African students feel the chill in racist new Russia

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PATRICE, Patrick and Guy are students at Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University. Their families back in the francophone African state of Cameroon made huge financial sacrifices to send them abroad for an education. When they write home, they say they are doing fine. They know it would break their parents' hearts if they knew of their real lives - a daily struggleto make ends meet and to avoid police harassment, racist attacks and threats from the Russian mafia.

Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow provided grants to Africans, Asians and Latin Americans to study at the Russian University of Friendship Among Nations, to give it its full name, in the hope of winning converts to communism. Now the money has dried up and the students, forced to finance themselves, are battling like ordinary Russians to keep their heads above the tide of inflation.

This is not all. Members of the Russian mafia have invaded the student hostels, from where they are running a drugs business. Some students, desperate for cash, have been sucked into the narcotics trade. Police assume all blacks are involved with drugs and harass them. A number of African students have died in mysterious circumstances, including one who was thrown from a window.

Outside the university, a concrete cube on the southern edge of Moscow, I met Patrice, who is studying medicine. When he took me to visit his fellow students in their dormitory, they told me how satisfied they were with the education they were receiving and how Russians were no more racist than the British, French or Germans.

I feared I was going to meet a wall of silence. But then Patrice asked if I wanted to watch how he sold cigarettes. His father, a magistrate in Yaounde, pays his annual tuition fees of pounds 1,950, but at 25 Patrice thinks he should be keeping himself, so he supplies cigarettes to kiosks around Moscow. As we drove about the city, the young man began to relax and suggested a visit to other friends in the engineering faculty who might be more talkative.

The engineers' hostel looked like an army barracks. There was a kitchen on the ground floor with a single cooker that did not work. Four showers served the 300 male and female students.

In their tiny room, Guy and Patrick had done their best to create a home. Beds were hidden behind curtains. They had a hot- plate for cooking, two old armchairs, a Monet reproduction on the wall and, in pride of place, a satellite television showing French TV. Guy had set it up, for his way of earning pocket money is to install satellite sets for rich students.

At first Guy and Patrick denied they had any problems, as the medics had done. But then, speaking softly in elegant French, bespectacled Patrick tentatively recounted how some "Russian boys" had asked him to find buyers for marijuana. "They associate Africans with narcotics and try to use us to sell drugs," he said. Patrick had got as far as finding some clients, but they wanted cocaine and the deal fell through. He had been tempted, he said, because he had nothing to live on.

Then the truth of the Africans' lives in Moscow began to come out. "Of course it makes me furious that they have this stereotype of us as drug dealers," Guy said, explaining how Russian dealers constantly pestered them, offering narcotics on credit to push to other students.

"It is impossible to be at peace in this atmosphere," said Guy, who attends a Protestant church and says he has never touched drugs. Patrice told how a Sudanese friend had been set up by the police, who planted drugs on him. Patrice himself had twice been the victim of racist attacks by gangs of Russian youths.

The dream of the three Africans is to transfer to universities in Western Europe. Patrick scans adverts for jobs in Britain, but he knows his chances are slim.

Their best hope would be to find casual work to supplement their income, which is so low that they can afford little more than rice every day. "We are honest people who just want a chance," said Guy. "But nobody is willing to employ blacks in Moscow."