Context is Everything

God, but I love Seattle. And of all the unique neighborhoods that make up this city, my very favorite is Fremont. If houses went for something less than a half million dollars and actually came with parking spaces and decent sized yards, I’d live there. I do believe that this quirky, artsy neighborhood may in fact be the center of the universe, as its residents claim.

And right in the center of that center, so to speak, is a 16-foot communist-era bronze statue of Lenin, straight out of Czechoslovakia. The first time I saw it, I almost drove off the road. (I bet he gets that a lot.)

Needless to say, this statue is more than a little controversial. Lenin was the architect of destruction for millions of people. An indescribable amount of evil was done in his name. This is not a man that should be glorified by anyone. At a time when this nation is struggling with whether to keep or tear down its confederate monuments (Get rid of ‘em, I say. Check out my blog post here.) why would anyone even consider letting a statue of Lenin stand?

Context, I say. Confederate statues are still revered by many in the areas in which they were erected. More and more, they are becoming rallying points for hate rallies. Many of them were put up with an agenda, during the era of Jim Crow. They say, “Never forget who’s boss here, boy.”

Fremont’s Lenin, on the other hand, is mocked. People like to sit on his head during parades. His hands are often painted blood red, which I think should be a permanent change. He’s been dressed in drag during Pride week, and has been known to sport a clown nose. People pose in front of him, making funny faces. If that statue says anything at all, it’s, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” And thank goodness for that.

Unfortunately, this statue is a source of pain for some. That does make me sad. I hope the fact that in this case he is depicted in front of flames and guns, and the idea that no sane person looks upon it longing for that point in history, as many of the viewers of the monuments of the confederacy are wont to do, will bring people some level of comfort.

So, as long as the current context remains, I hope that this Lenin will remain standing. Lenin, with a clown nose and a tutu and blood on his hands, has much to teach us about the follies of the past.

It’s been for sale for years, by the way. $250,000, or best offer. So if you’re looking for a 16 foot communist lawn ornament (although I can’t imagine why you would be), there’s one available in Seattle.

Lenin
The Fremont Lenin, with blood on his hands and “murder” written on his leg.

 

The Best Museum I’ve Ever Seen

Walking down Andrassy Street in Budapest at high noon can be a chilling experience regardless of the temperature. It’s a beautiful historic boulevard with gorgeous architecture, and you have enjoyed every bit of your Budapest experience up to this point. The food, the people, everything about Budapest is lovely. And then a shadow crosses your path, and it says “Terror”. In English. In big, block letters. And that’s by design. You look up at the building that has created this word and realize that in a not so subtle way, it has also created that feeling within you. It’s grey. It’s austere. It’s imposing. It’s Budapest’s House of Terror, the best museum I’ve ever encountered in all my travels.

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This building used to be Nazi headquarters during their brief occupation, and then became the headquarters of a Communist terror organization for 40 years. Untold numbers of people were tortured and killed in this building. It’s a part of history unpleasant to recall, but one which should never be forgotten.

You take a deep breath as you enter because you get the feeling you will need it. When you walk into this building, you are greeted by a huge Russian Tank that isn’t dwarfed by the cathedral ceilings. What does dwarf it, however, are the rows upon rows upon rows of photographs of the people who entered this building and never came out again. It renders you silent. And the eerie music makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up.

Terror Tank

From there you go up to the top floor and work yourself down to the scary basement, which was the one place on earth you did not want to find yourself in that era. That basement looms in your future the entire time you’re in the place.

What is so incredibly impressive about this museum is that it isn’t row upon row of cases of artifacts and dry explanations. Let’s be honest. Halfway through a museum of that type, you tend to stop reading, stop learning, and you just look at the displays and move on. But this museum isn’t only about informing you. It’s about making you feel like you were there. It uses a variety of displays, including video, abstract art, and actual artifacts, so you are never bored.

There are a lot of videos with English subtitles that show people who have survived this building, people who haven’t, and what was actually happening in Hungary during these occupations. There is a room filled with communist propaganda posters that make you really feel how absurd and yet how powerful and scary the adherents to this movement were. Each room has flyers with an English explanation of the display, which is very helpful and informative.

One room had run out of flyers, however, and I wish it hadn’t. The walls were made of these white rubbery bricks. What did they represent? Rendered human fat? I guess I’ll never know, and that made it all the more chilling.

Another room holds banks of listening devices, and really brings home the fact that you couldn’t say anything to anyone, anywhere, ever. They were listening, and they did not have your best interests at heart. How exhausting to have to live under that level of paranoia just to survive.

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As you go downward, ever downward, you are treated to a display of the puppet court that could sentence you to death just for being Jewish, and/or intellectual, and/or an enemy of the State. You really sense the feeling of helplessness.

And then you arrive in the basement. The ceilings are low and feel as if they are trying to crush you. Everything is grey. You see the labyrinth of tiny suffocating cells and the torture chambers, and you can almost hear the sounds of people screaming from years ago. As I peeked into one room, which was designed for a type of torture so horrible that I can’t even bring myself to describe it to you, I was hit by this wall of terror so tangible that I nearly sank to my knees. I had to leave. I mean, I HAD to get out of there.

Perhaps the most profound and meaningful experience in that museum is leaving it. You have been transformed. You have gotten a little tiny taste of what life must have been like under a terrorist government. The fear, the futility, the inevitability of it all, the hopelessness, all of that resides within that building. And then you walk outside into the beautiful city of Budapest and see the hustle and bustle, the variety, the joy that is that place, and you are struck by the fact that they’ve overcome. That it’s possible to survive.

As long as you never forget, it’s possible to be free.