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The bronze sculpture of Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin stands in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. (Bruce Chambers via Alamy)

My Family Was Hunted by Nazis. But I Was Fired For ‘Defending Hitler.’

David Volodzko criticized Lenin in ‘The Seattle Times.’ Now he is without a job. A story of profound intolerance in our country’s most “tolerant” city.

I was just fired from my job at The Seattle Times after defending Hitler. The only problem is, I never defended Hitler. In fact, my family was hunted by the Nazis; my grandfather was a Nazi killer who later almost died in a concentration camp; and some of my best journalistic work has been exposing neo-Nazi lies. But if you want to hear a story about the intolerance in our country’s “most tolerant” city and the erosion of civil discourse in American life, read on.

I began my career as a university lecturer of English and logic. Then, drawn by the need to tell stories of structural oppression, I switched to journalism. I have been a journalist for the past 15 years and have spent almost all of my adult life in Asia—four years in Japan, six in South Korea, three in China, one year traveling Southeast Asia, and two in Nepal and India, where for a short period I was homeless in Mumbai. But that’s another story.

My work has largely focused on East Asian politics and culture—everything from sexism in South Korea to the terrifying rise of Nazi chic in Mongolia. I wrote about North Korean refugees and Europe’s racist opposition to the Syrian refugee crisis. While living in Israel, I wrote about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held by Hamas for five years until he was released in a prisoner exchange in 2011.

Perhaps the reason I am drawn to hard stories in far-flung places is because of my family background. After Vladimir Lenin turned Russia into one giant gulag, my family was scattered like leaves. My grandparents became refugees—they settled in Paterson, New Jersey—and for the rest of his life my grandfather sent boxes of whole cloth, candles, paper, and other essentials to his beloved family whom he could never see again.

So when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, I flew to Eastern Europe to cover the war.

My work on Ukrainian refugees resulted in more than one story, including a piece for New York magazine about a therapist who helped a woman find the strength to flee her home amid explosions, saving her life and the life of her mother and daughter. I was never prouder of the work I’d done.

About one year later, having recently moved to rural Georgia from my wife’s native Peru, I received a job offer from The Seattle Times to be an editorial board member and columnist. Our entire family had moved to Georgia together—including my parents, my brother, and his wife—so it was a tough call. But after consideration, we sold our house. My wife and baby daughter flew to Seattle. I drove the moving truck.

I knew Seattle only by reputation. The great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, a vibrant Asian community—a strong Latino community too, so our daughter could grow up with Spanish-speaking friends—and residents who routinely approved tax hikes to ensure those in need of help received it. I should mention that our politics fit the bill: I am a democratic socialist and my wife is a DEI trainer. Suffice it to say, the city felt like a great fit.

The job was rewarding. From the first day, I found myself reporting on the protection of orcas and efforts to improve the level of civil discourse in Congress. When Pride Month came, my family proudly marched with The Seattle Times. What a beautiful new home, I thought to myself. How inclusive. How tolerant.

How naive.

Earlier this month, for my first official column, my boss urged me to write about the local statue of Vladimir Lenin that stands in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. The good people of Fremont enjoy dressing him up in tutus, Halloween costumes, and the like. I was more interested in writing about the astronomical cost of childcare in the city, but it wasn’t hard to make the column all my own. I simply had to talk about my refugee grandparents, making pelmeni with my babushka, and my grandfather Josef, the Nazi killer after whom I am named. I noted Lenin’s secret police raids, mass torture, forced resettlements, and genocidal killings.

The column began by reflecting on Karl Marx’s last words as a London-based correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, in which he “attacked the hypocrisy of Westerners who defend sacred values only when it suits them.” In other words, it was about selective outrage rather than the statue itself. I concluded by saying I am a democratic proceduralist who supports the community’s decision to keep the statue, even if it deeply offends me.

Readers thanked me. Some shared stories of their own families fleeing Russia, or told me how their grandmothers broke down weeping when they reached America only to find Lenin staring down at them in the land of the free. Many critics claimed I had advocated for tearing the statue down. Perhaps the most common criticism I received was that no one takes the statue seriously.

Oh, but they do. They admire it.

The day after my column was published, I received my first response. “The Seattle Times is so desperate for new staff they hire folks from rural Georgia for their editorial board?” Another wrote, “We don’t need more faux outrage.” Another reminded me it was the Soviets who “single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany” and that the statue was “simply a funky piece of art.” Still another, “You miss the point. It is a JOKE.”

I also received a flood of positive responses. People shared family stories and photos. A retired high school history teacher said my piece was “excellent.” Someone else called the column “an exemplar of reporting as civic leadership. Every touch is perfect.” One letter came from a descendant of Western Ukrainian stock who said the statue should stay “as a testament to the failure of Communism.” A Lithuanian refugee recalled living long enough to see statues of Lenin fall in Vilnius and sadly pondered whether she would live long enough to see them fall in America. 

I responded to almost every email, and tried to be gracious, even to the nasty ones. A few I even won over.

