With Statues Toppling, is there a Double Standard over the Lower East Side Lenin?
As statues are deposed and defaced around the country, one Lower East Side fixture still stands tall – Vladimir Lenin. He oversees the downtown environs from his perch atop 178 Norfolk Street, arm outstretched towards the hallmark of American capitalism: Wall Street.
This begs a question – how can an icon for a dictator who facilitated the birth of Soviet Russia and the death of countless lives remain unquestioned, while the likes of Abraham Lincoln and others are in the lime light?
The story of Lenin’s arrival on the Lower East Side is fairly interesting; why he landed here, even more so. As previously noted, the statue was originally commissioned by the communist U.S.S.R., but with the state’s dissolution in 1989, it was no longer wanted. That same year, the “Red Square” development was built by developers Michael Shaoul and Michael Rosen at 250 East Houston. When asked why he named the property Red Square, Mr. Shaoul explained that it was ”related to changes in Eastern Europe.” Rosen and Shaoul reportedly found the statue of Lenin trashed in a backyard just outside Moscow, and installed it New York five years later.
Back in the 1990s, they even went so far as to create marketing in the form of postcards saying, ”Greetings from Red Square” which, according to the New York Times, depicted Lenin with his right arm raised victoriously over the downtown skyline. Mr. Shaoul indicated that “Lenin faces Wall Street, capitalism’s emblem, and the Lower East Side, ‘the home of the socialist movement.”’
Since then, though, the building has been sold, painted white, the Red Square moniker discarded, and the statue relocated to a rooftop on Norfolk Street. Some have argued that Lenin is “welcoming capitalism” with his arm outstretched, ceding to Western economics.
The history of the actual Red Square in Moscow precedes the 16th century, far earlier than communism, the Soviet state, or leaders like Lenin. It was originally called “Great Market,” but during an invasion in 1571, a fire burned down a church in the square, which people then referred to as the “Burnt Square.” Over the next century, the area evolved into what we now know as “Red Square,” the color red in Russian relating to the word “beautiful.” Of its many political uses throughout history, Red Square also served as a centralized location for the Soviet state, with Lenin’s mausoleum still a prominent fixture available for tourists to visit.
The fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1989 was celebrated in Russia and around the world, with hundreds of statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other prominent figures removed thereafter. And yet, one found its way to New York City. So, to first name a residential development “Red Square,” claiming it’s “related to changes in Eastern Europe” and then subsequently erecting a statue of Lenin could be interpreted as glorification. (Not to mention ironic, given the cost of living here and its function in area gentrification.)
With today’s charged political climate in mind, it’s important to raise the question: does Vladimir Lenin’s statue perpetuate a double standard?
A quick dive into Lenin’s highlight reel is not encouraging. He was at the forefront of the October (Bolshevik) Revolution, a bloody event that resulted in countless deaths. The Bolsheviks coined the slogan “All Power to the Soviets,” implying all power to grassroots democratically elected councils, which would become Lenin. Following the revolution and bleeding into the Russian Civil War, Lenin was directly involved with the Red Terror, resulting in the arrest, imprisonment, and/or execution of those who opposed the Bolshevik ideology. His widely known ideology, dubbed Leninism (an offshoot of Marxism), was a dictatorship masked in communism; his benevolence allowed minority ethnic groups to secede from the Soviet Union, but he imposed military force to ensure they adhered to socialist ideologies.
After World War I and the civil war, Russia’s economy was in shambles; Lenin’s answer was the administration of his New Economic Policy (NEP). It was successful at helping the economy recover through agriculture and the redistribution of feudal lands; it’s the only time we see capitalism and free market economic theory surface during Lenin’s time, but even this was subject to state control. He created a dictatorship for the proletariat that would subsequently lead to the reign of Josef Stalin, resulting in millions more in casualties. (It’s estimated that deaths due to communism range between 85 million to 200 million, and that doesn’t include wartime casualties.)
There are some obvious reasons why this particular Lenin statue hasn’t been removed from the Lower East Side. It’s on private property and privately owned. Maybe it’s just another example of communist chic. Maybe it’s Rosen and Shaoul exercising their freedom of speech.
And yet despite these roadblocks, this statue of Lenin (as well as the one in Seattle) has gone unquestioned during the ongoing 2020 protests. Here’s an historical figure who has no direct relevance to the formation of the United States or connection to its histories; a figure whose beliefs and morality are counterintuitive to American ideological beliefs as a country; a figure whose atrocities far outweigh his positive impact on Russia and the rest of the world; a figure with a clear-cut, far-left agenda that resulted in many millions of deaths.
The elephant that’s always been in the room when talking about social democracy and socialism is fallibility, that pesky, inescapable human condition. Humans are prone to error and corruption – no one is perfect, no one will ever be perfect. The foundations of socialism and the ability to redistribute wealth are predicated on unequivocal trust and the complete reliance on government; if the government cannot be trusted in implementing smaller policies, it’s not going to be able to handle a full overhaul into socialism. And even if the government is completely overthrown, and a new one rises, someone will always be looking to benefit because of human fallibility. If we’ve learned nothing else from history, we know that greed is a powerful motivator and a cruel mistress.
This concept of fallibility can be applied to this question of the removal of statues. If nobody is perfect, why do we erect monuments in their name? Is it better to not remember our past, erasing all signs of it? When do accomplishments for the country outweigh the indiscretions of the individual? The point that seems to be missed with the rash removal of statues is that statues are often the ideé fixe of their time; that is, they are the product of an ideology or historical occurrence that may have moved something forward, or may serve as a present day reminder of what once happened. To have individuals take it into their own hands to remove a statue or monument without understanding the full history behind why it was put up, the individual’s life surrounding it, the political, economic, and social climate at the time, or their contribution in shaping our country, is both irresponsibly iconoclastic for the modern age, and short-sighted.
To remove every statue regardless of morality is to strip a nation of its heritage – the good, the bad, the ugly. Erasing history because of safetyism or as an emotional reaction is dangerous; first it’s statues, next it’s the history books, and then history inevitably repeats itself. What is history there for if not to learn from our successes and mistakes of the past? To only keep up the “good” statues is putting a false sheen on history; glorify the good, bury the bad. And who determines what defines “good?” But to erect statues for any and all political leaders or notable people without taking into account how we collectively view their morals is also problematic; imagine a United States with statues of Hitler or Osama Bin Laden standing tall.
What it all boils down to is how do you measure a leader’s (or a person’s) moral worth? Is there a universal scale on which to weigh them? Do their accomplishments for the good of the country outweigh how they behaved in their personal life, in the world they lived? There aren’t any guidelines in place, or moral compasses to guide during a witch hunt in the Information Age; it’s possible to find anything on the Internet that assuages the echo chamber. Perhaps a more diplomatic, democratic way of addressing the removal of statues and monuments is in order – a vote within the jurisdiction. Or maybe placards should be placed on the monuments, explaining the creator’s artistic vision, along with achievements and shortcomings of the individual being honored.
The United States prides itself on freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but it would be prudent to fully examine the historical and cultural significance of a figurehead before calling for its removal, when other, far more notorious leaders stand tall without question.