The Fearless Generation Russian Youth Stand Up to the State

University student Yegor Zhukov was arrested for participating in a Moscow protest and thousands of young Russians threw their support behind him. A new generation of youth in Russia is standing up to Kremlin oppression.
A protester holds up a sign reading "Free Yegor Zhukov!"

A protester holds up a sign reading "Free Yegor Zhukov!"

Foto: Yuri Kadobnov/ AFP

On a recent, pleasantly warm Tuesday evening in Moscow, a group of people was standing in front of the Basmanny District Court, and the young faces were smiling happily. The day had turned out to be a good one after all, at least for the friends of Yegor Zhukov.

Just a short time before, the political science student had been sitting inside a cage in the courtroom. He was just coming off a month of pretrial detention and was facing the possibility of an eight-year prison sentence due to alleged participation in "mass unrest." The term "mass unrest" is a formula used by the Russian judiciary to describe the Moscow protests held to demand free and fair elections on September 8 for the Moscow city parliament. Zhukov had taken part in those protests.

On that Tuesday evening, though, the judge issued a surprise ruling releasing Zhukov from pretrial detention in favor of house arrest, while investigators announced that he was only being charged with "extremism," a violation that carried a maximum sentence of just five years instead of eight. It was a perfect illustration of where Russia finds itself in late summer 2019: It has become a place where opposition activists  breathe a sigh of relief when one absurd accusation is replaced by another.

Since the recent protests in Moscow, Russia's criminal justice system has been busy. On the same day that Zhukov was released into house arrest, several draconian sentences  were handed down by courts in Moscow: Five years for a tweet; three years for a demonstrator who used pepper spray; and two years for someone who pulled a policeman's hand.

But no recent case has been as prominent as that of Zhukov. The university student has become a symbol of a naively intrepid Russian youth that is being chewed up by a repressive state apparatus. Zhukov is a "present-day hero," in the words of the author Dmitry Bykov, one who embodies the "most important characteristics of his generation." His arrest, Bykov wrote, was a "colossal mistake" by the Kremlin.

1,400 Arrests

Zhukov's case also stands for a new kind of solidarity. Students and university professors rallying behind him. Oxxxymiron, one of the country's best-known rappers, offered to post 2 million rubles in bail for the student. Two editors-in-chief have vouched for him. Even the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages published an open letter in support of Zhukov.

The drama surrounding Zhukov began in the summer break between semesters, when thousands of Muscovites gathered in front of city hall in late July to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates from the city parliament elections. The peaceful demonstration had not been authorized and the police broke it up, arresting 1,400 people in the process. The mayor and other officials spoke of "mass unrest."

A short time later, a television broadcaster blamed Zhukov for being one of the organizers, accusing him of having instructed the masses to break through a police line. The clip was a quickly assembled bit of propaganda and it would later emerge that the person depicted wasn't Zhukov at all. But the machinery of the judiciary had already been fired up. On August 2, Zhukov was arrested.

It was hardly an accident that Zhukov was targeted. He ran a YouTube blog which then had 100,000 subscribers on which he discussed the strategy of non-violent protests. It was an intellectual student blog which frequently focused on "libertarianism," the idea that the state is largely superfluous because it encroaches on individual freedoms. Behind him, on the wall above the sofa, Zhukov had hung up the libertarian banner depicting a rattle snake on a yellow background and the words "Don't Tread On Me."

Seen from outside the capital, Zhukov might seem like a spoiled brat and his ultra-liberal philosophy elitist. Protests in the regions, which are frequent, focus on concrete needs, such as food, pensions and clean water. In Moscow it's about the principle. And Muscovites hate it when a thoughtful, peaceful model-student, one from a good family, is suddenly declared to be an enemy of the state. Where is the country headed if it locks up someone like that?

A young protester shouting as he is blocked by riot police in Moscow in June.

A young protester shouting as he is blocked by riot police in Moscow in June.

Foto: Alexander Zemlianichenko/ AP

"Whether you agree with him or not, Yegor is a striking personality, ambitious, intellectual and an excellent student. Choosing someone like that as a victim is a strong message," says Valeria Kasamara. A political science lecturer and deputy rector at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), Kasamara had Zhukov in class and also testified on his behalf in court.