But I made a mistake when I posted the column on Twitter and compared Lenin and Hitler. Here’s what I wrote: “In fact, while Hitler has become the great symbol of evil in history books, he too was less evil than Lenin because Hitler only targeted people he personally believed were harmful to society whereas Lenin targeted even those he himself didn’t believe were harmful in any way.”

I was only speaking in terms of intention—of who wanted to kill more, not who actually did, and in a follow-up tweet I explained: “Hitler was more evil than Lenin if we’re looking at what they did to people and that’s a pretty important metric for assessing evil!”

Let me be absolutely clear: actually killing more people, which Hitler did, is more evil. Lenin killed 4 million people, possibly up to 8 million, whereas Hitler killed roughly 20 million, including 6 million Jews. “In terms of death and destruction, the Nazis were more evil,” I wrote on Twitter. I also wrote, “Hitler was more evil in terms of how many he killed.”

It’s the kind of topic that you can debate among trusted friends over drinks or dinner. But Twitter is very much not that kind of place. And the argument I was making is a fraught one even under the best of circumstances—you don’t need to compare anyone to Hitler to argue that they are evil—and my delivery was poor, to say the least. Four days after I started making these points on Twitter, I deleted the thread.

That said, I do believe that in our culture many people have very little conception that communist leaders—Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot—have a far higher body count than fascists. Nor do they appreciate that Lenin was more ambitious in this regard than Hitler: his aim was to kill as many people as he possibly could. All ages, classes, faiths, ethnicities, regions.

Nevertheless, people insisted I was “defending” Hitler. They called me a Nazi. They told me to kill myself—or suggested they’d do it for me. A local journalist claimed my ancestors were Nazis who “slaughtered Ukrainian Jews by the tens of thousands.”

I have been targeted by tankies and neo-Nazis on Twitter before. But this felt different, more widespread. It also seemed a number of my Seattle-based critics were using my words to go after the editorial board, which is viewed by some as overly conservative. A University of Washington professor told me, after I mentioned I was on the board and writing my first column about the Lenin statue: “I certainly loathe the editorials,” citing their “arch-conservative and often Trumpist line.”

I reject his criticism. I sat on the board. I was part of its arguments and conversations. Board members thought deeply, and were open to new ideas and counterarguments. These were thoughtful people and I imagined that they—often unfairly mischaracterized by ideologues— would surely stand by me as I was being smeared.

Six days after my piece was published, I was relieved when my boss told me she had reviewed the Twitter conversation and concluded I had obviously not “defended” Hitler. I was told the company had my back. I was told the paper would not stand for a lying Twitter mob coming after one of its own.

But then, just a few hours later, my boss called me and told me I was fired. 

The official reason for firing me was “poor judgment” and “continuing to engage online.” I shouldn’t have “engaged,” but I admit it was hard not to defend my family against the baseless accusation they were Nazis who had killed more than 10,000 Jews.

In a statement the day after I was fired, the paper tweeted that “[an] editorial writer engaged in Twitter recently in a way that is inconsistent with our company values.” The statement added: “We apologize for any pain we have caused our readers, our employees and the community.”

I’m well aware, as I explained in a subsequent apology, that my comparison of Lenin to Hitler was not only pointless but potentially dangerous: white supremacists could conceivably use my words to minimize Hitler’s atrocities—at a time when Pew research shows most Americans are clueless about the Holocaust, and the number of antisemitic attacks is rising. The thought of neo-Nazis weaponizing anything I said makes me sick. 

But if I’m honest, I don’t think neo-Nazis follow the internecine battles of leftist Twitter. This wasn’t about actual violence or actual Nazis. This was about punishing a person who, however sloppily, pointed out that evil can also emanate from those who claim to be ushering in good.

I had many defenders, especially within journalism. As soon as the Times issued its statement, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Dominic Gates expressed his anger in a since-deleted Twitter post, saying I did not deserve this. The paper’s former political editor Joni Balter, speaking on Seattle’s NPR member station KUOW, said the decision was an overreaction and that I “deserved another shot.” I appreciated those statements more than I can say.

I considered going silent, hoping one day to find work again once my fifteen minutes of infamy had passed and my reputation as the unhirable Hitler guy had faded. But staying silent won’t help me pay rent and childcare, or salvage my ability to continue doing journalistic work. It also won’t repair my good name or provide me with a clean Google search.

What kind of journalist would I be if fear made me shy away from discussing my experience of viciousness masquerading as social justice? What would it say about my devotion to injustice if I remain silent when it is visited upon my family? This is not an abstract problem. I am now jobless, living in downtown Seattle, which is costly, and unable to help support my family, including my baby daughter. We can no longer afford our apartment, but neither can we afford the fee to break our lease.

It was Lenin who said that a lie told often enough becomes the truth. I wish I could say he was wrong. But I am comforted by the words of one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote, “Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

David Josef Volodzko is a writer and journalist. His Substack, The Radicalist, covers communism, fascism, and other types of political extremism. You can read and support his work by subscribing here.

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