Friday, April 11, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Xenophobia Alienating Non-Russians Studying in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 11 – Eighty percent of the nearly 200,000 foreigners studying in Russian higher educational institutions are from the former Soviet republics, and Moscow has long assumed that their time in Russia as students will lead many of them to remain there as professionals or to return to their own countries as supporters of close ties with Moscow.

            But just as the rising tide of xenophobia in Russian society has made an increasing share of immigrant workers hostile to Russians and a base for anti-Moscow views in their countries on their return home, so too expressions of hatred among Russians for outsiders means that fewer of them are choosing to remain in Russia or to be pro-Russian if they return home.

            According to an article on “Russkaya planeta” this week, “foreign students suffer from racism” while they are in the Russian Federation, but Moscow still hopes to exploit them as a major “intellectual resource” in the Russian workforce and as potential political allies in their home countries (

            The article, by Aleksey Alikin, summarize the findings of a study prepared by Nadezha Radin, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and published separately at Despite its attempt to be upbeat, that study and indeed the fact that it appeared at all cannot be reassuring to the Kremlin.

            According to Radin, foreign students Russia fall into one of two groups: “The first are specialists who will return home and continue to cooperate with us because they know Russian and are guided by the Russian culture that is familiar to them.” The second includes those who “want to study and work in Russia” rather than return home.

            Most of the latter are from the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.” They want to remain in Russia, but “in this regard, xenophobia which destroys everything valuable which the educated migrants have is unnecessary and [in fact] extremely dangerous.”

            The Russian authorities recognize the contribution such people can make, but “at the same time,” the study said, “ordinary Russians are far from being as tolerant.” Attacks on foreign students by neo-Nazis are “now rare,” but the passive xenophobia of local residents remains” and has its affect.

            In 2007-2008, there were a number of cases in which foreign students were beaten or even killed, there were xenophobic demonstrations at universities. And Russian students often made disparaging and racist remarks about them.  “Now the situation is not as sharp,” Radkina says, but problems remain.

            One of her findings is particularly intriguing. Radkina notes that students in Russia from the US or the EU rarely encounter xenophobia directed against themselves, but the image they have about Russia is profoundly shaped by the bad experiences of foreign students from Central Asia who are victims of xenophobic attitudes and attacks. 

            “American and European students,” she says, “are very much concerned about human rights and issues of discrimination.” And consequently, “if we want to attract them,” they must be given the chance to discuss these things while in Russia, and “they must feel” that democratic values are respected in Russia.

            Svetlana Gannushkina, a Russian human rights activist, told Alikin that in her experience, foreign students in Russia “encounter xenophobia ‘daily.’”  They are attacked and denigrated, and in her view, in contrast to the judgment of Radkina, “now we are seeing a deterioration of the situation.”

            Natalya Yudina, an expert at the SOVA Center, agreed with Gannushkina.  “The number of attacks on people with so-called non-Slavic visages is growing.” There were more murders of such people in 2013 than in 2012. And because foreign students experience this too, they “are correctly viewing xenophobia as a threat to themselves.”

            At the end of the first decade of this century, Yudina says, the Russian authorities had suppressed the major neo-Nazi groups and blocked the appearance of replacements.  But “in the course of the last two years, [the authorities] have focused their attention not on racist force but rather on propaganda.”

            And because suppressing a website is easier than suppressing a neo-Nazi group and because the militia gets the same statistical credit whether it does the one or the other, the SOVA expert says, the authorities are doing less to counter actual racially organized violence now and consequently, there is more of it, including against foreign students.

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