MOSCOW -- When Yegor Zhukov exited the Moscow courthouse that ordered his release in December 2019 amid a groundswell of support for the popular student blogger and Kremlin critic, he was greeted like a celebrity by a throng of fans.
As reporters jostled for prime position to capture his speech and the crowd applauded and shouted his name, Zhukov pledged to continue his opposition activism against the government of President Vladimir Putin.
"This is all politics," he told those gathered. "They turned the courts into a system of repression. And we must fight it."
In the weeks and months that followed, the 22-year-old would become a regular fixture on Russia's independent media circuit, expounding on his libertarian views and pronouncing loudly and clearly his fundamental life ambition: to ultimately become president of Russia.
On August 31, as he returned home from another guest appearance on a political talk show, eyewitnesses say Zhukov was jumped by two men and viciously beaten in a dark alleyway near his apartment on Moscow's outskirts. It was the second attack on the opposition blogger in just over a month. "The first blow was delivered to the back of my head, it threw me to the ground," he later wrote in a Facebook post. "They hit me exclusively in the face."
A day earlier, he had posted a video to his 230,000 subscribers on YouTube revealing that he had been expelled from Moscow's prestigious Higher School of Economics (HSE) -- within 90 minutes of receiving an offer of admission from its graduate school of art and design.
Zhukov's backing for a wave of anti-government protests that rocked Moscow last summer elevated him to stardom in the opposition ranks -- but the day he left that courthouse in December would represent a high point in his career as a Kremlin critic. Though a free man, he was a convicted one too, handed a suspended three-year sentence for "inciting extremism" in the political monologues that earned him a sizeable online following.
His expulsion and beating come at a particularly fraught time for Russia's opposition movement, which is fighting for its survival against a relentless campaign of propaganda and legal prosecutions. Its most prominent member, anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, lies comatose in a Berlin hospital after doctors said he suffered poisoning by a substance that the German government on September 2 said belonged to the Novichok group of military-grade nerve agents.
Over the past year, the homes of dozens of activists in Russia have been raided by law enforcement.
Compounded by the political crisis in neighboring Belarus and ongoing protests in Russia's Far East, Zhukov's colleagues say the tense climate is only exacerbating popular discontent at a time when the price of challenging the Kremlin is rising.
"We definitely link what has happened to Yegor with his political activism," Yevgeny Ovcharov, the director of Zhukov's Team, his political organization, told RFE/RL. "Both the attack and the expulsion from HSE are part of a single chain that is called political persecution."
The crackdown also coincides with a controversial staff reshuffle at the HSE, part of a purported purge of opposition-minded teachers whose inception predates Zhukov's alleged expulsion from its graduate school.
Doxa, a student newspaper that actively lobbied for Zhukov's release last year, has been stripped of its funding and its license as a university organization. New rules introduced in January radically curbed the sphere of political activism permitted for students, banning them among other things from publicly listing their affiliation with the school.
Earlier this month, Russian media reported that HSE had not renewed the employment contracts of several teachers who had publicly expressed opposition views. In response, several of them announced last week the creation of Free University, a new institution with no campus that would offer free classes at venues including teacher's homes.
Roman Kiselyov, a political scientist and HSE alum, said he began a new job at the university in November 2019 but was fired after several days and told he was on "the blacklist of the FSB," the feared Federal Security Service.
"After six years of work and study at HSE," he wrote in a Facebook post, "your university, which shaped you as a person and which you love so much and promote at every opportunity, tells you that it no longer needs you because of you're politically unreliable."
RFE/RL was not able to confirm Kiselyov's claims about a political blacklist at HSE, allegations that have been made by other teachers and students. Valeria Kasamara, an HSE deputy rector and member of the ruling United Russia party whom Zhukov accuses of helping orchestrate the university's political purge, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But some in HSE's administration dispute those claims as well as Zhukov's account of his expulsion. Arseny Meshcheryakov, the director of its Art and Design Faculty, said Zhukov was offered a place on another study program but decided not to accept it. "I personally had this conversation with him," Meshcheryakov said in a statement attributed to him on the university's website.
Zhukov declined to comment for this article, telling RFE/RL through Ovcharov that he was preparing a new video address that would shed light on recent events and preferred not to preempt it. An investigation has been launched into the August 31 attack, and it has been widely condemned.
Ovcharov says Zhukov plans to continue his political activism undeterred, but he lamented the various restrictions placed on him since his December conviction and said his expulsion and assault have only compounded his pariah status.
"It's clear that they're trying to prevent this person's access to everything," he said of the Russian authorities. "He can't run for office, he can't have bank accounts, he can't get an education, and now it seems he can't even leave home alone."
At the end of his August 30 video -- less than 24 hours before he was attacked outside his home -- Zhukov made clear his views about the situation in which his public criticism of the government had placed him.
"You made me into a criminal," he said in a message to the Kremlin. "And now you're barring my access to an education."