Fremont’s Lenin statue traces journey from Slovakia — and Issaquah
July 2, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
In Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood and, for a time in Issaquah, Vladimir Lenin, so reviled and revered throughout the 20th century, is just the dictator next door.
The reason a bronze Lenin statue came to rest in Fremont, the self-styled center of the universe, is almost as convoluted as a Cold War potboiler. The statue’s circuitous route led from Slovakia to Issaquah after a local man, Lewis Carpenter, chanced upon the statue in the former Soviet satellite state.
Overnight, after the Iron Curtain collapsed, residents discarded such Soviet propaganda symbols by the cartful.
Communism in Eastern Europe imploded not long before Carpenter, a business and English instructor at a nearby university, discovered the toppled statue in a Poprad, Slovakia, storage yard. Inside the hollow statue, a homeless man had set up camp.
The less-than-enamored Slovaks planned to melt down the statue for benches, but the college instructor offered another idea — purchasing the statue as a landmark — and cash.
So, after dropping $13,000 and slicing through red tape, Carpenter owned the statue. The transoceanic shipment to Washington cost another $40,000.
Carpenter, a colorful character and self-described playboy, could not resist the irony inherent in displaying Lenin in the Soviet Union’s archnemesis. Soon, however, tragedy caused the plan to screech to a halt.
Carpenter perished in a car accident on Stevens Pass in 1994, not long after Lenin arrived on the Eastside. Questions about the statue multiplied in the aftermath. How should Lenin be displayed? Should the statue be erected at all?
Maybe as a landmark for a restaurant specializing in Eastern European delicacies, as Carpenter had envisioned or, perhaps, as a public art piece in Issaquah, then home to a mere 9,000 people.
“There weren’t any takers,” Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger said. “My recollection is that people went, ‘Uh, probably not.’”
“Weird Washington” coauthor Al Eufrasio echoes the reasons Carpenter bought the statue. The guide to Evergreen State oddities includes a section about the piece.
“People say, ‘Hey, you’re putting up a monument to totalitarianism’ and then people go, ‘Nah, it’s not the point. The point is that art transcends politics.’ You have this kind of unique sculpture that you’re not going to see anywhere else in the country,” Eufrasio said. “It should be here. Where else are you going to see it?”
The flesh-and-blood Lenin seized power in 1917, and then executed the deposed czar, aristocrats and landowners. Russia morphed into the Soviet Union and, not long afterward, Lenin died from stroke-related complications.
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In a not-so-subtle snub to the Communist Party overlords in then-Czechoslovakia, sculptor Emil Venkov depicted Lenin not as a book-toting intellectual, but as a firebrand. The abstract shapes flanking Lenin suggest flames. Impressions in the bronze coattails hint at rifles and bayonets.
The statue stands 16 feet tall and tips the scales at almost 8 tons. (Lenin stood less than 6 feet tall in real life.)
Venkov, after spending a decade to create the piece, unveiled the statue just as communism in Eastern Europe faded into the sunset.
Fremont Fine Arts Foundry owner and sculptor Peter Bevis met Venkov and Carpenter after the men toured the foundry in the early ’90s, as Venkov searched for a space to sculpt a proposed piece, but nothing resulted from the appointment.
Bevis later heard about the Lenin statue after another sculptor told him, “‘Hey, I know this woman in Issaquah who has an 8-ton statue of Stalin, and could you melt it down or do something? She doesn’t know what to do with it.’”
So, more interested in enough bronze to last a lifetime than Cold War kitsch, Bevis left Fremont and headed east.
“When I found my way there, it was not Stalin, it was Lenin,” he recalled. “I feel more charitable toward Lenin. I think Stalin was just a thug, but at least Lenin wanted the people to have some rights.”
• • •
The statue rested ignominiously in pieces on a wooden pallet in a horse pasture east of Issaquah. In order to complete the journey from Slovakia to the United States, Lenin had to be cut narrow enough to fit inside a Sea-Land shipping container.
Bevis could only speculate about how the assembled figure might appear. In the meantime, as he pet the horses and snapped photos, “People started coming out of the various homes around the horse pasture, wondering what I was doing there.”
Then, the sculptor remembered Carpenter and Venkov calling on the foundry about a year earlier.
