When second-year Estonian-American student Kaia walked through the front gates of Trinity to volunteer at her freshers’ fair table at the end of September, she was expecting crowds pillaging for slices of pizza and energy drinks, exhausted society leadership teams pitching to hungover freshers, and endless stacks of coupons for free doughnuts scattered across Front Square. Instead, Kaia broke down into tears as she was met with the bright red flag of the Soviet Union (USSR), flying proudly next to the Campanile.
The campus-based branch of the pro-communist Workers’ Party was the group responsible for the flying of the flag. Workers’ Party TCD (WPTCD) told Trinity News that it aims to promote “a democratic, secular, socialist Irish Republic, and to cultivate an understanding of the policies of the Workers’ Party of Ireland among the students of Trinity College.”
Founded in 2018, the society has earned a substantial social media following, and many College students feel it is pushing the agenda of the future. In fact, seen by many as the only viable means of reconstructing society equitably and democratically, an affinity with communism amongst Gen-Zers has become widespread.
But for many whose families lived under the USSR, seeing the proud display of the hammer and sickle was horrifying; for them, this symbol does not represent a brighter future, but is a reminder of a genocidal past.
The flying of the flag of the USSR at the freshers’ fair raises an important question: does a line need to be drawn between communist theory (i.e. Marxist doctrine) and the real-life implications of the USSR? Though the hammer and sickle have become the hallmark of communist ideology, does displaying such imagery endorse genocide?
The ideological concept of communism originated in 19th-century Western Europe as a result of the work of German philosopher Karl Marx. In his famous texts, Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto, Marx advocated for the rights of the worker and explained that to eliminate the power imbalance that had formed during the industrial revolution, a “proletarian revolution” was inevitable and necessary. After this revolution, in which masses of workers would take to the streets in revolt, the proletariat would abolish private property and give voting rights to all members of society. The “new” society that followed would be free of crippling class distinctions.
The USSR was nominally an attempt to apply these Marxist ideas to the real world and in many ways, these Marxist policies worked. Under the USSR, forced industrialisation led to impressive rates of production and literacy rates skyrocketed as the state invested in education.
However, communism did not produce the utopia Marx had calculated. The brutal totalitarian practices initiated by the USSR’s leaders, particularly Joseph Stalin, lead to enormous suffering. Purges and show trials eliminated political dissent, and state-mandated famines caused millions of deaths in modern-day Ukraine and beyond. According to the University of Hawaii, it is estimated that from 1917 to 1987, anywhere between 28,326,000 and 126,891,000 people were killed by the actions of the Soviet state.
Today, those who live in former Soviet nations have mixed opinions of the USSR. Trinity student Elizaveta Makarova spoke to Trinity News about what she has observed being born and raised in Russia: “Some people (especially the older generation) are nostalgic for the times of the Soviet Union… Others remember those times as difficult due to the difficult economic situation and the lack of human rights and freedom of speech. They speak with bitterness about friends who would become informers at any moment.” Elizaveta added: “The majority of the younger generation treats the Soviet Union either indifferently or negatively, knowing the experience of their ancestors and families.”
Conversely, for the students of WPTCD, attitudes towards the USSR are more straightforward: “The loss of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the working class of the world, and ever since then there have been rollbacks on social democracy and workers’ rights worldwide. Countries like Yugoslavia, Libya, and Iraq have all been illegally invaded, destroyed, and plundered by the US and the EU.”
Ukrainian student Maksym Tieriekhov disagreed, pointing to the tragedy his family experienced under the USSR: “The greatest horror of the USSR was man-made hunger or Holodomor… I have not met a lot of members of my family because they died from hunger at a very young age.” He added: “I would say that it is a miracle that I have been born into this world. My grandfather, on my father’s side, survived only because his mother sent him to an orphanage, as her property was confiscated by the government, and she was left with nothing.”
He continued: “She did not have food to feed her own child, and she could barely feed herself. To survive, she had to eat grass and rotten potato, as those were the only crops that were not taken by the state.”
Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of the flag to bolster Russian nationalism since the start of the ongoing war in Ukraine, part of the frustration felt by many Eastern Europeans over this specific case is that the timing feels insensitive. In an interview with Trinity News, the Ambassador of Ukraine to Ireland Larysa Gerasko expressed her disappointment: “The red Soviet flag is used by President Putin’s regime and the Russian army in the ongoing brutal war against Ukraine which caused the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe … it is very sad that such a flag is displayed in the heart of a country where almost 100,000 people found protection from Russia’s occupation and war.”
Acknowledging the controversial nature of its decision to display the hammer and sickle, WPTCD said: “Flags are charged symbols. A flag may always offend some group.” However, they emphasised that “a good majority of the people who came to talk to us during freshers’ fair expressed positive views towards us flying the flag, including people from the former Soviet Union.”
“Seeing the flag was truly one of my proudest moments as a TCD student”
Anton Tishkovsky, a WPTCD member whose parents lived under the USSR, is one such student: “I was … extremely proud that someone was upholding the legacy of the soviet union … my great grandfathers fought to defeat fascism (one dying even). My family and grandparents all recall warmly of their lives in USSR and were forced to leave during the huge social upheaval and extremely poor conditions during the 90s, after the Soviet Union was dissolved by Yeltsin”. He said that “seeing the flag was truly one of [his] proudest moments as a TCD student”.
Trinity College Dublin Students Union (TCDSU) President László Molnárfi shares similar views. In a statement issued to Trinity News, he offered his perspective: “I am from Eastern Europe. I am a communist. I am not offended by the display of this flag … [The hammer and sickle] is a symbol of the communist movement globally, and this is a movement of equality, justice and the liberation of humankind.”
