François Ndzhelassili, a doctoral student from Gabon at the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg, Russia, was killed on August 18 by a group of Russian men after they harassed him and called him racial slurs. The murder is just the latest case of discrimination and violence against Black people living in Russia despite ongoing initiatives meant to encourage Africans to study in the country.
Issued on: 05/09/2023 – 18:10
François Ndzhelassili was a 32-year-old doctoral student at the Ural Federal University. He arrived in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2014 from Gabon to study economics. He was active in the student community of his university, and in 2019 was named the university’s “Foreign Student of the Year”.
On the morning of August 18, he was killed in the city centre of Yekaterinburg by a group of Russian men who harassed him and called him racial slurs. One of his friends, who received death threats after speaking out about the crime, contacted the FRANCE 24 Observers team to bring awareness to the everyday racism he says Africans face in Russia.
‘They were questioning him like often happens to us Africans’
Antoine (not his real name) is a friend of Ndzhelassili’s who also originates from West Africa. He told us that the young student was a great source of support for him when he started studying in Yekaterinburg.
When I left my country, my brother put me in touch with François. He had been in Russia since 2014. When I came here, I didn’t speak the language at all, and he helped me a lot.
We used to play soccer together. He used to dance. He danced a lot. He even taught French and economics because he was studying economics.
At one point, he was the president of the African students association at UFU (Ural Federal University). But he saw that African students were being ignored – we weren’t integrated into the university’s activities – so he resigned.
Antoine says that he spent the evening of August 16 with Ndzhelassili playing video games at his place. The next night, Ndzhelassili went out with other friends. Early on the morning of August 18, Ndzhelassili was ordering food at a Burger King in the city centre with another Russian friend. He was waiting to receive his food when two other Russians started to pick on Ndzhelassili for being Black. His Russian friend, who was there, recorded the incident and told Antoine how the conflict unfolded.
They were questioning him like often happens to us Africans. But François tried to engage in a conversation with them, to reason with them. They started threatening him, telling him to settle things outside. François told them he was waiting for his food.
He ended up eating inside, and as soon as he went out, the two Russians pounced on him. Since François had boxing experience, he resisted. However, there was a third person who had been outside the whole time, and he stabbed him between the ribs. He shouted, ‘We’re going to crucify the n****r.
Antoine learned about the stabbing around 8 am, and says he spent the whole day trying to learn about Ndzhelassili’s condition. Hospital authorities finally informed him that his friend had died of his injuries.
‘I started receiving racist messages and threats’
Since Ndzhelassili’s death, Antoine dedicated his time to publicising what happened to his friend in order to shed light on the reality faced by many African students in Russia.
I went to see the administration [of Ural Federal University], to talk to them about what happened, and they told me to keep it to myself, not to talk to anyone. I had already contacted François’ sister.
When I returned to the dormitory, I started receiving racist messages and threats. I decided to create a WhatsApp group for African students to communicate among ourselves. The students are truly afraid.
I left the dormitory, and now I’m staying at a Guinean friend’s place. I’m afraid for my safety. I’ll see how I can obtain my degree, and I want to leave Russia.
Antoine sent us one of the insulting messages he received. It read: “We will hang n*****s…. Russia is for Russians.”
A Telegram channel dedicated to uncovering neo-Nazi activities within Russia has disclosed that the principal suspect in Ndzhelassili’s murder case is a 23-year-old Russian man. Moreover, a neo-Nazi-oriented Telegram channel has initiated a fundraising effort aimed at securing legal representation for the young man.
Antoine does not believe that the murder was premeditated, but he thinks that it is representative of the discrimination Black students experience in Russia.
A dangerous university environment for African students
On August 20, the Ural Federal University declared on their Telegram channel that Ndzhelassili “tragically” died, without mentioning any details about his murder or any form of commentary addressing the matter of racism, which disappointed Antoine.
I spoke with François’ sister. She told me: Let it go, it’s for your safety. I will fight to bring his body back to Gabon, that’s all.
But it’s not just François. All Africans are in danger. Even me at the university. It’s a daily occurrence. They promote Russian education in Africa, urging students to come study in Russia. They make money off us, and then we are not safe.
I am very worried for the African community in Russia. Today it’s François. Tomorrow it could be me. Russia needs the support of Africans now. But it’s important to make people who raise the flag of Russia in their countries understand that Russia is not our partner.
International students studying in Russian universities have repeatedly raised concerns about facing discrimination, including insults, physical assaults, and persistent harassment. Africans living in Russia report frequently encountering acts of discrimination such as being denied service at restaurants, facing refusals from taxi drivers and experiencing difficulties securing housing due to landlords’ biases.
There are currently 34,000 African students in Russia, out of which 6,000 receive state-sponsored scholarships, according to a declaration made by the Russian Foreign Ministry in July 2023. The spokesperson announced 5,000 more scholarships for African students in the 2023-24 university year.
Concerns about African students being recruited by the Russian army and mercenary groups to fight in Ukraine emerged in November 2022 after a 23-year-old Zambian was killed in the war. He studied nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), but was imprisoned on drug charges. Although Yevgeny Prigozhin declared at the time on the Russian social media platform VKontakte that the young man had freely enrolled with the Wagner mercenary group, his family believes that he was coerced.
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