Russia does not have the same legacy of colonialism and slavery as many Western countries, so Russians are at times less sensitive to racist language and are often considered to lack tact when it comes to communicating with black or Asian people. In fact, a significant proportion of the Russian population outside big cities will not have met a single black person.
Black and brown people in Russia are often met with genuine curiosity which can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations. One example is Russian supporters who want to support African nations do so by donning wigs and blacking up, unaware of its racist history and perception.
The Soviet Union first welcomed foreign students to the country in the 1920s as part of the activities of the Communist International. These were members of foreign communist parties who came to Moscow to get an ideological education in institutions such as the International Lenin School, University of the Toilers of the East and Sun Yat-Sen University, which trained Chinese revolutionaries.
When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the late 1950s he started an active policy to support the newly-independent states in Africa, Asia and Latin America by offering them opportunities to study in the Soviet Union. The goal was to spread socialism into the developing world and turn people that gained their education in the Soviet Union into good friends of the country and its people.
But this was not an easy project. Tens of thousands of students from all over the world flocked into more than a hundred universities in major Soviet cities. They were active in forming their own student organisations, such as the huge Union of African students in the USSR.
These organisations promoted the rights of foreign students in the Soviet Union, spoke strongly against colonialism, commented on the international political situation in conferences and seminars and organised cultural programmes for their members and the Soviet public, involving for example, native music and dances in Soviet factories and schools.
This was overwhelming for the Soviet people who had had very few international contacts previously. Now foreigners were suddenly very visible and authorities advised them not to be surprised if the Soviet citizens wanted to touch their hair or dark skin.
This was not the only reaction from the Soviet public, however. Despite the official ideology of friendship of peoples, the foreign students also experienced harsh forms of racism. They were called ‘monkeys’ and eaters of the Soviet bread, as their education was financially supported by the state - which made their income higher than the average Soviet worker.
The students were also blamed for seducing Soviet women, and in some extreme cases they were beaten up in public places. At least one student from Ghana was killed in 1963, which led to foreign students demonstrating on the Red Square. This was unheard of in the Soviet state.
On the other hand, accounts of foreign students at the time are often positive. Marriages were formed between Soviet women and African or Asian students. So despite the racism, love and friendship also existed between Soviet people and foreigners.
Contemporary Russia continues to attract foreign students due to its relatively high quality and low tuition fees, and cost of living. Many however live restricted lives, wary of potential attacks.