The Flag

Passing through the monumental gate of King’s College is an unforgettable experience for almost everyone. On the right-hand side rises the famous college chapel, behind the fountain with statues of the Founders centred in a field of perfect English grass, shines the white façade of Gibb’s building, constructed in the 18th century. On the left-hand side there is Wilkins’ building, where you can find among other things a college canteen. The whole court is a late-gothic and neogothic jewel, which still serves its original purpose.

Yet since the end of first term of this academic year, this highlight had a bitter aftertaste for anyone with direct or vicarious experience with the reality of Eastern bloc of the Cold War era, who entered the college bar in Wilkins’ building. On the crimson wall above the pool table a crimson flag caught the eye. The flag of, a Central- or Eastern-European blinks in disbelief, Soviet Russia. This unbelievable scenery could have been seen in the bar since 2004, when the flag was hung for an even more unbelievable reason. Some students had repeatedly drawn it on the bar walls themselves and the college will not tolerate vandals!
It does not come as a surprise that having this, at the very least controversial, symbol in the bar has not been welcome by many members of the College. There have therefore been many attempts to take it down since. But all these attempts have been refused in a secret vote, in which any student could participate. The last such attempt took place in the academic year 2016-2017, one year before I entered the College. It was reportedly highly medialized, certain external conservative journalist even came to agitate for the removal of the flag to the Student Union open meeting. But his fiery speech has been somewhat contra productive and as a result likely led to the victory of advocates of the “College tradition”.
That was the opinion of the silent majority. A student usually stays at the College for three years, so in their view the flag has been in the bar forever. Why remove it now? Especially since it was so excitingly provocative. Some even thought that it, in my view in a bizarrely perverse way, represented the College’s values. How is this possible is quite tricky to see from the viewpoint of a citizen of a post-communist country. It is however necessary to see the whole picture. 
A typical student comes from an English aristocracy, has above average intelligence and for them the university is a place, where they begin to gain independence. It is therefore necessary for them to start dealing with their origin. A typical reaction to the new environment, where, often for the first time in their life, they are not celebrities, is leaning towards the left-wing, emphasising issues of the working class, ecological or human rights activism. King’s College has reputation of a progressive, rather leftist and open college, so it naturally attracts such minded students. In the mind of a young intellectual, for whom horrors of life in the Eastern bloc are just a GCSE history topic, or sadly even a product of Western propaganda, defying the elites leads naturally to decriminalisation and advocacy of a political utopia, which gets rid of social differences and recovers the past wrongdoings committed by their own social class against rest of the society. Socialism, Marxism or even communism hence become fresh innovative ideas with the potential to solve current world problems. Through this lens, faded war between fascism and socialism shines in bright colours. Best of luck to a conservative journalist, obviously standing on the “wrong” side of this dispute, who would dare to present his opinions at our beloved College. 
When in December of 2018 me and about five other Central- and Eastern-Europeans set up a movement to once again try to remove the Soviet flag from the bar, we had all of this in mind. Considering these circumstances, it was clear that basing our campaign on political arguments was doomed to fail. We therefore decided for a different tactics. We focused on the various ways, by which we personally are affected by the Soviet crimes. How they still impact our nations, our home countries, our families. Wouldn’t it be egotistic to favour our own opinions shaped by the environment, in which we grew up, over opinions of our schoolmates, which have the same origin? What would have been the effect of such campaign? 
The peak of our motion was a speech our Russian leader had at a Student Union open meeting. She talked about her grandfather, a GULAG survivor, and emphasised, how badly the flag misrepresents progressivity, openness and other values praised by the College. I do not think I have ever experienced a more emotional moment caused by just words, than the few seconds following her last sentence. Even our opponents were moved so deeply that in the following discussion no one spoke out against our intention. When it came to the online vote next day, results revealed in the evening by the college chaplain made it clear that the impact of our leader’s words lasted. Our motion was supported by as many as 230 out of 266 voting undergraduates, post-gradual students, who mostly did not attend the open meeting and hence did not hear the speech, supported our proposal only 54 to 41. 
Every person comes from somewhere else. Context in which we grow up can be vastly different. Our values and opinions are in the most part the result of our life’s journey and it is necessary to keep this in mind. Even of our own views. Thinking dogmatically about our own visions leads only to radicalisation, alienation and terminates any discussion. Influential conservative journalist with perfectly constructed argumentation wasn’t successful, a student telling the story of her family was. Each of our lives has different context, but we are all humans. Empathy, understanding of the origin of other’s views will certainly not convince them about our truth. But it leads to human understanding, mutual respect and enables the enriching coexistence of groups with vastly different opinions. 

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