Communism controversy at King’s College

Roanna Mottershead 11 February 2010

Proposals to remove a painting of a communist flag from King’s College bar have provoked controversy amongst its student body.

The motion was put forward by Stephen Downie, a fourth year MML student, after his visiting friends from Russia were “quite disturbed” by the presence of such a controversial national symbol in a social space.

This is a recurrent issue, with a similar debate occurring almost five years ago.

The open meeting was held on Thursday 4 February and lasted over ninety minutes, during which discussion became heated. Shayan Moftizadeh, who managed the meeting, resorted to standing on a chair throughout in order to make herself heard.

Opposition to the proposal was strong: PhD candidate Olivia Meehan stated that “the removal of the artwork in question would represent not only an overt act of censorship but a very serious rewriting of history and an even more disturbing attempt to pervert the pure stream of radicalism at King’s College”.

Another vocal opponent agreed that “it would be a shame to lose something clearly so powerful because of a simplistic and reductionist political correctness”.

Conversely, the associations with repressive regimes concerned other members, causing Will Caiger-Smith to pose the question “who would agree with having a Nazi flag up on the wall?”

A Russian student also commented that “since my great-grandmother was killed by this regime, I can’t look at it as just an artefact”.

The manner in which people expressed their opinions caused King’s College Student Union (KCSU) secretary Barnaby Bryan to email all college members admonishing those who showed a “complete lack of regard for standard open meeting etiquette and to be honest, basic human politeness and decency”.

The meeting was inconclusi although participants did vote to set up a decision was taken to establish a moderated online forum.

The forum suffered an initial setback when a prank meant that the link on the KCSU website took students to a YouTube video of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.

However, the discussion has since progressed: at the time of writing, twenty-four comments have been posted, one of which is 800 words in length.

The flag itself is a painting of the hammer and sickle, symbolic of the industrial working class and the peasantry.

The painting is in a gilt frame, which those who are protesting its removal suggest is ironic.

King’s bar has traditionally been painted socialist red, and the picture was put up as a memento after its redecoration in 2004. 

Much of the debate has centred on whether it was indeed a flag or a provocative piece of artwork.

Suggested proposals for the future of the flag include repainting it in King’s colours, replacing it with the Amnesty International symbol, or adding the open meeting minutes to the piece to emphasise its role in stimulating debate.

Discussion is ongoing, with actions such as turning the painting upside down overnight continuing to draw attention to the issue.

The next highly anticipated open meeting, at which the issue is to be decided, is scheduled for this evening.

KCSU President Juan de Franciscosummed up the debate by saying that “it’s clear that King’s is still a highly politically active College”.

Roanna Mottershead