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A Russian Blogger’s Final Words At Trial Resonate Beyond A Moscow Courtroom

Yegor Zhukov at a court hearing in Moscow on December 3

In the swirl of protests and arrests that gripped Moscow for weeks this past summer as Russians vented frustration with a repressive political system, an eloquent 21-year-old political-science student stood out from the crowds.

Prior to his predawn arrest on August 2, Yegor Zhukov, who studies at Moscow's prestigious Higher School of Economics, had already drawn a sizable audience on YouTube, where he had posted a series of video blogs in which he vented against President Vladimir Putin and promoted the opposition protests across the country.

The last video he posted before being detained had been viewed more than 300,000 times as of December 5. The videos posted to his YouTube channel, by his supporters and allies, since his arrest have garnered hundreds of thousands more.

Zhukov now faces as many as four years in prison -- the sentence prosecutors have requested for the charges of inciting extremism online. He is scheduled to be sentenced in the case on December 6 at the Kuntsevo district court in western Moscow.

In his final court appearance on December 4 before his sentencing the next day, Zhukov made an impassioned appeal to his supporters -- and offered an indictment of Russia's political system.

In doing so, he may end up joining a prominent list of individuals whose eloquent courtroom statements have entered the Russian popular imagination over the decades: Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, and -- even more recently -- former Russian Economics Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev.

Russia's current political system has fostered economic inequality that, Zhukov said, destroys any opportunity for human prosperity, with the top 10 percent holding 90 percent of the nation’s wealth.

"Among them, of course, there are very honorable citizens, but the bulk of this wealth was obtained not by honest labor, for the benefit of people, but by banal corruption," he said.

"Our society is divided into two levels by an impenetrable barrier. All money is concentrated at the top, and nobody from there will give it back. From the bottom, without exaggeration, only hopelessness remains," he said.

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In the protests that clogged Moscow’s streets on consecutive weekends, police arrested dozens of people on various charges; most were released for minor misdemeanor violations.

But more than two dozen people have been prosecuted on more serious charges, with several receiving what their supporters have said were disproportionately harsh sentences.

Zhukov was initially charged with mass unrest as a result of his participation in the protests, but, amid an outcry from his student supporters, prosecutors reclassified the case against him.

The state has made it clear: 'Guys, you can wander around in your mink coats, just don’t interact with each other. More than two of you aren’t allowed to gather on the street. We’ll put you in jail for holding a demonstration."
-- Yegor Zhukov

In his final courtroom statement, Zhukov slammed what he said was the arbitrariness of the political system, asserting that authorities have allowed Russians to accumulate wealth as long as they don’t participate in any political demonstrations.

And he made passing criticism of the country's "foreign agent" law, which was recently tightened to allow the state to classify individual journalists and bloggers as foreign agents. Critics have warned that the law will further curb free speech and a free press.

"The state has made it clear: 'Guys, you can wander around in your mink coats, just don't interact with each other,'" he said. "More than two of you aren't allowed to gather on the street. We'll put you in jail for holding a demonstration. You're not allowed to work together on some socially beneficial project. We'll label you a 'foreign agent.' Where does trust come from in such an environment?"

He asserted that the government had “dehumanized” Russians, resulting in "an attitude that is highlighted every day by beatings with truncheons, torture in prisons, ignoring the HIV epidemic, closing schools and hospitals."

The result, he said, is a declining population, and "helplessness."

"Russia is gradually disappearing," he said, "at an average rate of 400,000 people a year. You don't see the people behind the statistics. So go find out who they really are! It's those [who] drink out of helplessness, it's those freezing in cold hospitals, it's those killed by someone else, it's those who are killing themselves."

Still, Zhukov said he was optimistic for the future.

"I look forward, beyond the horizon, years ahead, and see Russia filled with responsible and loving people, where there will be a truly happy place," he said. "Let everyone imagine such a Russia. Let this image guide you in your work in the same way that it guides me."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.