In the midst of nationwide upheaval around representations of America’s brutal history, this region is no stranger to the potency of civic symbolism: King County, originally named after a slave-owning Alabama senator, was rechristened in 1999 to honor the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The city of Seattle’s eponym was chief of the Duwamish, a tribe that’s still denied federal recognition. The waterway named after that tribe, Seattle’s only river, remains a federal Superfund site. Far away from the former Confederacy, there’s still much historical reckoning to be done here.
The horrifying events at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville spurred the removal of Confederate monuments around the country. In Durham, a crowd of protesters toppled a statue at the Old Courthouse. In Baltimore, the mayor had monuments removed overnight. In Arizona, a memorial to Jefferson Davis was tarred and feathered. Here in Seattle, pictures rocketed around social media of a Confederate memorial in Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill .
A handful of alt-right activists also converged on the Vladimir Lenin statue in Fremont, marching in a tiny circle wearing Trump regalia and bearing signs that said “Hitler=Stalin” and “Marxism=Bigotry.” The “protest” was a sneering tit-for-tat, seemingly oblivious to the statue’s quirky Fremont context. Mayor Ed Murray quickly called for its removal along with the Confederate memorial in Lake View. (Both are on private property and thus fall outside of his immediate jurisdiction.) State senator Reuven Carlyle defended the Fremont Lenin, calling it “a symbolic representation of the victory of democracy and freedom over oppression.”
Suzie Burke is a major commercial landowner in Fremont, and she was part of the effort to install Lenin. She was a member of the Artistic Republic of Fremont, a civic group that made moves in the early ’90s to draw more attention and commerce to the neighborhood. The group was looking for public attractions that would entice people around without costing anything. Peter Bevis, then owner of the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, had acquired the statue from the family of Lewis Carpenter, the man who imported it from then-Czechoslovakia to Issaquah, where its erection was denied. Burke recalls that when the sheet was dropped at the statue’s unveiling in 1995, they pretended it was the wrong “Lennon.”
“It’s been a joke from the get-go, something to make conversation,” she says. “It’s a good statue; it’s not a flattering statue. In the case of Lenin, art outlasted politics.”
Burke laughs off criticism of the statue as sheer nonsense from people who just don’t “get it.” She says, “We’ve [also] got a Korean War-era rocket on one of the buildings, pointed at City Hall. Tell ’em to get a sense of humor!”
Sarah Kavage lived up the street from Lenin for 12 years. She’s an artist who’s done large-scale, geographically specific public work like 2015’s Duwamish Revealed, a summer-long series that took place along the river and drew on the area’s history, ecology and culture. She’s never liked the Fremont Lenin.
“This was basically part of a marketing scheme, ‘wacky Fremont.’ It was a very consciously constructed effort on the part of Fremont merchants to cultivate this image,” she says. “The story of how it came to be here is really interesting. I also appreciate it as a sculpture. But when you’re putting things in public there’s a higher standard. You really have to think about who you’re representing and where and how you’re representing it.”
Kavage’s husband, artist Rob Zverina, is the child of Czech refugees, and they’ve both had discussions with Eastern Europeans in Seattle who are confused and dismayed by it. When Zverina’s sister visited them in Fremont, Kavage recalls her immediate response: “Why is this okay? I thought Seattle was progressive.”