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Students standing with Ukraine form New Russian Society

A New Russian Society at the University of Oxford has recently been created, with the aim of becoming a “safe space for everyone who wants to co-create a new, peaceful and free Russia”. Their Instagram bio makes it clear that they “stand with Ukraine”.

In the society’s first post to Instagram on 31st May, they state that they are run by “Oxford University students from Russia and of diverse Russia-related backgrounds” and they intend to provide a space for students who “resist the idea of Russian statecraft in its current form”.

Their goals include enabling discussion of Russian history, politics, and reforms, elevating the “narratives and contributions of marginalised communities”. They also seek to engage critically with the imperial legacy and impact of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Anastasia Ardasheva, an MD-PhD student in Graduate Entry Medicine at Harris Manchester College, is the society’s president. She told The Oxford Student that there had been interest in a new Russian society at Oxford for several years.

She stated that many ethnic Russian and Russia-related students at Oxford did not feel represented by the societies on offer and, in the wake of the war with Ukraine, wanted to create a society that was explicitly anti-Putin.

In spite of Putin’s unifying ideology of “one Russia”, Ardasheva emphasised there are many forms of Russian identity. Through the society she aims to represent those narratives by inviting guest speakers and building a community among Russian-identified students at Oxford.

In particular Ardasheva noted that in contrast to Putin’s oppression of “gay propaganda”, many members of the society were taking part in Oxford Pride events throughout June. An Instagram post stated that the society is “proud to embrace members and friends of the Society with their diverse and overlapping identities”.

The New Russian Society has already had its first event: a protest in support of Russian political prisoners on 4th June, the birthday of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which took place at 2pm outside the Radcliffe Camera.

Attendees were encouraged to print out pictures of Russian political prisoners, in particular less well-known ones, to be put up around the Radcliffe Camera as a reminder of their plight under Putin.

The protest was part of a global rally being held in numerous cities across the world, organised by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a non-profit founded by Navalny in 2011. The society said on Instagram after the protest that they wanted to show “solidarity with Russian political prisoners and recall how many brave people suffer in Russia for democratic and anti-war beliefs”.

Navalny has been in Russian custody since January 2021, having been sentenced to nine years in prison for embezzlement and contempt of court in March 2022. Amnesty International called the proceedings a “sham trial”.

Their statement ends by expressing that the formation of the society is a “sincere, albeit modest, attempt to combat the harmful deeds of the current Russian political establishment, prevent revanchism, and work actively towards the future where aggression becomes impossible”.

The “New” in the New Russian Society reflects its distinction from the Oxford Russian Club, founded in 1909 by Prince Felix Yusupov. An explicitly apolitical organisation, the Oxford Russian Club was criticised in February 2022 for its silence on the invasion of Ukraine.

The Oxford Russian Club’s website does not list a current committee and only includes two events on its Trinity 2023 term card: a coronation tea party and a Q&A session with the Russian ambassador to the UK, Andrey Kelin.

The Kelin Q&A, which took place on 11 May, was criticised when it was announced for its potential to be used to claim that Russia still has legitimacy in the west. He has denied Russian atrocities committed in Ukraine on several occasions.

When his invitation was announced, the Oxford University Ukrainian Society told Cherwell that “the presence of Mr Kelin in the city wedges a knife in an open wound”. Some Ukrainian Oxford students told the Oxford Mail that they had applied to attend the session with Kelin but were denied.

A protest took place outside the house the Q&A was hosted in. Anneliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East, expressed concerns ahead of the session that Kelin was being “given a platform to speak on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s regime”.

Ardasheva stated that although the New Russian Society was not formed in opposition to the Oxford Russian Club, her past interactions with its members had not been positive. She also argued that inviting Kelin to speak was essentially siding with Putin, despite the club calling themselves apolitical.

The Oxford New Russian Society aims to fill a previously unoccupied space, providing a safe and supportive community for students from or affiliated with Russia to explore ideas that contradict those of Putin.

Though they have only just submitted the paperwork for formal recognition by the University, it is clear that they have a lot of support from Russian-identified students and beyond.

Image description: protest in Solidarity with Ukraine, 6 March 2022, Oxford

Image credit: cons.maximus via Flickr