Red flag: Cambridge students vote to remove Soviet flag from their bar

Flag removed from King's College bar after 10 years amid heated debate on its symbolism

Students at King’s College have voted to take down a Soviet flag that has hung in the college’s communal bar for the past 10 years.

It had originally been put there to deter students from vandalising the bar. Before it was put up undergraduates regularly painted the hammer and sickle symbol on the crimson walls; when the bar was repainted in 2004 a group of Fellows decided to hang the symbol there as a nod to the tradition.

It has been seen as an emblem of the activism and radical left politics linked with students at the college, but despite its cult status the flag has caused deep controversy within the college. King’s students’ union held two previous votes on the issue in 2005 and 2010. The decision to replace the flag – voted by a majority of 48 to 35 – followed two weeks of heated debate earlier this month.

Linguistics undergraduate Lisa Karlin, who proposed the motion, pointed to the offence caused by the flag: “the regime it represents makes many members of the college feel uncomfortable".

She said, “Having it there represents either ignorance or apathy. Ignorance, because members of the college were not aware that the flag would cause offence to large groups of people, or apathy: they simply didn’t care.”

The student union international officer Tomohito Shibata said that the flag evoked “dark histories” for those students with families affected by tyrannical political regimes.

Chad Allen, a PhD student, said that some of the most compelling arguments “came from students with family history of the reality of Soviet brutality, as well as the brutality of other historical regimes, such as the British Empire”.

But many remain opposed to removing the flag. First-year Modern Languages student Francesca Ebel sees the flag as “a historical artifact and a powerful cultural symbol, rather than a mark of oppression.

“For King's it is a nod to our recent, radical history – especially the swathes of champagne socialists who pass through our gilded halls!”

Second-year Middle Eastern Studies student Laurence Rowley-Abel said, “The flag stands for a rejection of the prevailing authorities and, despite its location at the heart of an institution that is part of these authorities, serves as a reminder of student defiance.

“In a time when radicalism has such little support, especially in an institution such as the University of Cambridge, the loss of this flag is just another step towards unquestioning neutrality.”

The President of the student union, Ivan Tchernev, said, “I personally feel that this is a positive move on the part of the student body; a symbol which so deeply offends some of our own members cannot truly represent us to the outside world. Now, we have a chance to pick a symbol that will.”

King’s students will vote on a replacement for the flag.

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