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Campus racism

February 24, 2011

There's increasing concern about the high levels of discrimination which ethnic minority students face if they study at Russian universities. Insults, beatings and official harassment are among the complaints.

Moscow State University main building
Racism is commonplace at Russia's universitiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Fenced off public squares guarded by hundreds of security officers are not an uncommon sight in Moscow. City authorities are anxious to avoid gatherings that could lead to violent clashes between right-wing hooligans and ethnic minorities.

Such street battles first happened in December, after a football fan was killed, allegedly by people from the Caucasus region of Russia. Making an appeal for calm at the time, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addressed the issue of extremism and discrimination in Russian society - normally a taboo for the authorities.

Russian riot police
Russia's riot police is often accused of siding with the right-wing groupsImage: AP

Putin called the extremism a "virus" that had to be suppressed. He could also have mentioned the fact that many of those who participated in the riots were students. Indeed, racism at Russian universities appears to be a growing problem.

Ten years ago, Moscow University law student Aida moved to live in the Russian capital with her family from Dagestan in the North Caucasus - now infamous as a stronghold of Islamist terrorism. With her long dark hair and dark eyes, 22-year-old Aida says she that she is discriminated against because of her origin, and because of fears of terrorism.

"Just recently there was another unpleasant incident at my own faculty," said Aida. "It was just after the blast at Domodedovo airport at the end of January. As always I showed my student card to the security at the entrance. And he just started swearing at me with racist remarks and said something about me probably not even knowing Russian."

North Caucasus students asked to inform

It's not only fellow students and security staff who treat students from the North Caucasus in an unfriendly manner. The university authorities are also guilty, according to Dmitriy Dubrovski, a human rights expert and professor of history at the University of St. Petersburg.

“My students didn't tell me at first," said Dubrovski. “Then I found out that everyone from the North Caucasus has to fill out a couple of forms, in which they are questioned about their relatives: where they live, if they're members of a rebel group, what property they own, what cars they drive and so on. That's outrageous. If nothing else, it's a breach of article 51 of the Russian constitution that guarantees that you don't have to give testimony against your own relatives."

Students from the North Caucasus are not the only ones suffering from xenophobia. There are around 130,000 foreign students at Russian universities, many from China, Vietnam or African countries.

Though they regularly suffer racist remarks, even from staff, Dubrovski said that hardly anyone complains.

"The main difficulty is that no one talks about the problems," he said. "Countries like China and Vietnam for example don't even want their students to complain and would prefer them to leave Russia if there is a problem. They don't want to risk their relations with Russia. As a result, the students put up with everything with gritted teeth and we don't have a clue what is really going on."

Photograph of Sviridov with flowers
The death of football fan Yegor Sviridov led to widespread riots last yearImage: AP

Beaten up for talking to Russian girl

Boris Dengsten from Congo came to Russia three years ago, because it was a perfect chance to get a quality university degree. In May last year he was beaten up by more than a dozen Russian students who had been drinking, after they saw him and another student from Congo talking to a Russian girl at a bus stop.

"One of them pulled the girl on her arm and asked her: Why do you speak to these apes," said Dengsten. "I said, ‘Where do you see apes, we are people too, aren't we?' And he just continued swearing at us. And then he hit me really hard, I almost fell. And when my friend hit him back to stop him, we were attacked by 15 Russians at once."

In the end it was Dengsten, not any of the Russian students, who was expelled from university - for having started a fight. While his case may be an extreme one, it shows the dangers that non-European students may face. Those with black skin or an Asian appearance rarely venture out alone at night.

Dengsten made his story public in the Russian courts with help from human rights organizations, but he lost his case. Now the 26-year-old has given up and will return to Congo, where an uncertain future awaits him: universities in Congo only accept new students who are under 25. The fact that he hoped to gain a university degree in Russia, Dengsten believes, could turn out to have been the biggest mistake of his life.

Author: Mareike Aden, Moscow / rc
Editor: Michael Lawton