The fire quickly engulfed most of the dilapidated building housing students of the Patrice Lumumba Friendship of Peoples University, an institution that in the 1960s and 70s symbolized the Soviet Union's commitment to the Third World but deteriorated in the 1990s.
The building, which housed 272 students, served as a quarantine facility for newly arrived foreign students needing medical checks before starting their studies.
"It was like a horrible nightmare," said Abdallah Bong, a student from Chad looking at the gutted building. "We saw them crying for help and jumping out of the windows, and we could do nothing to save them."
Bong and other witnesses said fire engines were slow to start action as they jammed into a narrow access road blocked by parked cars, unable to stop the flames from gutting most of the dormitory above the ground floor.
The fire burned for more than three hours. Smoke poured from windows as a wet snow fell before dawn, and, after the fire was put out, the building's concrete walls were streaked with black soot. Nearby trees were caked with ice that had formed from water used to extinguish the blaze.
"A friend of mine who arrived just a few days ago broke his leg when he jumped out the window, and I don't know what happened to another friend," Nafafe Tengna, a third-year journalism student from Guinea, said as he waited for authorities to distribute a list of victims.
A preliminary investigation pointed to an electrical problem, Deputy Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told President Vladimir Putin during a Cabinet session. Some bystanders said the fire could have been started by electric heaters.
Lubov Zhomova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow Health Directorate, said 36 people died and 197 others were injured — 57 of them in serious or grave condition. The Chinese foreign ministry said 34 Chinese students were among the injured.
Tengna said firefighters and emergency workers were slow to mount a rescue effort.
"Students had to do it all themselves, holding mattresses for those who were jumping out," he said. Later, some half-naked victims suffered frostbite waiting for ambulances.
Fire department spokesman Yevgeny Bobylyov insisted the firefighters arrived on time and did their job well.
Rimma Maslova, the chief doctor at a nearby hospital where most of the injured were being treated, said that many suffered fractures and one had a grave spinal injury.
Students said the dead and injured included citizens of China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Tahiti, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Angola, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Kazakhstan, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Peru and Malaysia.
In an apparent attempt to fend off criticism, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov insisted the building was equipped with all necessary fire safety features. Filippov said there could have been arson and claimed that police had detained an African student who lived in the room where the fire started, the Interfax news agency reported.
But Klimovsky said investigators were just talking to students about the fire and said no one had been detained.
The university, named for a Congolese anti-colonial leader and prime minister who was assassinated, was founded in 1960 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to offer a strict Marxist curriculum to students from developing nations.
It served as a showcase of Soviet patronage of the Third World, receiving generous state subsidies, but declined after the 1991 Soviet collapse when government funding dried up.
During the 1990s, many in its mainly African student body complained of racism by Russians.
A 22-year-old student from Mauritius, who identified himself only by his first name, Vashish, said the university charges high prices for "miserable" lodging. He and other students said one of the dormitory's two stairways was permanently locked, making an emergency exit even more difficult.
With stipends shrinking to almost nothing, many foreign students sell goods from their countries to make money, and already cramped dormitories are often packed with bags and bundles.
Russia has a high rate of fire deaths, 18,000 a year. That is nearly five times the number in the United States, which has twice the population. Britain has one death per 100,000 people a year — compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in Russia.
Experts say fire fatalities have skyrocketed since the end of the Soviet Union in part because of lower public vigilance and a disregard for safety standards. Also, many older buildings have wood partitions between the floors that help fires spread rapidly.