American Renaissance

‘Why are you here, Mr. Nigger?’

Back in the USSR, racial tolerance was a top priority, but in today’s Russia, writes MARK MACKINNON, people of colour live in perpetual fear. Xenophobia is on the rise, and violent skinheads don’t deserve all the blame

Mark Mackinnon, The Globe and Mail, Jan. 31

Even sitting in the campus cafeteria, just steps from his dorm room, Tolessa is afraid.

A 21-year-old Ethiopian whose dark skin and black hair single him out both against the white background of a snowy Moscow winter and among his fair-skinned Russian classmates, he is afraid at first to speak about the racism he has faced, worried about the retribution it may bring. Finally, he agrees to talk, but chooses to sit at a table partly hidden by plastic trees and asks that his last name not appear in print.

“We are afraid even to mention it,” the thin physical mathematics student says, dropping his voice as a blond waitress delivers coffee. “This group, the skinheads, they are not small in number. In fact, I sometimes feel as though they are half the population of Moscow. People tell us to leave this country, that Russia is only for the Russians.”

Tolessa, who studies at Moscow’s famous People’s Friendship University, goes on to describe a life dominated by fear. When a Nigerian man was beaten to death by neo-Nazis near the campus recently, every African in the city felt a shiver down the back, he says, knowing it could have been them.

“We stay on the campus and, if we want to go anywhere, we have to organize a group. Maybe in a group they won’t attack us,” Tolessa says as a friend nods in agreement. “We can’t go out after 6 p.m., especially on the metro. When people look at us, they just see our colour — they call us ‘chorniyy’ [black].”

It’s a long way from the days when the Soviet Union bragged of seamlessly blending its Slavic, Caucasian and Central Asian populations, claiming to have created a non-racial “homo sovieticus,” while condemning the United States and other Western countries for their inequalities and racial violence.

The death of the Nigerian student was just one in a string of racial incidents around People’s Friendship University, which was established in 1960 (and initially named after Zaire’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, killed in a U.S.-backed coup) to draw foreigners to what was supposed to be a free and equal communist utopia.

Several weeks ago, six foreign students were beaten by skinheads as they waited for a bus just off campus. In the past month and a half, there have been several attempts to penetrate the campus’s outer fence, repeated bomb threats and as many as eight suspicious fires.

That’s why it’s so hard for students such as Tolessa to accept the police verdict that a horrific blaze that broke out in a dorm on Nov. 24, killing 43 foreign students and putting 200 in hospital, was caused by bad electrical wiring.

African and Asian students talk of the police as enemies, saying they often have to pay large bribes just to avoid arbitrary arrest.

“Before they even investigated, they said it wasn’t arson,” says Anchu Regga, an Ethiopian refugee who was sleeping that night not far from Block No. 6, where the fire started. “But there was a fire in another block the next day, and another one two days after that. I can’t see how they can all be accidents.”

Even Russians studying at the university say it’s obvious that a hate group is prowling the campus, intent on frightening the foreign students into leaving the country.

“It had to be arson. There have been too many fires too close together,” says Tania, a 23-year-old medical student, adding that “Block 6 is where the most black students were,” but refusing to give her last name for fear she might be expelled.

Even after the deadly blaze in November, she adds, her own dorm was set on fire — again in the middle of the night, starting in the kitchen as most students were sleeping. Could it have been accidental? “The fire was spreading too fast . . . it was as though gasoline had been poured everywhere. We all think it was skinhead groups who did it.”

Dmitry Bilibin, the university’s acting director, now faces negligence charges in connection with the November fire. He says he has a theory about the real cause, but refuses to say what it is.

He does, however, concede that the university must deal with an almost constant threat from extreme racists. It spends almost $250,000 (U.S.) a year on private security, and needs 200 guards to protect its 3,700 students.

Mr. Bilibin says membership in skinhead groups is growing and xenophobia is becoming more popular, something he blames on the social chaos caused by Russia’s rapid transition to market capitalism and its sudden embrace of Western ideas. Many young people, he says, have come to feel that their country, once the centre of an empire, was betrayed somehow, and ethnic minorities have become the scapegoat of choice.

It’s not an idea limited to Russia’s young. In last month’s parliamentary elections, two parties with ultranationalist leanings made surprising gains. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s oddly named Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), which has represented the far right since the breakup of the Soviet Union, nearly tripled its share of the vote to 11.5 per cent. That was good for third place and a significant share of seats in the State Duma.

