MOSCOW -- When Yegor Zhukov exited the Moscow courthouse to a throng of supporters who had waged a months-long campaign for his freedom, he credited them for his unexpected release.
“The fact that I'm here now, and everything that's happening, is thanks to you,” Zhukov said after the December 6 hearing concluded, thrusting a clenched fist into the air. "This is your victory."
The student, YouTube blogger, and self-avowed libertarian has emerged in recent months as the face of a new youth vanguard in the Russian opposition movement.
Prosecutors recommended a harsh prison term for the charge he faced: inciting extremism online. Instead, the judge handed Zhukov a three-year suspended sentence with restrictions on Internet use and access to his popular video blog.
All morning, hundreds of people jammed the sidewalks outside the court in a western district of Moscow, expecting to see the 21-year-old student placed behind bars. Instead, they got the chance to live-stream his surprise victory speech to the whole country.
It was not the first time public pressure appeared to force Russian authorities to backtrack on high-profile criminal cases.
A YouTube Campaign
An articulate political science student at Moscow's prestigious Higher School of Economics, Zhukov had used his YouTube channel to vent against the government of President Vladimir Putin and promote various protest movements across Russia.
He posted his final video on August 1, at the peak of a wave of rallies that swept the Russian capital almost weekly over the summer. He urged his followers not to give up the fight, despite an intensifying clampdown.
Several hours after the video went online, police raided Zhukov’s apartment in the dead of night and took him into custody.
From the day of his arrest, Zhukov’s supporters staged regular pickets outside the Moscow police headquarters with banners calling for his release.
Hundreds signed an open letter decrying his persecution as “a trial for the entire university” and urging the school leadership to intercede on his behalf.
Each time Zhukov appeared before the judge for procedural hearings, dozens of students attended, communicating through a channel on the Telegram messenger app set up specifically to coordinate support.
The charges against Zhukov stemmed from his participation in a largely peaceful protest on July 27. But prosecutors branded the event an act of mass unrest, ensuring that anyone detained that day faced jail time if convicted.
Weeks later, at a demonstration attended by thousands, Zhukov’s name and face appeared on banners and posters, with slogans declaring him a political prisoner.
The outpouring of support for him and other students caught up in the crackdown initially seemed to bear little fruit. But prosecutors later changed Zhukov’s charge to incitement of extremism online, a move that was seen as a partial concession in the face of the public pressure.
In September, prominent cultural figures gathered at a Moscow venue for a performance aimed at highlighting the plight of Zhukov and other jailed protesters.
The stage from which they spoke was a copy of Zhukov’s bedroom, complete with the 18th-century U.S. flag known as the Gadsden Flag, a libertarian symbol that provided a backdrop for his regular YouTube monologues.
Among those who rallied to Zhukov’s cause was one of Russia’s most popular rap stars, Oxxxymiron.
"The Moscow Case is truly our common case," Oxxxymiron told the audience, using a popular name for the mass trial of people who took to Moscow’s streets. “How we live in the years to come depends on its outcome.”
'We Thank The People'
That rally took place the same week as 23-year-old actor Pavel Ustinov was sentenced to 3 1/2 years for dislocating the shoulder of a police officer. The verdict came despite video evidence to the contrary.
Ustinov’s arrest had also drawn a large public outcry from prominent Russian figures, including many cultural and artistic figures.
The day that rally was held, authorities unexpectedly reversed their decision and released Ustinov from custody.
”We did not expect such an outcry,” Ustinov’s sister Yulia told journalists upon hearing the news. “We thank the people, the media outlets, the public, and even the prosecutor.”
She was not the first to credit a public outcry for an apparent about-face from authorities.
In June, reporter Ivan Golunov, who gained renown for his deep research in public procurement databases and land registries and investigative reports on the wealth of Moscow city officials, was arrested, charged with possession of illegal drugs.
As with Ustinov, the case struck a chord in Russian society, specifically among Moscow’s liberal-leaning political and cultural classes. Three major newspapers printed identical front pages that read “I/We Are Ivan Golunov.”
About a week later, authorities freed him.
At the time, few concluded that public pressure could be a reliable tool to pressure authorities on criminal cases.
“This kind of success as in the case of Golunov is isolated," Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told RFE/RL after Golunov’s release. “They don't accumulate to fundamentally change the system.”
The unexpected verdict in Zhukov case suggests that may be changing.
After Zhukov’s verdict was announced, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested public outcry had played a role.
“We saw various discussions about this and various points of view,” Peskov told reporters. “We don’t turn a blind eye to anything. We carefully follow everything.”
Not A Final Victory
Oxxxymiron was one of many public figures who joined the crowds outside the Moscow courthouse on December 6 in anticipation of Zhukov’s verdict.
After news of Zhukov's release, Oxxxymiron thanked the crowd for not giving up hope, saying that “drawing attention to such things really works.” He urged people to apply the same energy to supporting other defendants.
“There's a mass of other trials taking place,” he said. “We were able to do something here, but unfortunately our resources are limited.”
Political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann, who also attended the courthouse rally, was less optimistic.
“A suspended sentence means a criminal record, and a criminal record seriously limits a person and all his future life choices," she told the TV channel Dozhd. "There's nothing good in that."
Still, even as Zhukov and his supporters celebrated the verdict, other courts in Moscow handed down verdicts against three other activists for similar charges: Nikita Chirtsov, who received one year in prison; Pavel Novikov, who was fined 120,000 rubles ($1,900); and Vladimir Emelyankov, who received a two-year suspended sentence.
The Meshchansky district court also handed Yegor Lesnykh and Maksim Martintsov three and two-and-a-half year prison terms, respectively. Aleksandr Mylnikov was given a two-year suspended sentence. All three had been charged with "attacking a law enforcement officer in a group," during the July 27 Moscow rally.
In total, seven people were handed verdicts by courts in Moscow on December 6 on charges stemming from the wave of protests that erupted in the Russian capital this past summer.
Speaking to his jubilant supporters on December 6, Zhukov did not change his tone, or retreat from his defiance.
"This is not a final victory,” he shouted. “They've turned the court into an institute of repression, and we must fight it.”