It was with "pain in my heart," rector Konstantin Markelov said on January 29, that he announced the expulsion of three Astrakhan State University students for attending opposition protests.
But "the law is the law," he said in an open letter posted to social media. "Think a hundred times when they urge you to join unsanctioned demonstrations."
The university in southern Russia prompted an uproar with its decision, a case still rare in Russia despite an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent following nationwide rallies in support of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny on January 23.
Now two of the students -- Vera Inozemtseva and Aleksandr Mochalov -- are suing the university and demanding their reinstatement. "I see my expulsion as a case of political repression," Inozemtseva told RFE/RL in an interview.
She and her legal team will argue that the decision violates the school's own charter as well as their right to freedom of assembly under the Russian Constitution.
"They can't properly justify the decision aside from issuing abstract statements," said Yaroslav Pavlyukov, the lawyer representing the students. "They say the rules of their code of conduct have been violated. What rules? They don't say."
The fallout from the protests in late January and early February has convulsed Russia's student community, a target demographic in the Kremlin's campaign to rein in political activism among young people and shift their allegiance away from the opposition and toward the state.
Thousands took part in the recent protests, and millions watched pro-Navalny videos uploaded by students to the TikTok video app, with many of the clips filmed in school classrooms or university corridors.
The clampdown was swift. In Siberia, lecturer Aleksei Alekseyev was fired from the Novosibirsk Energy And Technology College for a social-media post encouraging people to attend a January 23 demonstration as a "good excuse to meet and discuss the fate of the country."
In the Volga River city of Samara, the state university redacted its Code of Ethics to ban participation in anti-government rallies by both students and teachers, a move that is expected to serve as an example for other schools going forward.
Students also say they've been pressured or even deceived into taking part in pro-Kremlin parades that, according to news outlet Meduza, have been recorded and posted online under instructions passed down from President Vladimir Putin's administration.
Nevertheless, the incident in Astrakhan has turned heads.
"We know that students are often threatened with expulsion for joining protests, but actual expulsion happens very rarely," Pavlyukov said. "We need to prove this is illegal and unjust."
Of the three expelled students, 22-year-old Inozemtseva is the only seasoned opposition activist. She worked in Navalny's regional political campaign in 2017, ahead of his attempt to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, from which he was barred due to criminal convictions on charges he says were fabricated. She has also joined multiple protests in the past, including a series of rallies in March 2017 that prompted the Kremlin to launch a similar preemptive campaign in Russia's schools.
Inozemtseva says that on January 23, as she was on her way home from the protest in Astrakhan, she was abducted by masked men in civilian clothing who confiscated her belongings. She says she later discovered that calls for anti-government rallies were posted to her social-media accounts while her phone was in police custody.
Since her expulsion she has publicly campaigned for the resignation of Markelov, the Astrakhan State University rector, and has gained support from Yabloko, an opposition party that has petitioned the Education Ministry to strip Markelov of his position, citing evidence dug up by Dissernet, an anti-plagiarism group, that large parts of his doctorate thesis were taken from other academic articles.
"A person who built his so-called academic career on a fake dissertation cannot be a guarantor of the rights and freedoms of his university's students," Yabloko said in a statement.
Inozemtseva said that if her lawsuit is successful, her victory in Astrakhan’s courts will be instructive to other students who find themselves expelled or pressured to renounce opposition views in the future.
"It will give them a guarantee that no student can be thrown out for their political views," she told RFE/RL.
But the scale of the recent anti-government protests, which most estimates say brought out some 100,000 people on two consecutive weekends, has fueled a fraught and tense climate ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September, and a sense among activists that the authorities will tolerate no dissent.
"Since the case has a political undertone, I don't know how it will play in our courts," Pavlyukov said. "But in any case, we have to try."