Molnárfi acknowledged, however, that “this flag has traditionally been associated with the state capitalist regimes of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc”. He said that “state capitalism is discredited and is not a viable political project, nor should we seek to replicate it” and “there is a nuanced discussion to be had about these regimes.” He concluded saying: “We should learn from the past mistakes and criticise them, as well as understand the reasons for the degeneration of the socialist experiments of the 20th century, namely the interventions of the Western imperialist powers. Socialism is the system best suited for human life, but it has to be bottom-up and democratic.”
WPTCD member Joshua from Dublin agreed: “The old flag was the flag of the tsar and his family and that didn’t represent everyone whereas the flag of the USSR was meant for workers and peasants, meant for everyone … my stepfather is from Estonia and he said that before [during the USSR], everyone got along in Estonia.”
But for Kaia, the lack of personal connection to the Soviet Union amongst the students she encountered representing WPTCD during freshers’ pointed to ignorance: “People really don’t get it unless they’ve experienced it or had family who were part of it … I asked the two people at the booth “Do you have any family connection to the USSR?” and the response I got was laughing at me and saying that the USSR doesn’t exist anymore … I clarified … and neither of them had any family connection whatsoever …. It’s confusing because it’s both ignorance but they also know what they’re doing and don’t want to acknowledge it.”
She added that the WPTCD’s Instagram page filled with memes like Ryan Gosling dressed in Soviet military costume, compounded her impression of ignorance. When asked about this, WPTCD said: “All of our posts on @workerspartytcd are 100% serious.”
Trinity student Nastya, who was born in Russia and whose family comes from St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad) agrees with Kaia: “I’d like to buy a ticket back to the past and send some fans of USSR in Trinity to live in 30m² Khrushchevka for an internship in a Soviet factory. They will want to go home very quickly.”
With all of this in mind, the question becomes: what action – if any – needs to be taken to address the effects the flying of this flag has had on students?
While Nastya was shocked and disappointed by the flag, she does not believe WPTCD has crossed any lines in regards to freedom of speech: “I don’t think that any censure should apply to any society, including cultural societies.” she continued: “Obviously they should be ready for an opposite reaction.” Others believe this does cross a line: “Are you okay with supporting genocide or not? I feel like it’s an easy choice to make … it’s hate speech,” Kaia said.
Both Kaia and Elizaveta called for acknowledgement of students affected by this from the College administration: “Unfortunately, at the moment the situation … has already happened and cannot be changed. However, the college could provide help and support to those who were negatively impacted by this story,” Elizaveta said.
For Ukrainian student Cherep Dariia, education is the answer: “Using Soviet Union symbols in public events is not appropriate … It is worth organising a series of informative events that would debunk the myth of the strong Soviet growth with truthful facts and illustrate the methods used by the Stalinist totalitarian regime to achieve its technical goals.” She added: “The [Workers’] party should consider other ways to identify itself and its activities.”
Unlike Cherep, Anton does not believe that WPTCD needs to find alternative means of identification: “The flag of the Soviet Union represents the worldwide workers’ movement and stands as a testament to its immense achievements, the emancipation of the working class from Tsarist brutality, the guarantee of a decent standard of living, education, healthcare, literacy, housing, women’s rights, the development of industry and essential infrastructure, and the defeat of fascism in the second world war.”
WPTCD member Lance, from France, agreed, asserting that the flag of the USSR is no different from any other national flag: “You can look back at the history of any flag and see that it is associated with genocide … you don’t see people flying a French flag and ask them: ‘do you stand for colonisation?’” He added: “If the USSR flag isn’t okay then no flag is … [the USSR flag is] just a logo at this point, the logo of communism more than the flag of the USSR.”
Speaking to Trinity News, Lithuanian Ambassador to Ireland Marijus Gudynas condemned the flying of the flag, describing Lithuania’s approach to matters concerning the USSR. In Lithuania, “Nazi and Soviet symbols… public denial of the crimes committed by [these regimes and] expressed support for both blood-stained regimes … are banned by law”. He continued: “We have familiarised ourselves with communism not only from the text in history books but from the very real and very tragic stories of our own families. I personally strongly believe that Soviet symbols alongside Nazi ones should be banned in all of the democracy-loving world to prevent these criminal ill-ideologies from poisoning the minds of young generations. Universities could become the driving force behind such discussions.”
When asked for the College’s opinion about this matter, a College spokesperson said:
“The freshers’ fair is organised by the Central Societies Committee and the Students’ Union. The College respects their autonomy in coordinating this initiative each year. While it is important that freedom of speech is maintained, we do sympathise with students who experience upset by the display of particular symbols and images.” They added that “it is important for those who coordinate such initiatives to always be mindful of this” and “student feedback received by the college is shared with the student organisations regularly”.
“You really just cannot separate the flag and support of the Soviet Union from the genocide of countless people and their ancestors”
For most of the Eastern European students who spoke with Trinity News, the seriousness of this situation cannot be overstated: “You really just cannot separate the flag and support of the Soviet Union from the genocide of countless people and their ancestors who I am [one] of … None of our lives would be the same if that had never happened and it’s a very concerning thing to see people supporting [and] being really nonchalant about it,” Kaia said.
To read the full interviews & statements of the Ambassador of Ukraine to Ireland, the Ambassador of Lithuania to Ireland, and the Workers’ Party TCD, please see the document linked here.