I still remember him. Tolessa was a young Ethiopian student attending Moscow's famous People's Friendship University, and one of the few I could find who would talk to a newspaper reporter about what it was like living as a foreigner - a black foreigner - in a time of rising Russian racism and xenophobia.
It was a life of violence and fear that he told me about. He and the other African students on campus were so terrified of Russia's notorious skinheads that they were afraid to leave their dorm rooms. When they did go out into the city around them, they went in groups.
Even at on-campus cafeteria, Tolessa was nervous and asked to sit at a table in the corner furthest from the windows. In the weeks before he and I had lunch, there had been eight arson attempts and several bomb threats directed at the dormitory where most of the African students were staying.
"We stay on the campus and, if we want to go anywhere, we have to organize a group. Maybe in a group they won't attack us," he told me. "This group, the skinheads, they are not small in number. In fact, I sometimes feel as though they are half the population of Moscow. People tell us to leave this country, that Russia is only for the Russians."
Russia for the Russians. It's a phrase that I hear more and more often. One of my friends - as white as the Russian snow - was punched out for speaking English in Moscow. My wife and I were physically threatened by a group of skinheads on the metro who drunkenly told us "Yankees go home."
The fact that Canada is a separate state was lost on him, so we got off at the next station even though it was nowhere near from our destination.
The Moscow police, Tolessa told me, were open admirers of the "Russia for the Russians" crowd. When an African student who was attacked called for help, the police would just as often join the beating as stop it. It wasn't just Africans. Anyone from the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia was liable to be targeted as chorniyy, or "black."
For too long, the Kremlin tolerated and manipulated the ultranationalist crowd, allowing people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitry Rogozin to spew hatred because it suited their political aims. If the West was truly worried that a Zhirinovsky or a Rogozin might come to power, it would let up in its calls for more openness and democracy and perhaps come to see someone like Vladimir Putin as a least-bad option.
The strategy worked like a charm from a political point of view, but the monsters it created are now out of even the Kremlin's control. Take the grisly execution video that was first posted on the Russian Internet community livejournal last week.
The killing of two men - one identified in a caption as an ethnic Tajik, the other as a Dagestani - was horrifying and disturbing. One was beheaded, the other shot, while their murderers shouted "Glory to Russia!" and displayed a Nazi flag. The video is titled "Operation of the National-Socialist Party of Russia to arrest and execute two colonists from Dagestan and Tajikistan."
In a poorly attended press conference back in May, Alexander Brod of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights warned that, in the past two years alone, the number of skinheads in Russia had risen from 50,000 to 70,000.
"Nowadays, they could be found in each regional center, they are emerging even in small towns and villages. In big cities, the attacks happen nearly each day and murders [are committed] weekly," he said.
In other words, the only thing truly remarkable about the livejournal video is that the perpetrators bothered to film it.