Financial Times (UK)
June 14, 2003
Black in the USSR
Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support
By Hugh Barnes
Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education - "a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin". There is applause. "I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests." More, rapturous, applause.
Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university's remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.
Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of "inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed". Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa's ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.
"We cannot be silent, seeing the lawlessness that reigns in Moscow, we want to warn our Russian friends," says Sven Hirdman, Sweden's ambassador to Russia. "We don't want Russia to be considered one of those countries where people can be attacked and killed because their skin is a different colour." Hirdman has taken a lead in trying to alert the Russian government to the scale of the crisis, particularly as it affects the African diplomatic corps. In the wake of a government-backed operation to clamp down on skinhead attacks, Hirdman led a high-level delegation to see foreign minister Igor Ivanov in an effort to curb the violence.
The emollient Ivanov subsequently issued a statement in which, in typical fashion, he displayed both robust concern and official complacency, ending on a note of bizarre sophistry. "We share the diplomats' concern about the rise of attacks by young hooligans on foreign citizens, and about the threats against embassies," Ivanov said. "However, considering that Russia's crime scene remains rather complicated, not only foreigners but Russians as well fall prey to criminal attacks."
"Human rights don't exist in Russia. Not if your skin is black," says Taddele Gebre Alemayehu, a cold war-era dissident from Ethiopia. "I was watching on television when Putin talked about 'human rights'. But that's a joke. It's only words. We are nobody. Absolutely nobody."
A two-time refusenik in his native country, Alemayehu opposed the Soviet-backed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. When that regime collapsed, he soon fell out with the rebel government that seized power in 1991, and ultimately fled to Russia to avoid assassination. Alemayehu was stopped and beaten up by the police at Moscow's Textilshchiki metro station in 2001, then hauled down to the police station, where he was promptly beaten up again and had tear gas sprayed in his eyes.
I talk to Alemayehu at a soup kitchen near the run-down MosFilm studios, where films used to be cranked out by the dozen each year and where now weeds spread across the lots. "Russia is like a prison for people of colour," he says. "You can't walk anywhere freely because there are skinheads wherever you go. Trouble is, the police are just as bad."
Last summer Alemayehu helped to organise a picnic for Africans in a Moscow park. The event degenerated into a riot thanks to the arrival of dozens of hooligans bent on violence. Instead of ambulances, the local police sent prison vans to arrest the black victims. "To be honest," he says, "I run faster from the police than I do from the skinheads. Once I went to a police station to make a complaint, and the duty officer said: 'Why are you here, Mr Nigger? We don't have any bananas here'."
The Moscow office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has nearly 14,000 displaced people on its register for Russia. The vast majority come from the former Soviet Union. Of the 731 African refugees on the UNHCR's rolls, most came during the Soviet era as students from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Ethiopia and Sudan, but were then stranded once they graduated because of civil wars in their countries of origin. Only six have been granted official status by the Federal Migration Service. Nineteen Africans hold temporary refugee status, and 469 are on a waiting list to apply. The rest have been rejected. The UNHCR's refugee reception centre in Moscow estimates that the migration service rejects about 96 per cent of asylum requests.
On the other side of the racial divide, between 15,000 and 20,000 Russian skinheads belong to a clandestine web of extremist right- wing groups, operating mostly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, according to Valery Komarov, head of the interior ministry's department on organised crime. The increasing number of self-avowed fascists, up more than 30 per cent in five years, is seen as the inevitable result of the fall of Soviet communism a decade ago.
Some of Russia's skinheads are affiliated to groups of football fans from clubs such as Spartak Moscow. Others identify more fully with the neo-Nazi movement and pose, according to Putin, "a more serious threat to the stability of our country". Recently the interior ministry launched a nationwide security clampdown dubbed "Anti-Extremist Whirlwind" to prevent attacks by skinheads who were threatening to kill all foreigners as a way of celebrating Hitler's birthday on April 20. Even if the skinheads have different affiliations, they all have one trait in common - a hatred of foreigners.
"Xenophobia in Russia remains very strong," says Abdul Kane, a student from Senegal, now an anti-racism campaigner in Moscow. "During the Soviet era people here had very little information about what Africa was really like, and this bred some extraordinary prejudices. Even today, some people are surprised to hear there are actually cities in Africa. They think everyone lives in mud huts. Someone asked me once if it really was true that Africans come to Russia to have their tails removed."
Skinhead attacks usually follow a pattern. A group of 10 to 30 teenagers will gather together and stake out a victim for an attack. The attack may be an assault with punches and kicking (with combat boots), or it may involve the use of weapons such as bottles and knives or blunt objects. Young men between the ages of 18 and 35 are the most frequent victims of violent attack. Women are often a different sort of victim - here, violent racism is linked to Russia's status as a base for human trafficking, and as a transit point for Nigerian women destined to work in Europe's sex industry. The semi-slavery of these women, their dependence and ignorance of the world into which they have been pitched, dehumanises them to the level of chattels: they are frequently raped and subjected to other forms of sexual abuse.
Jaklyne, 19, was born in Saint Petersburg and is of Tanzanian parentage. She is neither a refugee nor a sex-slave. She works as a stripper and a prostitute in one of the old capital's nightclubs. "The punters treat me OK," she says. "Sometimes I even get treated special because I'm different. It's not as if I'm a real person, you see. Not to the punters. Not even to the violent ones who slap me around a bit and call me a 'black whore'."
Julius Tantoh, in his early thirties and at the other end of the professional scale, says he feels a similar, if more subtle, dehumanisation. Tantoh is, literally, a high flyer. He moved to Russia seven and a half years ago, sent by the Cameroon government to study aviation and cosmic science at one of the elite institutes of the Moscow State Technical University. Now Tantoh doubts he will ever complete his training: the unspoken prejudices of Russia's space establishment will check him. "A sort of segregation occurs because black people don't have Russian grazhdanstvo (citizenship)," he says. "So you get so far and then you can't get any further. You reach a glass ceiling."
