MOSCOW'S METRO SYSTEM is the pride of the nation. Even during the Communist era when much of the city's population had to queue for food, they could at least be certain that there would be a metro train (underground train) every two minutes. Many of the stations at which statues of Lenin peer across vast open spaces could as well be museums dedicated to bygone eras of Communist functionalism. But the metro system is also stained with the blood of several immigrants who were murdered by two neo-Nazis, Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky.
"We are usually asked by the university's dean to inform students not to enter the metro alone on 20 April, Hitler's birthday; and on 8 May, the day World War II ended," said Okoh Emeka, president of the Association of African Students at Moscow's Peoples' Friendship University. "This year, however, that didn't happen," Emeka went on.
On Hitler's birthday, 20 April, rather than cower in their dormitories fearing for their lives, the African students at the Peoples' Friendship University were busily putting the finishing touches to display stands of the 33 African countries represented at the university. Then, several well-dressed African men in their 50s and 60s came in. There were 20 diplomats among them from different countries who had come for the official start of Africa Week.
"I totally forgot that 20 April is Hitler's birthday," admitted Emeka, who spent several months organising the annual Africa Week event. "But we have a police station on campus now, so I doubt that anything bad will happen."
"In previous years the university provided a special bus service for Africans and other non-Russian students to travel between the main campus and other faculties on those days, because the skinheads would hunt us down and attack us otherwise."
The human rights organisation, the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, which monitors racism and xenophobia in Russia, has recorded over 350 racially-motivated murders in the past four years alone. The majority were central Asian or Caucasian, among them immigrants from Asia and Africa.
Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the SOVA Centre, has received death threats as a result of her continued efforts to bring neo-Nazi groups to justice. She agreed to meet me only on the condition that it was in a public place.
Most Africans who have lived in Russia during the past decade can recount gruesome stories of being physically attacked by skinheads. Earlier this year, two African students from the Peoples' Friendship University were set upon from behind by a gang of skinheads and stabbed several times. They survived and have just returned to their studies.
The rise of the far-right in Russia has occurred simultaneously with the Kremlin's cut-throat capitalism. So, as gangs of organised criminals terrorised those who got rich quick during the privatisation spree of the 1990s, packs of neo-Nazis, made up mostly of Russia's have-nots, took their frustrations out on anyone who was not Russian.
Much of former President Vladimir Putin's support has been consolidated through the deployment of the Nashi, a youth party loyal to Putin, who is now prime minister. They claim their aim is to quash the rise of fascism, particularly in the National Bolshevik party.
But it soon became clear that the Nashi, with their own buses, the sponsorship of the state-owned gas giant Gazprom, and in their red uniforms often likened to those of the Hitler Youth, subscribed to an ultra-nationalist form of politics, causing several foreign diplomats to complain that they had been harassed by them.
But there now seems to be a shift in consensus regarding the neo-Nazi problem in Russia. During a meeting with top interior ministers in February this year, Russia's current president, Dmitry Medvedev, expressed concern that racist attacks were becoming a threat to national security. …