Even more surprising was the appearance of a new political movement called Rodina, or Motherland. Formed just three months before the election, it blended open xenophobia with a nostalgic call for the renationalization of key resources to claim almost 10 per cent of the vote.

So now, Rodina and the LDPR, both branded fascist by their opponents, have more seats than either the Communists or Russia’s battered liberals in the Duma, making them a force with which President Vladimir Putin will have to contend, and perhaps make deals.

Yuri Tabak of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau said the rise of anti-foreigner sentiment has roots similar to those of the anti-Semitism that arose in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. A once-proud empire has been humbled, there is widespread social chaos, and people are looking for someone to blame. Then, as now, the targets chosen by many are ethnic minorities.

Mr. Tabak has studied the rapid rise of Rodina, and says co-leader Dmitry Rogozin saw the direction society was headed and crafted his rhetoric to appeal to those who feel left behind by the change Russia has seen over the past decade.

“Rogozin is actually quite cynical,” he says. “He knows very well what to say at this moment. He moulded his party to play to the current situation.”

Indeed, Mr. Rogozin seems quite aware that he’s a creation of the current political climate. “If I hadn’t appeared, some other person would have,” he told an interviewer recently. “And that person would have said, ‘The Jews are to blame for this problem. The Azerbaijanis are to blame for that one. The Americans are to blame for yet another.’”

Three years ago, Russia launched a program to contain racism, setting up a hot line and special legal offices for victims of persecution, and establishing tolerance courses in schools and universities. In a televised address, Mr. Putin spoke out against xenophobia and said violent extremists “threaten the future of our country.”

However, instead of getting better, racist attitudes appear to be hardening, and critics say the program’s effectiveness has been severely hampered by spotty application and the racist attitudes of the authorities themselves.

According to official estimates, 20,000 people in Moscow alone now belong to skinhead organizations or other extremist groups, a 30-per-cent increase from five years ago. Among their favourite targets are Jews — dozens of street signs last year were painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti — and those from the Caucasus region on Russia’s southern flank, a historic hatred that has grown deeper through a decade of bloody war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

However, Western diplomats are also targeted, and embassies as diverse as those of Sweden, the United States, Tajikistan and China have appealed to authorities to do a better job of protecting foreigners. The tension builds around April 20, which is Hitler’s birthday, an occasion now marked in Moscow by a spate of racist attacks and neo-Nazi marches even though millions of Russians died during the Second World War.

The largest neo-Nazi group, believed to be part of the infamous international Blood and Honour movement, is thought to have several hundred members and be behind most organized attacks, such as the riot after Russia’s humiliating loss to Japan in the 2002 soccer World Cup. It puts out Ya Russki (“I’m Russian”), a flimsy newsletter that describes foreigner beatings as victories for the cause.

Observers say the darker the skin colour, the more likely it is someone will be targeted. Rev. John Calhoun of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy says about half his congregation of 400 is of African or Asian descent, and complains of daily harassment.

The church conducted a survey of 180 Africans in the city and found that 96 per cent avoid the metro system and two-thirds of them have been physically attacked. The respondents reported 204 attacks in the 12 months before the survey.

“Our congregation drops by half when there’s a major soccer game in the city on Sunday,” Mr. Calhoun says, “since people know not to take the metro that day.”

Last summer, the chaplaincy organized a picnic in a local park that attracted many of he congregation’s African members. As the group was preparing to leave, dozens of skinheads swept in and attacked the Africans, sending five to hospital.

Two of the assailants, too drunk to run away, were still in the park, but the police ignored them, instead asking the Africans for their identification papers. Several were being threatened with prison until an official from the American embassy intervened.

“I run faster from the police than I do from the skinheads,” said one person who was at the picnic. “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.’ “

Back at the Friendship University, Mr. Regga, the Ethiopian refugee, says it’s all a shock for someone who was initially elated to escape the troubles of his homeland. Before coming to Russia, he had read old books about the Soviet Union’s tolerant atmosphere, and now says he feels deceived. He again wants to flee.

“I wanted to come here, to study and live in this great country. But now I want to leave this country too. I cannot live here.”

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail’s Moscow correspondent.