The HSE, also referred to as Vishka, is an elite university known both for its liberal atmosphere and close ties to the government. That helps explain the support that Zhukov has received. But being close to power and liberal at the same time is a balancing act that is almost impossible to pull off in today's Russia, a truth that Kasamara herself embodies. She, too, decided to run for the city parliament as a supporter of the mayor -- the same mayor who expressed his gratitude to the police for their heavy-handed approach to the demonstrations.

Ineffectual Traditional Methods

In her research, she has explored what distinguishes Zhukov's generation from her own. She says that today's youth, "or the 'Putin Generation,' as they call themselves," are not afraid. They grew up, she says, in the most peaceful times that Russia has ever known, protected by their parents. They aren't even afraid when they end up in a police transporter after taking part in a demonstration. "My generation thought: If I get arrested, I'll lose my place at the university, won't be able to get a job and my whole life will be ruined."

This youthful fearlessness is what Zhukov represents -- and it explains the draconian penalties that the regime is handing out to him and his contemporaries. The sentences have the purpose of teaching fear to a new generation of protesters. Because fear, too, must be learned, and the traditional methods don't seem to have been working.

Indeed, intimidation seems to be a lot like some medicines, with the state having to jack up the dosage in order to ensure the desired effect on Russian youth. And the Russian judiciary is more than happy to experiment with heavier doses. Compared to the large wave of protests in 2012, it now has more means at its disposal to do so, with lawmakers having tightened up the laws. It just doesn't really know yet which of the tools to apply. Apparently it has decided against a vast new trial for "mass unrest" as took place in 2012.

His YouTube channel documents how Zhukov himself conquered fear. He recorded his last video on August 1, saying with a serious, resolute voice: "We cannot let fear win, because fear comes with silence -- a silence that will only be interrupted by the braking of the police van out front and the ringing of the doorbell."

Just a few hours later, Zhukov's doorbell did indeed ring. His friend Evgeni Ovcharov was there when Zhukov was led away. "He didn't seem intimidated. He was more like: LOL, I'm just a 21-year-old student and so many police officers are here to take me away," Ovcharov says.

Ovcharov and Zhukov know each other from their political work, with Zhukov also having explored a run for the Moscow city parliament with Ovcharov's assistance. But it proved to be just a crazy idea and they gave up after having collected a thousand signatures.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2019 (September 7th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

The two couldn't have known what would happen next: Their first encounter with the world of the Russian penal system. When Ovcharov went to prison to drop off clothes for Zhukov, he was yelled at by the guards for not knowing the rules. "How am I supposed to know them? Are they going to be taught in schools in the future?" he says.

The Fight Goes On

Like Ovcharov, Zhukov's HSE classmate Nikita Ponarin felt scared in the initial days following Zhukov's arrest. "We're afraid of long prison sentences," he explains. "Anything else -- 10 days in jail or an expensive fine -- is seen as trifling these days." Ponarin wears the twirled moustache of a hipster and a silver turtle in his ear. He says he never really agreed with Zhukov's ultra-liberal stance, but that the two of them enjoyed debating politics.

Now, though, he is active on the internet organizing assistance for Zhukov. He and others have also set up a chat platform with tips for the parents of those who find themselves in pre-trial detention. Everything from paying fines and legal fees to sending letters has become perfectly organized. That was not the case during the anti-government protests in 2012. This could be the difference between the generations, says Ponarin: "I don't feel like I am alone against the system. There are 3,000 people behind me who have subscribed to our channel."

Solidarity, it would seem, reduces the level of fear. A draconian judiciary tries to increase it again.

The Zhukov supporters in front of the Basmanny District Court on Tuesday evening may have been happy, but they also questioned their own satisfaction. The large show trial for "mass unrest," with Zhukov in one of the leading roles, won't be taking place, that much is clear. But the verdicts passed down separately on the individuals in question show that the campaign of intimidation is far from over. The laws have changed. And the fight goes on.

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