Comparisons between the statue of Lenin in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood and those of Gen. Robert E. Lee are misleading and problematic.
MY family fled the Soviet Union, escaping religious and political persecution, and arrived as refugees in Wisconsin in 1991. Immigrating from Moscow to Madison, along with being an educator and a historian, affords me a unique perspective on the current sociocultural and political climate of our country.
So, let’s talk about Lenin. More accurately, the 16-foot tall, bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, where I’ve lived since 2013.
The debate on the statue’s merits and whether it ought to be removed is not new. However, following the rally staged by white nationalists in Charlottesville with deadly consequence for one protester — and President Donald Trump’s infamous response — the Lenin statue is once more drawing attention.
This time it is from “Make America Great Again” hat-wearing protesters, calling for the removal of the statue of the Russian revolutionary and Soviet Union leader. As noted by Kurt Schlosser of Geek Wire, the Lenin statue protesters “seized on the chance to point out left-leaning Seattle’s supposed hypocrisy.”
Supporters of President Trump calling for the statue’s removal found an unlikely ally in Seattle’s liberal, Democratic mayor, Ed Murray. He called for both the monument to Confederate soldiers at Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery and the Lenin statue in Fremont to be taken down, saying they represent “historic injustices” and are symbols of hate, racism and violence.
However, Murray; Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist and outspoken Lenin-statue critic; and the hundreds of commenters on the subreddit thread the_donald who are concerned with the hypocrisy of liberals are wrong.
I am neither denying nor defending the death of millions at the hands of the Bolshevik leader — hands depicted on the Seattle statue with a permanent coat of blood-red paint. I am not a communist apologist, and I do not glorify the tyrannical rule of Lenin, or the murderous dictator who succeeded him (I should note, contrary to the apparent belief of many Reddit commenters, Lenin and Stalin were not actually the same person).
Yet, the comparison between the monuments of Lee and Lenin is misleading and problematic. It is misleading not because one was worse than the other, there are no winners in a Lee-versus-Lenin oppression Olympics. Rather, it is a false comparison because it intentionally decontextualizes the role of Confederate monuments in the United States and allows us to yet again sidestep the process of reconciling America’s history. And that is problematic.
Washington state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, noted on his blog that “unlike the Confederacy statues throughout our nation which were built to formally honor those in that battle of ideas, this [Lenin] statue is distinctly not showcased in Fremont to celebrate the murderous, painful regime. It is instead installed as a testament to its defeat and the victory of open ideas through the medium and sometimes painful juxtaposition of art itself.”
As a Russian-Jew and descendant of those who were persecuted under Lenin, I am not triggered when I walk by the statue of Lenin. I recognize the irony of Lenin overlooking the progressive and inclusive neighborhood of Fremont. I appreciate the accompanying plaque, which explicitly states the purpose of the statue, and names Lenin’s crimes as: “communist policies that led eventually to the oppression and starvation of millions.” In addition, I do not live in a communist country, which gives me the privilege of not having to question the intent of this statue.
Conversely, the Confederate statues littered across America were not erected in jest. Their purpose was not to offer a critical lens on the American Civil War. Their plaques do not describe the atrocities committed at the hands of the Confederacy. Not only do the Confederate monuments represent taking arms against the United States, waging a war that resulted in the death of well more than 600,000 Americans, and the unwavering commitment to slavery, these statues also reside in a country still struggling with structural racism and white supremacy.
It is in this context that self-identified supporters of President Trump marched, their swastikas illuminated by torches, as they defended the statue of Gen. Lee.
In a recent interview with “Fox & Friends,” Vice President Mike Pence shared his position on the Confederate-statues debate by valuing quantity-over-quality: “I’m someone who believes in more monuments, not less monuments. What we ought to do is, we ought to remember our history, but we also ought to celebrate the progress that we’ve made since that history.”
However, all monuments were not created equal. It is imperative to recognize that while communism unequivocally lost the Cold War to democracy and capitalism, the Civil War did not defeat racism.
Conflating these two statues is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, which dilutes the national conversation. Instead of acquiescing to those who mistakenly point to the Soviet statue as a double-standard, we must remain steadfast in focusing on America, first.