King’s votes (again) to keep Soviet flag

Ashley Chhibber 25 January 2014

An Open Meeting of the King's College Student Union (KCSU) has voted tonight (Saturday 25 January) to retain the image of a Soviet flag hanging in the bar – despite a motion passed at the end of last term to have it replaced.

A motion to remove the framed flag, placed in the bar in 2004 by fellows in response to students painting the hammer-and-sickle symbol on the walls, was proposed by Linguistics student Lisa Karlin in Michaelmas term 2013. Karlin, whose family is Ukrainian, has condemned the image as reminiscent of an "oppressive regime"; her motion to "remove or alter" the image was passed after great debate last term by 45 votes to 38.

It was decided that a 'hustings' process would be used to choose a replacement image, suggested by students, and 15 flag suggestions went through to this round.

Yet in a dramatic turn of events, second-year historian Max Kelsey this week submitted an emergency motion to retain the current image amidst allegations that the previous debate was founded on "inaccurate and misleading information" – namely, that the image on display is that of a flag first flown two years after the death of Stalin.

Instead, Kelsey proposed that a plaque should be added to explain the history of the flag and its context in King's, as well as information about the debate which has been held thus far. He also suggested that the flag hustings ("flustings") go ahead as proposed, and that the winner(s) "be displayed along with, rather than instead of, the hammer and sickle".

Several points were raised during the resulting debate, including the suggestion that the two flags in question were so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable, and it was noted that severe atrocities (including the construction of the Berlin Wall and the violent suppression of a Hungarian uprising) were also committed under the regimes of Khrushchev and subsequent leaders of the USSR which followed that of Stalin. The discussion appeared to be going around in circles, to the apparent exasperation of the Chair, until Domus officer Giles Pengelly successfully proposed that the discussion be "guillotined" and the original motion put directly to vote.

Following final speeches for (Laurence Rowley-Abel) and against (Lisa Karlin), the motion to retain the flag and institute a plaque – a discussion of the wording of which had already delayed the motion further – was passed by 51 votes to 34.

Tom Watson, a King's Medic, suggested that the whole issue should remind us of the maxim that "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" – a variation of a comment made by philosopher George Santayana, who himself studied at King's.

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed worry that "King's is being torn apart" by this debate, and told The Cambridge Student: "We voted to keep the flag because we believe that the plaque explains the context, which is absolutely not to show support for the atrocities committed by Stalin (or any of his successors). As a college we are being made out to be monsters but I genuinely do not believe a single person who was present at the vote set out to hurt or upset anyone."

Yet another King's student, Rosie Jewell, told TCS: "Our college has just overwhelmingly told certain members that their voices don't matter. We have prioritized a fantasty of radical ideology – the realities of which we have chosen to ignore – over the inclusion of all our members in a tolerant environment. This is not what I thought the King's spirit is about at all."

The final decision is similar to that of a debate in 2010, which also voted to retain the Soviet image. The vote on a supplementary image will be held tomorrow (Sunday).