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Voices from Russia's Cold War 'friendship' university

Fifty years after the Patrice Lumumba University for the Friendship of the Peoples opened in Moscow, the BBC's Russian Service has tracked down former and current foreign students to find out what it was like.

During the Cold War, the university's aim was to take students mainly from the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa, give them a top university education in Russian and create a network of young professionals sympathetic to Soviet values.

This is what four old and new students had to say:

KAMAL DJAYNANDAN, SRI LANKA, STUDIED 1964-67

Kamal Djaynandan, Sri Lanka
Foreigners - especially those of us with dark skin - were rare

I had been incredibly interested in Soviet science as a teenager, since the USSR launched Sputnik.

I went to the Soviet Union to study electrical engineering.

First they taught us Russian which I have not forgotten.

I lived in a hostel with a student from Nepal, who went on to become a high-ranking government official.

They did not try to brainwash me in the Soviet Union, but I did not really believe it was a Communist country either.

The teachers tried to patiently answer all the questions I had about life there.

But I quickly concluded that people could not all be the same and Communism would never work.

Foreigners - especially those of us with dark skin - were rare, so we did occasionally have problems, especially over girls.

We did travel around the country - to the coastal resorts, or to farms to help out - for instance.

I found food hard to get used to, especially the fatty stuff my friends ate in winter.

I went on to work as an aviation engineer in several countries, and I am still grateful for the education the former Soviet Union gave me.

OMAR SHAAR, SYRIA, COMPLETED STUDIES 1979

Omar Shah, Syria
The Russians were mainly from outside Moscow, but they always helped us and were friendly

I came to Moscow in 1973 to study languages and history.

It had been my dream to study in Russia because I was deeply interested in the culture and history.

I had to pay for nothing - the Soviet government paid for our education and our stay in the country.

About two-thirds of the students I was with were foreigners.

The Russians were mainly from outside Moscow, but they always helped us and were friendly.

I volunteered to work on building sites during the holidays, including the Baikal-Amur Mainline in Siberia, the second longest railway line in the former Soviet Union.

It was hard, but interesting, work. I never thought we were somehow "building Socialism," but I think many Russians did not realise they had a lot to be happy about.

I married a Russian girl and went back to Syria, where I worked in the Ministry of Culture.

I also wanted my children to study in Russia and my son and daughter went to the Patrice Lumumba University.

ZENEBE KINFU, ETHIOPIA, STUDIED 1989-94

Zenebe Kenfu
My brother used to send butter from Ethiopia in the post

I went to Moscow to study international journalism.

It was an interesting time. When we arrived in 1989 you could still find food in the shops and there was some sort of order. Then it got really bad.

We had to bring food with us, and my brother used to send butter from Ethiopia in the post. There were lots of political demonstrations, which we used to go and film.

It was a difficult time, and many people wanted to leave Russia. But we were young students, and it was interesting to communicate with people.

Russians were more tolerant and understanding before. We noticed hostility from about 1994. Drugs started to appear, and lots of people blamed us for the problem.

These days, African students prefer to study at home. India's also an attractive option.

I have a Russian wife and children, so I'm not planning to leave Russia.

There is racism and the authorities have put in place measures to help us move around safely.

We cannot go to sporting events where there are aggressive youths.

ZAKIA KUNGE, GHANA, CURRENT STUDENT

Zakia Kunge, Patrice Lumumba University, Russia
Lots of the foreign students have been attacked or beaten up

I am studying political science and ended up here completely by chance when my father saw a competition which I entered and was lucky to win.

There are just two students studying for free here. The rest are paying about $6,000 per academic year.

I share a room with two Russian girls in the hostel, which means I am picking up the Russian language.

But I have got friends from all over the world, including Korea, Jamaica and India.

We are all frightened of the skinheads. As a black-skinned girl, the university is the only safe place in Moscow.

Beyond its bounds, it is another world. Lots of the foreign students have been attacked or beaten up. But I cannot sit in my room all the time.

I need to go to the shops, and I sing in a choir, so I just pray nothing bad will happen every time I go out.

I am not sure what I will do when I graduate.

I would like to go to Europe, but that might not be realistic. I might end up staying here and pursue my main interest, singing, even if I am frightened.



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