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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 November 2005, 20:57 GMT
UK students fear Russian racists
By Jonathan Charles
BBC World Affairs correspondent, Voronezh, Russia

Foreign students at prayer in Voronezh
Foreign students in Voronezh have been shocked by the attacks
Voronezh is a frightening place after dark, especially if you're a foreigner.

The southern Russian town has been playing host to British and other foreign students for decades, but now, mirroring a national trend, it is seeing a dramatic rise in racism and racist attacks.

Two foreign students have been murdered there in the past two years - the last victim a Peruvian, just a few weeks ago.

Enrique Hurtado was at a sports complex when he was set upon by a gang of skinheads.

The 18-year-old was beaten to death, another Peruvian and a Spanish student who were with him were left unconscious. The horrific attack has thrown the spotlight on a problem that the authorities seem reluctant to confront.

When I met a group of British students who have been sent to Voronezh by their universities back home as part of their Russian language degrees, they were all very disturbed by what had happened.

Local frustration

They no longer go out alone at night, worried that they could be targeted.

For the rest of my time here I'm going to be very aware that I'm a foreigner and take the necessary precautions
Rosie Anderson

Rosie Anderson told me that she was now much more aware of people around her on the streets.

"I look into their eyes and wonder what they are thinking," she said.

"I no longer trust them and know that anything could happen. Enrique was as white as I am but he still got murdered. The Russians here, obviously, don't like foreigners very much."

Shireen Quayum, another British student, told me that she was afraid because her skin is quite dark.

"It's marred my enjoyment of being here because I'm now much more nervous. The number of attacks on foreigners has doubled over the past year here to over 100. The figures are very worrying."

It is not hard to find Voronezh citizens who are willing to voice anti-foreigner sentiments. I spent a few minutes walking around a market in the centre of town.

map

There, amidst stalls selling cheap clothes and vegetables, almost everyone that I spoke to was quite open about their views.

One man said: "Russia should be for Russians." Another told me: "All foreigners want to do is bring down Russia, they should go back to where they came from."

It is hard to pinpoint the precise reason why racism is on the rise. Since the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, Voronezh's economy has suffered with many factories closing.

This may have left people feeling frustrated and they take out their anger on what they perceive to be the wealthy foreigners who come to the town to study.

Safety first

Another cause could be President Vladimir Putin's campaign to make Russians feel proud of their country.

The president is no racist, but his message may have been misinterpreted by some who have translated it into an excuse to dislike foreigners.

Ultra-right march in Moscow
Far-right supporters have adopted the "Russia for Russians" slogan
Anti-racism campaigners in Voronezh say whatever the cause, the authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the problem. They worry that their town will get a bad reputation and the local economy will suffer even more.

It is true that without the 1,000 foreign students who are here at any one time and who pay fees, the town's university would be in a poor financial state.

"Voronezh needs new jobs and foreign investment, the local mayor and the governor know that if they start admitting that there's racism here, no one will want to come to Voronezh," says anti-racism campaigner, Alexei Kozlov.

"They won't want to study here or invest. That's why they choose to refer to the attacks as 'hooliganism' - not 'racism'."

The local police say they are doing what they can, putting more officers out on patrol and giving advice to students about how to stay safe.

Voronezh
Graffiti reading "We love you" with a swastika mocks foreigners

The British students that I met are not reassured, though. Rosie Anderson told me that she will carry on being cautious.

"I'm not going to take my safety for granted, for the rest of my time here I'm going to be very aware that I'm a foreigner and take the necessary precautions."

Voronezh's troubles are replicated in many other Russian towns, raising questions for British and other foreign universities about whether it is really safe to carry on sending students to Russia.


SEE ALSO:
Russian gang kills Peru student
10 Oct 05 |  Europe
Russia jails killers of African
30 Sep 04 |  Europe
Girl killed by Russia 'racists'
10 Feb 04 |  Europe


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