New York's Lenin Gets Toppled
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, I've been to dozens of cities -- most in the former Eastern Bloc -- where statues of Lenin have been taken down. I never thought I'd count New York among them, but as of Monday night, the city no longer has a statue of the man who led Russia's 1917 revolution.
New York's sole Lenin is a special case: It's privately owned by Michael Rosen, a former NYU professor, developer and investor, and his erstwhile partner Michael Shaoul. The two ran a small trading company, Oscar Gruss & Son. They weren't typical Wall Streeters, though. They installed the Lenin statue in 1994 on top of a red-brick doorman building in the East Village known as Red Square, the Soviet leader's outstretched hand pointed toward the financial district. "The Lower East Side had been for many decades a place of true political thought," Rosen explained. "So we hoisted Lenin to the top to wave to Wall Street."
Rosen, who now lives in Hanoi, Vietnam, told me the statue's story in an e-mail:
Long ago, there were three guys in New York doing work in Soviet Union art. I wanted a Lenin, and they had access to one. They sold me a brass sculpture of a somewhat grandfatherly Lenin sitting on a park bench, from the same sculptor. They also told me a story of a supposed Kandinsky they had uncovered, all that wonderful stuff of novels. I financed the overall process. The monumental Lenin cost little to nothing to purchase. The Kandinsky disappeared if it ever existed. The grandfatherly Lenin is in storage somewhere.
The Lenin wasn't particularly famous; not even in New York. That's unusual with Lenin statues: In former Communist countries, they occupied cities' central squares. When the Baltic states got rid of their statues, the large spaces felt empty. One after another, almost all the former Eastern Bloc nations removed their Lenins. Most recently, Ukraine enacted a "desovietization" law similar to Germany's denazification legislation, and massive Lenins have been removed in what was dubbed a Leninfall, in most cases leaving empty pedestals.
Russia, with its undying Soviet nostalgia that reaches all the way up to the Kremlin, still has its statues. It's probably too late to remove them: Generations of post-Soviet children have grown up without reading or hearing much about Lenin, and few people would have celebrated their disappearance as a symbol of shedding the Communist past.
New York held out along with Moscow, though the symbolism was different here. Rosen and Shaoul cared nothing about the Soviet state Lenin built on the blood of his enemies. They rescued their Lenin from the ruins of the Soviet empire as a recognizable counterweight to the power of money, a monument to the East Village's anarchic, revolutionary spirit. Even though Rosen has at times been portrayed as an agent of the area's gentrification, he has described himself as "a little fish in the East Village."
The Red Square building at 250 E. Houston Street has apparently been acquired by a real estate conglomerate. As Rosen, who still owns the statue, told me, "the new owner might or might not want it there, and I guess taking it off seemed an appropriate move." Lenin went down in an operation reminiscent of scenes in Eastern Europe, lowered by a crane and loaded on a truck bed.
"It might be put elsewhere on display in New York, but I don’t know more than that," Rosen wrote me. "It would be good to have the statue on display in the Lower East Side, where it has been for twenty plus years and has a certain symbolism, I believe, of the history of the neighborhood."
There would be nothing wrong with that. Berlin, which not only took down its giant Lenin statue in 1991 but buried it in the woods so it would never re-emerge, recently disinterred its 4-ton head to put on display. There's no reason that New York shouldn't find a new place for its own reminder that poor people can rise up and do ugly things when led by a charismatic individual.
As for Rosen, his current hometown still features a Lenin statue. "We have a quite big Lenin statue on a street called Dien Bien Phu, commemorating a place and a time where the Vietnamese figured out how to send the French home," he wrote. "It reminds me of our New York Lenin. Different, but the same."
I am not nostalgic at all for Communism and for my ugly Soviet childhood. I understand the different shades of symbolism, though. I will come see Lenin again if he resurfaces in New York.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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