PhD student from Gabon killed in Russia's fourth largest city

Screenshot of the YouTube video featuring François Ndzhelassili who calls to participate in a reading day in the local library. Source: official city administration video channel on YouTube.

François Ndzhelassili, a postgraduate student from Gabon, was murdered in Yekaterinburg, one of Russia's largest cities, in what appears to be a racism-based killing. This has happened at a time when Russia is a pariah in the West because of the brutal invasion of Ukraine, and Putin has turned to the Global South in search of support.

The number of international students from Africa studying in Russian universities has been on the rise. But how is it working in reality, in a country that has yet to accept racism is a problem? Global Voices explored the situation in which students from African countries have found themselves, in the USSR and in present day Russia.

On August 18, 2023, a 32-year-old Urals State Federal University postgraduate student François Ndzhelassil, was stabbed with a knife. He died from his wounds.

The murder took place in the Burger King at the intersection of Malysheva and March 8 streets, in the very center of Yekaterinburg. Ndzhelassil came to the cafe with a girl. According to eyewitnesses, the conflict between him and the other drunken Burger King visitors was motivated by racial hatred.

Ray, a friend of François, a native of Gabon, is cited by one of the local media as writing that on August 17, François went to a club with his friends to celebrate the national holiday of his homeland. Then he went to Burger King with one of the girls he knew, where two drunken visitors started to bully him.

“They called him ‘negro’ and just wanted to get rid of him” said Ray.

According to him, Ndzhelassili was an excellent student — last year he became the student of the year at the university. He was engaged in dancing, football and boxing. François's parents had also lived in Russia for a long time.

“They [the parents] trusted Russia, so they sent their children here to study. Now his dad and mom are old, how can you tell them that their only son died so easily… Why do people hate us?!” writes Ray in the regional media.

On August 19, a court in Yekaterinburg arrested 23-year-old Danil Fomin for two months pending investigation for murdering Ndzhelassili. Fomin was charged under Article 105 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation “Murder,” which provides for imprisonment for up to 15 years. He admitted his guilt.

A user on X (formerly Twitter) pleads for the media and activists to pay attention to the case:

if you don’t have time, be sure to watch this segment later in the recording. about the murder of François Ndzhelassili and before they said NOT ENOUGH, now against the backdrop of Prigogine I'm afraid everyone will give a fuck. A MAN IS KILLED BY A RACIST AND OTHER RACISTS ARE NOW COLLECTING HIM [Fomin] MONEY FOR A LAWYER. THAT'S FUCKED UP

The recording this X user is talking about is the Mediazona YouTube stream that included a piece on the murder.

This is only the latest in a series of high-profile cases of racially based killings and assaults in Russia over the last two decades.

Unfortunately, as Natalia Yudina, an expert from the analytical center SOVA that deals with statistics on various criminal cases and racism, said in an interview, there are no statewide statistics on hate crimes and crimes based on racial hatred in the country. According to SOVA's own calculations, such crimes were trending downwards from 2007 to 2018 when the interview was taken.  If in 2007 there were hundreds of people killed a year, about 300 victims, in 2018 they counted 57 assaulted and 4 people murdered.

Nevertheless, now an atmosphere of hatred and aggression is propagated on the national TV and social media because of the Russian aggression towards Ukraine.

A long history of African students in Russia

There is a long history of students from African countries studying in Russia (and, previously, in the USSR). The first students from the African continent started to arrive in the USSR in significant numbers during the period when decolonization processes began in many African countries at the end of the 1950s seeking affordable education. According to the African Diaspora Journal and researcher Maxim Matusevich, “The Soviets needed Africans to enhance their standing and popularity in the Third World, while Africans hungered for access to free education.”

Between 1959 and 1961 the number of African students in the USSR increased almost tenfold, from 72 to over 500, eventually reaching some 5,000 by the end of the decade. By 1990, on the eve of Soviet collapse, the number of Africans in the country would rise to 30,000 or about 24 percent of the total body of foreign students. However, not only did they faced racial discrimination, but it was executed also on the administrative levels: students could not form any kinds of unions, they were restrictions on travel within the USSR, restrictions on dating Russian girls and other various discriminatory administrative measures.

