By Patrick Jackson
BBC News website, Moscow
Juldas Okie Etoumbi, a postgraduate international relations student at Moscow's RUDN university, remembers well his first encounter with a Russian.
Gabriel Kotchofa says the number of prosecutions is minute
Standing in a Moscow Metro carriage for the first time, the young Gabonese man was thrown forward when the train started with a jolt and he grabbed a pole to keep his balance, brushing the Russian man's hand.
Without a word, the Russian withdrew his hand, produced a handkerchief and proceeded to wipe it demonstratively in front of the other passengers.
Christian, a former electrical engineering student from Cameroon now working in Moscow, was recently assaulted by a group of about 10 teenagers on a Metro train in the city centre.
Struck by a bottle on the head, he fell in a pool of blood. The driver kept the carriage doors shut at the next station and police caught three of the gang, but Christian thinks no action was taken.
When Somali civil engineering student Mukhtar Ahmed Osman was beaten unconscious in the snow by a gang of teenagers in a Moscow suburb, nobody came to his aid.
While much of the violence seems to be purely racist, some believe Africans are also targeted as scapegoats for Russian society's ills and the media is often accused of fostering an image of African students as drug-dealers.
The attacks have turned murderous in recent years. In St Petersburg, three Africans have been killed in suspected race attacks since September.
Non-African foreign students have also been murdered, but it is the black students who attract most attention from the racists.
Juldas, now leader of the African students at RUDN, says "monkey" insults and actual assaults are so frequent that students have ceased reporting them.
"We see it as normal now because that's how we live."
Gabriel Anicet Kotchofa, head of the Foreign Students' Association in Russia, offers fellow Africans considering an education in Russia two pieces of advice: "Consider your personal safety" and "Make sure your parents can pay your living costs".
Such considerations did not exist when he arrived in Moscow a quarter of a century ago from Benin.
No Soviet citizen, he recalls, would have dared raise their hand against a foreigner, and the USSR bore all the costs of its student "guests" from the developing world.
Benin was then "building communism", he says, and an education in the Soviet Bloc was a vital chance for poor students without the connections to net a French grant, for instance.
After the USSR collapsed, Russia paid no grants to foreign students for five years. A fraction of the system was restored in 1997, and today the number of foreign students in Russia from outside the ex-USSR is barely half the 1991 figure.
Some 1,000 African students from 43 states now study at RUDN, Moscow's purpose-built university for foreign students.
Communism may have gone, but the quality of Russian education is apparently still high.
"If you are prepared to study, you can get an education here you would not get even in the West," says Juldas.
'Pointless to complain'
As a professor at Moscow's Gubkin Oil and Gas University, training cadres for such giants of the market-driven economy as Gazprom and Lukoil, Mr Kotchofa is very much at home in the new Russia but is bitter about some post-Soviet "liberties".
"One thing democracy brought Russia was the freedom to insult and attack people and be sure of not being punished," he says.
He can, he adds, count on his fingers the number of criminals punished for hate crimes and "even the murders are immediately treated as cases of hooliganism".
"Because nobody is arrested, it has become pointless to complain to the police."
What worries him especially is that organised groups appear to be inciting the violence with impunity, with slogans like "Russia for the Russians".
RUDN students attending faculties off the campus, which has its own police station and security guards, have found the three days around Hitler's birthday in April particularly stressful, with neo-Nazis often turning up to taunt them with Hitler salutes and abuse.
Inna Svyatenko, chairwoman of Moscow City Council's Security Commission, accepts that Moscow has a problem with "groups of hooligans who have in common only a taste for public disorder", and that Africans are particularly at risk.
Better protection for foreign students is being discussed, she says, along with the idea of a new city police force to specifically protect foreigners.
Student leaders report that the worst of the racist violence is now in the provinces, but believe this is largely because of new anti-terrorism measures in the capital.
Ms Svyatenko attributes some of the problem to a common misconception that foreign students are taking college places away from Russians.
RUSSIA'S FOREIGN STUDENTS
Total about 103,000, including 43,000 from other ex-Soviet states
About 15,000 are African
Some 15,000 former students are staying on illegally, including about 5,000 Africans
Source: Foreign Students' Association in Russia
Some suggest violence against foreigners may also be a sublimation of aggression towards Caucasian ethnic groups such as Chechens and Azerbaijanis, regarded as harder targets.
Moscow sociologist Nikolai Fyodorov sees a deep-rooted psychological need for an "enemy figure" dating back to the Cold War.
And he says irresponsible Russian journalism adds to the dangerous mix, with television crime reports regularly identifying the ethnic background of suspects.
A decade ago, when foreign students were struggling to survive without Russian state funding, African student drug dealers were in the spotlight.
"Back then Africans were in a desperate social situation, and when a person needs money that badly they may agree to do anything," says Juldas.
Even today, one in 10 Africans at RUDN has to live on a daily budget of 15 roubles ($0.50, £0.30), the price of a loaf and two eggs or a single ticket on the Metro.
But speaking as a student rep, Juldas says the drug problem appears to have all but disappeared, and new students are warned about the dangers of being recruited by dealers.
"Sadly, however, the stereotype of the drug dealer in the media here is the black student," he adds.
Some students have simply abandoned their studies and left. The Foreign Students' Association knows of Vietnamese, South Koreans and Africans who "went home in fear of their lives".
But some have reacted by challenging racial stereotypes through an educational programme.
With the support of Nashi, a youth movement set up by supporters of President Vladimir Putin, and funding from African embassies, 20 groups of black students have been visiting Moscow schools since September to explain about African culture.
