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As Moscow Jails Its Critics, Students Defend An Outspoken Peer

Yegor Zhukov attends his court hearing in Moscow on August 2.
Yegor Zhukov attends his court hearing in Moscow on August 2.

MOSCOW -- Sitting in the Moscow apartment he shares with his parents and brother, Yegor Zhukov shared the latest video with his nearly 114,000 YouTube subscribers.

"Who will help us in these fundamental moments in Russia's history? No one," the 20-year-old student said in the August 1 video, leaning closer to the camera as he implored Russians to oppose their government. "We have only each other. We, the real Russian nation, which stands alone before a murderous authoritarian machine."

A few hours later, in the dead of night, police raided the apartment and took Zhukov away, throwing him in jail on charges of inciting mass unrest.

Zhukov is one of 10 people facing criminal charges for participating in the protests that have rocked Moscow over the past four weekends. The crowds have jammed the Russian capital's central streets, demanding the inclusion of independent candidates in elections to the city council in September.

But Zhukov's arrest has resonated perhaps more than any other.

An articulate, promising political-science student at Moscow's prestigious Higher School of Economics, he has quickly emerged as one of the Kremlin's most outspoken and influential critics.

Through his wildly popular YouTube channel, watched by thousands of his peers across Russia, he vents against the government of President Vladimir Putin and actively promotes the various protest movements across the country.

His August 1 video address had been seen over 170,000 times as of August 6. Viewership for his YouTube channel regularly exceeds twice that.

"The Russian political elite is a clump of third-rate manipulators. They're constantly trying to sell us the centuries-old myth of the unity of people and state," he said in another recent video titled Three Reasons To Insult This Government. As with most of his videos, the backdrop is an 18th-century flag hanging on his bedroom wall, a flag that originated in the United States and is now often associated with libertarian, anti-government sentiment.

"Continue to express your opinion loudly and boldly, because to stop doing so is to capitulate to the state," he urged his viewers in the video, which paints an apocalyptic picture of a Russia gradually descending into warring factions of venal, power-hungry elites.

In February, Zhukov announced his candidacy for the Moscow City Duma, promising to cede more authority to Muscovites over use of their taxes by the government. Appearing at a protest against a controversial construction project at a park on Moscow's outskirts the following month, he slammed corruption and described officials as "our enemies."

"Some may say what I'm saying now is excessive, but is it not excessive to treat your own people as a cash cow? Is it not excessive to spit upon our opinion but not the opinion of real estate developers?" he said from the stage.

Failing to gather the requisite number of signatures, he withdrew from the election, and pledged instead to support high-profile opposition candidate Dmitry Gudkov.

Last month, Gudkov was one of around 30 independent candidates whose exclusion from the elections sparked the current protest wave, for which the 20-year-old blogger has become one of the most vocal proponents.

Outspoken Student Leader

At dawn on August 2, hours after his arrest, a sleep-deprived Zhukov arrived at Moscow's Presnensky district court to applause from several dozen of his fellow university students.

Since his arrest, supporters have picketed the Moscow police headquarters daily with banners calling for his release. More than 1,000 people have joined a channel on the messenger app Telegram that coordinates public action in his support. Hundreds have signed an open letter calling on the university leadership to lobby for his freedom.

"Yegor's trial is a trial for the entire university and for each member of the university community," the letter reads. "The Higher School of Economics does not have the moral right to brush aside a situation in which a member of its community faces three to eight years in jail for free speech and honest questioning."

The school has pledged legal support if needed, but has stopped short of publicly criticizing his arrest.

"The university leadership of course does not support students' participation in illegal protests," Valeria Kasamara, a university vice rector, told RFE/RL. "We believe there are rallies sanctioned by the state that students can go to."

But Kasamara said the university never takes disciplinary measures against students who take part in unsanctioned protests, which the opposition sees as the only way to break the state's monopoly over public discourse. She said in some cases the school can help with the search for a lawyer and the money to retain one.

For Georgy Tarasenko, a classmate of Zhukov's, the university could be doing far more to help. But like other students interviewed by RFE/RL, he said the school was unusual among government universities in its decision not to condemn the blogger's political involvement.

He contrasted the university's restrained public statement in support of Zhukov with the apparent silence of Moscow State University after the February 1 arrest of Azat Miftakhov. Prosecutors alleged Miftakhov had ties to an anarchist movement that was involved in preparing handmade explosive devices.

'Excessive' Charges

Kasamara taught Zhukov in his freshman year, and has maintained contact with him ever since. She described him as a charismatic and bright student who was always interested in politics, and even though she disagreed with his support for Russia's opposition she said she respected his views.

She described the charge leveled against him as excessive and appealed to the court on August 2, personally guaranteeing Zhukov would appear at his next hearing if he was released on bail.

The judge refused, instead placing him in pretrial detention until September 27.

The charge he and the others face -- inciting mass unrest -- is a felony, substantially more serious compared to the administrative charges that have led to fines and short jail terms for other protesters.

According to Aleksei Stepanov, a friend of Zhukov's since 10th grade, the blogger had an avid interest in political theory and aspired to enter politics to change Russia from within.

As a libertarian, he believed in minimal state involvement in the lives of Russians, Stepanov said, and was actively opposed to Putin's government.

Zhukov saw street rallies as an important method of bringing about that change, according to Stepanov. He also understood the risks of his stance in Putin's Russia.

"But I doubt he expected that his actions would lead to such consequences," Stepanov said.

Zhukov's arrest has shaken Moscow's student community, Stepanov and others said.

"This news has shocked everyone. Yegor was arrested at night, and his hearing was the same day," Tarasenko said. "People immediately began to coordinate actions, and dozens of his friends came to the court."

"It's hard to know who'll be next, since it seems anyone can be arrested," Stepanov said. "This is obviously a frightening feeling. We haven't had this before."

Neither Stepanov nor Tarasenko share Zhukin's libertarian views, and neither has been an active participant in the protest movement. But they said Zhukov had never held back from expressing his views.

In another part of the 13-minute video from August 1, Zhukov made an impassioned plea to protesters.

"If we stop, so much pain, so much suffering awaits us. Russia will inevitably be free, but you and I may not witness that moment if we allow fear to triumph," he said.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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