“I could see in these people coming out of the houses that Lew Carpenter was gone,” he said. “It sort of rends the fabric. That’s a father, a son, an uncle, a husband — all these different relationships. I kind of decided there and then that if I could bolt this statue back together, it would be metaphoric of bolting the family back together.”
Bevis, after agreeing to pay to relocate and reassemble Lenin from the countryside to the city, secured the pieces on a flatbed truck for the trek to Fremont. The sculptor paid more than $10,000 out of pocket for the project.
Upon reaching the foundry, volunteers spent more than a month in early 1995 fitting the three pieces together, only to discover the completed Lenin could not fit in the adjacent alley. The team lopped off a piece and then rebuilt Lenin at the installation site.
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Meanwhile, Fremont residents considered the impending addition to the neighborhood.
Kirby Lindsay, a longtime Fremont resident and columnist behind the neighborhood news website, The Fremocentrist, recalled handling angry phone calls about Lenin as a Fremont Chamber of Commerce employee.
“I remember the party when everybody said, ‘Oh, did you hear?’ and I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “It’s just a bronze statue. It could be just about anything and I’d be used to it in Fremont. It was only after they put it up that people got upset.”
Lindsay’s mother, prominent Fremont landowner Suzie Burke, offered space near a parking lot for Lenin.
The unveiling — a gauche display sure to embarrass any committed communist — included fireworks popping from the base and orange Nylon cloth shrouding the statue. Organizers also set up a microphone for people to speak at the debut.
“Some people said, ‘He was a murderer. He killed my family,’” Bevis recalled.
Other speakers found the tableau humorous, because Lenin landed in a stubbornly independent neighborhood near the Fremont Sunday Market.
“Here are microcapitalists, if you will, with their card tables and garage sale stuff — and Lenin’s presiding over them,” Bevis said.
• • •
Still, the statue induced strong and sometimes-unbridled emotions. Bevis received death threats after the installation.
“People also threatened me and said, ‘Well, we’re going to throw a rope around his neck and pull him over.’ Well, you see, in America we honor private property,” he said. “You can’t just go and destroy other people’s stuff.”
(The base is bolted down in order to prevent a coup d’état in the neighborhood.)
Fremonsters, a label neighborhood denizens sometimes use, developed a grudging tolerance, if not outright acceptance, for the statue.
Lenin had to be relocated to a wedge-shaped parcel on another block in 1997, after torrential rains destabilized the Fremont Sunday Market installation site.
“If you don’t like Lenin, you’re not going to locate here. Our cigar store loves being able to tell people, ‘around the corner from Lenin.’ Our new Russian dumpling restaurant makes sure its sandwich board is at the foot of Lenin when it’s open,” Lindsay said. “Most of the people who are locating here know where they’re coming to.”
In another statement potent enough to settle the debate about capitalism versus communism, Lenin is for sale. Experts from the Seattle Art Museum appraised the immense statue at $240,000.
The street corner installation is considered temporary until Carpenter’s family finds a buyer. In the meantime, the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, ironically enough, is the statue’s unofficial steward.
• • •
Lenin appears as a more fitting set piece for a military parade — rolling tanks, goose-stepping soldiers and martial music — than as a backdrop for bare and jiggling bodies astride bicycles at the Fremont Fair, a summer solstice celebration.
The scowling statue is also festooned in lights for Christmas — another no-no in the officially atheist Eastern Bloc — each December during the Lenin Lighting or, as Lindsay refers to the yuletide spectacle, “the multioffensive Lenin Lighting.”
The mishmash includes a radiant Star of David atop the statue as Santa Claus greets boys and girls at the base. Lenin, rather than leading to a glorious future, instead encourages peoples to patronize neighborhood merchants.
Fremont revels in such contradictions. The neighborhood embraces the statue, often in ways to spoof Lenin and communist politics.
The statue clutched a huge Winnie the Pooh toy for a time and, in a workers-of-the-world-unite moment, held a sign to support striking machinists. Celebrants doll up Lenin in drag queen makeup for the Fremont Fair and gay pride celebrations.
“If you want to accuse us of being capitalists, I got it. If you want to accuse us of being irreverent, sure. If you want to accuse us of being outrageously liberal, you might have a point,” Lindsay said. “But communists?”