Tantoh knows about less subtle prejudice as well. He landed in hospital a year ago with multiple fractures after he was ambushed at the local bus station by a gang of around 20 skinheads yelling, "Russia is for Russians. Go home, you black monkey!"
"Once upon a time, hearing words like that would have hurt more than the whipping sticks they used to break my bones," says Tantoh. "But racism changes people. I used to think I had a future in Moscow. Now I see I'm just in the same bowl of soup as every other black person in this city. Insulted, beaten up, kicked around."
There are no reliable statistics on the incidence of racist crimes in Russia, although more than three-quarters of the Africans who responded to a survey by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy said they had been physically or verbally attacked in 2002. Russian prosecutors, however, often dismiss violence against ethnic minorities as "hooliganism", rather than as a hate crime such as "inciting racial hatred", which is punishable under article 282 of the Criminal Code.
But Ashot Airapetian, an Armenian who heads the Centre for Inter- Ethnic Co-operation, warns that history, not bad policing or slack jurisprudence, is to blame for the rise in racism in Russia. "In the Soviet era, the causes of the country's problems were always said to derive from an external enemy, such as imperialism or Zionism. But now we're looking at a different kind of 'ism', and it's the enemy within, the immigrants living in Russia, who are getting the blame," he says.
The city of Voronezh, closed to outsiders in the Soviet era, lies on the banks of the river Don, roughly half way between Moscow and the Black Sea. Here, in 1696, Peter the Great founded the Russian navy, smarting from defeat at the hands of the Swedes in the Great Northern War. It was also here that, in 2001, Roger Kayesse Dippah, a Cameroonian prince studying at Voronezh's world-famous university, was attacked by skinheads bedecked in the scarves of the local football team. For a decade, while he pursued his studies, unable to return home, Dippah lived in the campus reserved for African students on the edge of the town and tried energetically to become part of local life. Since the incident, however, Dippah, who is now 32, is rethinking his career plans.
"When I was in Russia I felt danger all day every day for 10 years. And finally, after I got over my physical injuries, I realised that the mental trauma would never leave me as long as I stayed in Voronezh," says Dippah, who has returned on sabbatical to his ancestral village in Cameroon. Visiting Dippah in the southern Russian city two years ago was like stepping back into the siege warfare of medieval times. The decaying concrete residential block, in which the royal scion shared a bed-sit with another Cameroonian student, was literally besieged by fanatics of the Russian National Unity party. Gazing out of the window, over the sink estates, towards the packed stands of the football ground in the distance, Dippah spoke abstractedly of the day he went to the Voronezh police station to file a complaint against his persecutors.
"The police sergeant told me to put my hands up, but I said, 'Why? I'm the innocent one here. I'm the victim, and a guest in your country, so I'm asking for your help.' Then one of the cops started punching me in the stomach. Really hard, as if I was a boxing bag. Then I was arrested for wasting police time. Can you believe that? And all this time the guys who beat me up were walking round the campus laughing and planning their next attack.
"While in police custody, I was treated roughly, given nothing to eat or drink and not permitted to use the bathroom. I was verbally harassed, called 'nigger', 'beggar', 'homeless bum' and 'refugee'. The police officers, especially the sergeant in charge, were drunk on duty," said Dippah, adding that when it came to impunity for racist bigots, the deep south of Russia had more than something on its American counterpart from the pre-civil rights era.
This is not a simple story of prejudice. Indeed, the modern, post- socialist Russian attitude to blacks who succeed has something in common with the west's. From the soup kitchen where I met Alemayehu I move to the glitzy surroundings of Yapona Mama, an upscale Japanese restaurant in Moscow's fashionable Tsvetnoi boulevard. For Grigory Syatwinda, a 30-year-old Russian of Zambian origin, fine dining is just one of the unexpected delights of his newly acquired media fame. "I don't think the money will spoil me," Syatwinda says over sushi, when pressed about the rewards of hosting NTV's popular five-day-a-week breakfast show, This Morning.
With his raffish air, and contemporary good looks, Syatwinda is the model of the modern media superstar. His easy charm and slick presenting style would not be out of place on any British or US youth channel. What is surprising is that Syatwinda is not the only black face on Russian television. In a country where - at least statistically - it seems that few of its black residents have escaped racist attack, the preponderance of black television presenters in Russia is strikingly odd.
I ask Syatwinda if he and Russia's other black icons - such as NTV's Yelena Khanga and the state-run Rossiya channel's Anton Zaitsev - are the latter-day media equivalents of Uncle Toms, disguising the wreckage of Russia's race relations? "I don't see myself as an Uncle Tom," he says. "I'm not political - but I do think I can serve as a role model, not just for other black Russians growing up today, but also for the majority of those racists whose hatred is based on ignorance more than anything else."
Against the backdrop of Putin's vacuous urgings, and the dismal reality of the violence and despair facing Russia's black population, Syatwinda's optimism seems to offer almost the only shred of hope in a country long used to the gulf between appearance and reality. Perhaps he is more able than a visiting journalist to comprehend the bizarre success of blacks in the Russian media.
But my last interviewee gives me a cold shower. "Blacks have an exotic value in Russian advertising, fashion and media," says Tatiana Prokofieva of Gratits, a Russian non-governmental organisation for refugees. "They sell product, but it's kind of a 'not in my back yard'. Audiences lap up the TV shows, but if they moved in next door, they'd beat up the presenters."
Hugh Barnes is a freelance journalist