As for racially motivated murders and assaults in the Soviet Union, some of them are well documented. One was the death of a Ghanaian student in Moscow in December 1963, which other African students suspected was a homicide. This provoked a protest staged by the students on the Red Square (unheard of bravery in the USSR). In 1964 and 1965 African students in the USSR frequently reported racist attacks, fights with Soviet youngsters, and even feeling compelled to “carry knives for protection.” Nevertheless, day-to-day racism, while always present in Soviet Russia, was suppressed by the communist system. A man from Ghana who studied in Russia in the early 60s told the BBC, he thought that there was no racism in the USSR: “It [the homicide of Ghanian student] was a separate incident,” he said. “You must not forget that most of the Russian people were friendly to us. We were invited to visit, some of us even married Soviet women.”

It is not a coincidence that Africa had always been presented as inferior, through the paternalistic view of the “bigger brother.” As one example, Matusevich cites a hugely popular Soviet cartoon and a song known by generations of Soviet people: Chunga Changa. It depicts children and animals leading a carefree life on an (African) island.

Чунга-чанга! Синий небосвод!
Чунга-чанга! Лето – круглый год!
Чунга-чанга! Весело живем!
Чунга-чанга! Песенку поем!

Чудо-остров, чудо-остров!
Жить на нем легко и просто!
Жить на нем легко и просто!
Чунга-чанга!
Наше счастье постоянно –
Жуй кокосы, ешь бананы!
Жуй кокосы, ешь бананы!
Чунга-чанга!

Chunga-Changa, the sky is blue!
Chunga-Changa, the summer’s all year round!
Chunga-Changa, we live so merry!
Chunga-Changa, we sing little song!

Oh, what a miracle island, miracle island!
It’s so easy to live here!
It’s so easy to live here!
Chunga-Changa!
We are happy
Munching on coconuts and bananas!
Munching on coconuts and bananas!
Chunga-Changa!
(Entin 2008)

This backfired: when life in the USSR, or Russia of the 90s, became harsh, resentment began to grow. “It was exactly the frequent representation of Africa as a place of carefree existence, where people (and cute cartoonish animals) care little to none about ‘tomorrow’ that turned Africa into a ready scapegoat for popular discontent,” writes Matusevich.  During the end of 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, many Africans  started to feel unsafe on the streets.

The numbers of international students decreased drastically in the 1990s but started to increase again in the mid-2000s. As Kommersant says,  by 1990, the number of international students in the USSR reached 126,500 (making the USSR the third most popular destination after the USA and France). Education was conducted in 120 cities; 70 percent of foreigners studied in the Russian Federation.

The collapse of the USSR led to a sharp reduction in the number of foreign students. By 1992, there were 39, 400 of them. In 1996, the inflow began to increase. In 2001, there were already 61,400 of them, and in the 2012–2013 academic year, there were 164,800 foreigners.

The BBC interviewed students from African countries who studied in Moscow in the mid-2000s.  They told journalists about skinhead groups harassing them and day-to-day racism experienced by them on the city's streets. Zenebe Kinfu, from Ethiopia, said: “From 2000 to 2005, skinheads literally persecuted students. And then the situation changed for the better. Not that there are fewer skinheads. Rather, the Africans have learned to survive in the conditions of Moscow. The embassies and Russian law enforcement agencies have developed a system whereby foreigners move around the city along a certain route,” says Zenebe Kinfu. “For example, we never appear at sports stadiums where there are aggressive guys.”

However, not everyone agreed to stay at home. “For me, as a black student, the university is the only safe place in Moscow,” said Zakia Kunge, a student from Ghana who studied in Moscow in the time of the interview. “But I can’t sit in my room all the time. I need to go to the store, I need to visit friends… So every time I go to the city, I just hope that nothing bad happens to me. “

Lately, the Russian government has been trying to attract more students from African countries, as part of its turn to the Global South for the support lost elsewhere.

In  the year 2023, according to the Ministry of Education and Science, there are almost 35,000 African students studying in Russian universities, 6,000 of them on a scholarship that covers tuition fees.

It is not known whether François Ndzhelassili was on a scholarship. He completed the undergraduate and graduate programs of the Institute of Economics and Management of the Urals State Federal University, and then entered the PhD course of the Department of Economics and Environmental Management.

People in Yekaterinburg created a monument from flowers for François  on the street; the football club where he played is gathering funds for his family. At the same time, according to Radio Liberty, the anti-fascist project Antifa ru discovered that, in one of the Telegram channels of neo-Nazis, in which videos of racist attacks were repeatedly published, they opened a collection to fund a lawyer for Danil Fomin, who was arrested on suspicion of murdering Ndzhelassili.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »

Guidelines

  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.