"We give free classes on subjects like daily life in Africa, or African weddings, and the schoolchildren are very receptive," says Juldas.
"We get letters from schools to come and see them. It is fun for us and it teaches people about our culture. This should influence the mentality of the young."
Many believe that the existence of unique institutions like RUDN is a cause worth defending.
"For a prospective diplomat, what other university brings together 132 countries?" asks Juldas.
"We have students here from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti - countries with territorial conflicts. But when students come to RUDN, they form a single homeland. It is like a mini-United Nations. Such an experience is priceless."
Are you a former or current foreign student studying in Russia? Did you encounter local hostility because of your nationality? If so, did you feel adequately protected by the authorities?
I am from India and am studying medicine currently in St-Petersburg and every day is a nightmare. A Vietnamese student was killed right in front of our hostel, all that was done after it, was that some lamps were put up to light up the place and a shed was put up supposed to house cops but which is always empty. I never know if I will come back home alive and untouched. An Indian student was also killed recently. What I fail to understand is why do racists need to kill? If you don't want to increase your horizons by interacting with other people, who incidently contribute a sizeable amount to your paycheck, why allow your chosen government to issue visas and invitations to them in the first place? It's as if the government is importing more and more cows for slaughter. We as students pose absolutely no harm to any Russian whatsoever and if we are dark-skinned, that's how God made us, as he made you.
Anuranjani Joshi, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Having studied in St Petersburg, Russia as from 1998 to 2003, I have learned a lot about racism, discrimination, hatred and all bad things. Russia is one of the lawlessness countries on earth. In '99 a group of so-called Militsia (police) came into our hostel asking for Namibian students. Some of them had guns. We were quiet a number of us but two per room on different floors. They asked for documents which I provided then started searching all over looking for narcotics according to them. It was a pay day for us when everybody received US$1000, so we had a lot of money. As I was alone in the room they confused me and made away with US$250. I reported the case to the dean of foreign students who promised to have them arrested but to no avail. It's very bad and pathetic that we let Russians wandering freely in our countries while our people in their country are just on run. There is no protection whatsoever in Russia. I think is time they take examples from countries like UK, where I studied after Russia but life there is so smooth and people respect the law. Everybody has got equal right as long as not violating the country's laws.
Nepaya Rex, Windhoek, Namibia
I am a Kenya who completed my bachelors programme at RUDN about 7 years ago. I am shocked that since then nothing has changed as far as racism is concerned. Back then, brutal encounters with skin heads in the subway and suburbs was the norm of the day. The common man too did nothing to defend foreigners from these vicious attacks while the police would stand by and watch but would intervene the moment the neo-Nazis were losing the fight. I applaud the efforts of the current foreign student body in sanitise the Russian youth about cultures alien to there own.
Oliver Anduru, Minnesota
I am an African that studied in the former Soviet Union between the early eighties and mid eighties. I experienced racist feelings among a sizable group of Soviets. What was different then and now is that the law had real tooth. The Soviet authorities made sure that any culprit was punished to fullest extent of the law. They also had to show the Americans that they were more humane and tolerant to their black population. Communism has been defeated and nobody takes the responsibility of protecting the foreign guest. Black African students are unfortunate to be in Russia today, their governments have too much on their hands to protest these senseless killings. God help us!
Momoh-Fonigay Lavahun, USA
It made me very sad when I read your article because I have met very wonderful people from Russia while they were fellow students here in London. At the same time what your article reports is exactly what a cousin of mine experienced in St Petersburg and later on in Moscow before he decided that his life was worthy more than what he was getting and decided to travel back home. At the time I was of the opinion that he should stay and complete his studies. However having read and talked to a number of people, his was the best decision. It is a pity for the Russian people that this is happening. Russia has over the decades invested a lot in building a very strong bridge with the (third world) people, and rightly so. It has many friends, some of them very powerful in their respective countries and professions, thanks to knowledge attained in the Soviet Union/Russia. World powers do not only depend on military might but on friendly influence (cultural, language and academic). It is the duty of all Russians not to walk the path of Hitler and others before and after him, it has no address in this global village.
Kayongo Mutumba, London, UK
I am a British Phd student doing research in St Petersburg. I think the experience of most students here is very positive. Russians are in general very grateful to foreigners who show an interest in their language and culture. However, I am white and from the west. And I'm afraid the experience of non-white students here is very different. The stories of attacks on blacks are not exaggerated, unfortunately. And, as the article suggested, the image of non-whites in the popular Russian media is not helpful. I've also been appalled at the level of racism that I've encountered in private with many Russian friends - even highly educated Russians. In large part, I think the absence of prominent non-whites in Russian culture and media can be blamed. But the government's apparent lack of interest in the issue of race relations is also a factor.
Derek, London, UK
I had many Palestinian and Arab friends when studying and teaching in Russia and Ukraine. Not only were there throngs of racist "hooligans" but the Police, either the Omon or the Berkut were constantly hassling them. I saw one get beaten by the cops for nothing other than having asked why they were always bothering them. I heard stories of students being thrown off roofs and from what I saw. I believe the stories. These are pretty lawless places for someone visibly foreign.
Pat, Atlanta, USA
I have not experienced mistreatment as a student but I know from the description of facts of it done mostly against African students. There is definitely and hardly any protection from the authorities, both in Russia and from their home-countries. Rarely do you hear of an African country complaining about the discrimination and persecution done to their own people aboard. So, the racist criminals take that advantage to perpetuate the hostility.
Makurei Abdul, Morocco