Documentary Photographer Nadezhda Ermakova is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘Strangers in Tambov’. To see Nadezhda’s body of work, click on any image.
Strangers in Tambov
How do foreigners from African continent live and study in the Russian province.
About two thousand foreign students enter Tambov universities annually. Most of them are from African countries. A Russian diploma in African countries is considered to be very prestigious and gives a great advantage when applying for a job. But while trying to assimilate and establish contacts with the locals, most of them meet with a strong resistance.
The history of friendship between Russia and African countries makes up a great many years and sends us back to the moment when the Soviet Union (at that time) tried to support many countries of the black continent that had freed themselves from colonial dependence at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. The establishment in 1960 of the Peoples’ Friendship University , the first university to train qualified specialists from Africa, Asia and Latin America was one of the fruits of this friendship. Later, other universities began to offer foreigners various training options. Firstly, these were mostly metropolitan institutions, but some time later provincial universities also began to catch up with them. The most popular courses at all times are technical and medical ones.
About thirty years ago some organizations started popularizing Russian education in African and Arab countries. And thus, gradually more and more foreign students started coming into small towns.
I was born and grew up in a small provincial town called Tambov. It is located 500 km from Moscow. When the first foreign students began to appear in our city, I noticed this right away. It was about 20 years ago, then I was in school. At first there were very few of them, and they attracted many attention. They were mostly from African countries. After school, I left for another city and returned only after fifteen years. The city has become unrecognizable. They manage to intertwine with colored thread into a monochrome pattern of the local population, but integrating into the population of a small provincial town isn’t easy. The local population is very suspicious, and sometimes hostile to African students. Walking with one of my dark-skinned friends through the streets of the city, I constantly encounter an inadequate reaction: jokes, pokes with fingers. Friends say that they often experience open aggression, which may even turn into a fight. All their attempts assimilate and establish contacts with the locals, not to mention to establish more serious relations, meet with the resistance and, with rare exceptions, fail. They are very much worried about this and say they imagined the Russians to be more open-minded. I haven’t been living in Tambov for a long time, but this question touched me on the raw and I wanted to get to know them better, to find out how they differ from the indigenous population of an ordinary provincial Russian city and do they differ at all? Why did they choose Tambov? What do they like? How do they live? And what do they plan to do next? – It was these issues that occupied me when I decided to enter their environment and get to know them. For over a year every weekend I came from Moscow to Tambov, made new acquaintances: on the street, in the store — anywhere. I was taken to a hostel, and there I was already observing their inner student life. The fact that they live apart immediately catches the eye. I managed to attend big parties, where African students from all over the city gathered, and more intimate events, like a birthday, for example, or just small parties. And nowhere have I ever met any of the locals.
About two thousand foreign students enter Tambov universities every year, now a large flow comes not only from African countries, but also from China and India. They also keep apart and, in principle, try not to contact the locals.
 Since 1961, the Peoples’ Friendship University is named after Patrice Lumouba – a symbol of the national liberation movement in Africa, who later became the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 1992, it’s the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia.
All images and text © Nadezhda Ermakova
By Nadezhda Ermakova