had to have known better. But he pushed on, gamely arguing that Lenin was worse.
“In fact, while Hitler has become the great symbol of evil in history books, he too was less evil than Lenin because Hitler only targeted people he personally believed were harmful to society,” Volodzko wrote, “whereas Lenin targeted even those he himself did not believe were harmful in any way.”
In a piece looking back on this, Volodzko writes, “I was only speaking in terms of intention — of who wanted to kill more, not who actually did, and in a follow-up tweet I explained: ‘Hitler was more evil than Lenin if we’re looking at what they did to people and that’s a pretty important metric for assessing evil!’”
I like being able to gaze upon the founder of 20th-century communism and recall that next January 21 he will have been dead for 100 years.
Too late. “People insisted I was ‘defending’ Hitler,” Volodzko writes. “They called me a Nazi.” Volodzko, who called himself a “democratic socialist,” found himself the target of the socialists of Seattle and in the Twitterverse. “They told me to kill myself — or suggested they’d do it for me.”
Six days after his opinion piece on the statue was published, Seattle Times management fired him for having “poor judgment” and posting material on Twitter that was “inconsistent with company values.”
I didn’t agree with Volodzko’s piece about the Lenin statue, and I thought the “In fact, while Hitler” quote didn’t make a lot of sense. But I never thought he was defending Hitler or that he deserved to be fired.
Volodzko would like to stay in Seattle, but it won’t be at the city’s morning newspaper. Lenin remains, striding into a future that never came, his hand painted red.