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For Africans in Moscow, a Slow Return to Soviet Exoticism

  • James Brooke

When Russian nationalist skinheads chant against “the chyorni” — or “the blacks” — they protest Muslim immigrants from Central Asia.

But Africans in Moscow say they also can be targets.

For several African immigrants interviewed on a recent afternoon in the warmth of a Protestant church community center, Moscow is not welcoming to people of color.

Rukunayi Pitsou, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said 15 skinheads once chased him into a building. He only escaped by jumping out a window, breaking his foot.

“There is no way to avoid it,” says Pitsou. “They are like that. They don’t like seeing black people. When they come, they attack. When they come, there is nothing to do. And when they attack, they have no pity. They beat. They beat.”

The Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy recorded 16 physical attacks, including one killing, of Africans last year in the capital, a city where several thousand Africans work or study.

Peguy Nkodia, a Congolese immigrant, has never been physically attacked, but he has heard the insults.

“They call us obyzana, which means in French ‘singes’ — monkeys,” says Nkodia, who studied electrical engineering in Kinshasa.

Despite the hostilities, though, Africans say some Russians do step in to stop skinhead attacks. Some private aid groups, such as the Civic Assistance Committee, help African and migrant workers.

“Moscow is a big city with lots of different type of people,” says Alexander Panov, a Committee social worker. “There are parts of society that have a negative relationship. But at the same time there are many people here that actively help.”

Eric Merlain, from Cameroon, gives fellow Africans advice about getting by on Moscow streets.

“The only thing is for you to be very calm and avoid problems — yes, avoid fighting,” he says. “Because if they beat you, just look for a way and escape. If you engage in a fight, you might lose your life.”

For African migrants without language skills or connections, life in Moscow is tough. Ibrahim from Mali, for example, earns $20 a day passing out ‘reklama’ — or paper flyers. It is barely enough to survive in one of the world’s most expensive cities where some African migrants sleep 10 to a room — far from the wealth of oil-rich Russia migrants like Nkodia dreamt about in Kinshasa.

“If you plan to come to Russia, I advise my brothers and sisters - do not try it,” says Nkodia, whose goal is to get to Paris, where he has relatives. “Life here is so difficult. Life here is expensive, expensive, expensive, and there is not work that pays well.”

Yet some foreigners of color say they can enjoy the exotic status once enjoyed by black visitors during Soviet times.

Brandon Cross, a Russian-speaking African American, stayed to work after his university program ended: “The Russians also say that now it’s not about black,” says the radio station employee. It is “like Africans and black people aren’t the blacks anymore. It’s people from the Caucasus and Central Asian — they’re the new black.”

Moscow’s Peoples’ Friendship University, originally named after the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, was established by Soviet officials as part of efforts to make diplomatic inroads to the Third World. By offering a university education to thousands of young people from Africa, Asia and Latin America, the institution promised to strengthen key geopolitical alliances. Today, 6,000 students still study there, including hundreds from Africa.

Vice Rector Alexander D. Gladush says the university gives all new African students safety tips.

“We recommend the students to travel around in groups, not by themselves,” Gladush says in his university office, decorated with souvenirs from Sierra Leone and Mozambique. “We recommend avoiding places where there might be drunk people.”

Gladush believes the skinhead violence has peaked and that Moscow is now more accepting of African students. “There's a word you hear repeated everywhere you go — tolerance," he says.

Post-Soviet Moscow can be a tough town, but it may be softening for Russian-speaking Africans — or at least those with jobs or seats in university classrooms.