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As Moscow police charge nine activists with ‘rioting,’ a support campaign mobilizes around one university student

Source: Meduza
Anna Kozkina / Mediazona

Police have already arrested nine people suspected of “mass rioting” in Moscow on July 27 during an unpermitted demonstration. The premise of these felony charges is highly disputed, and even some members of Russia's Presidential Human Rights Council reject the assertion by police that any rioting occurred. Despite this pushback, only one suspect has enjoyed the support of a public campaign: Egor Zhukov, a videoblogger and student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Other students, the university’s deputy provost, pro-government City Duma candidate Valeriya Kasamara, and the news outlets Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy have all objected to the case against Zhukov.

Twenty-one years old, Egor Zhukov studies political science at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, where he’s now in his third year. Two years ago, he launched a YouTube show called “Zhukov’s Blog,” where he offers “a critical look at politics in Russia.” He actually created the channel back in 2015, but temporarily abandoned it, he says, only reinvesting in the project when anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny announced a political-blogger contest. Today, the channel has more than 114,000 subscribers.

On his video blog, where Zhukov describes himself as a libertarian, he discusses current events, analyzes the actions of the authorities and the opposition (often focusing, sometimes critically, on Alexey Navalny), and talks about political theory (frequently attacking leftist and feminist ideas). Most of his videos attract tens of thousands of views, and some find mass popularity, like “Zelensky Won: Here’s What That Means for Russia” (620,000 views), “Ingushetia’s Uprising: Unrest in Magas” (413,000), and “How Putin Dodges Questions: His Favorite Tricks” (558,000). 

On his blog, Zhukov mentions having been arrested in Moscow on November 5, 2017 — a day when police arrested hundreds more, in a crackdown on activists suspected of participating in a so-called revolution by the nationalist politician Vyacheslav Maltsev. Zhukov says he was arrested together with several participants in the libertarian “Adam Smith Reading Group.”

In February 2019, Zhukov announced that he would run for the City Duma seat in Moscow’s 4th Voting District (which covers Strogino, Krylatskoye, and part of the Kuntsevo District) as part of Dmitry Gudkov’s coalition. Zhukov campaigned (for example, he spoke at a protest against a high-rise development project in Krylatskoye), but he was unable to collect the necessary number of signatures. In mid-July, judging by his VKontakte page, he joined the growing demonstrations in support of Moscow’s rejected independent candidates (who did collect the necessary endorsements), and started covering the movement in detail on his YouTube channel.

In a video recorded after the July 27 protest, Zhukov argued that the authorities were “scared” of the demonstrators, and had decided to “go all in on a police response,” giving law enforcement “a blank check for any actions,” including a criminal case against the independent candidates for supposedly interfering with the work of the city’s election officials. In the video, Zhukov even speculated that he might “ultimately” become a suspect in this investigation. Commenting on the rallies, he said “competing violently with this regime is pointless,” and highlighted protesters’ use of civil disobedience, like the blocking of roads. 

In his last video, published on August 1 and titled “The Security Apparatus Has United Against Us,” Zhukov urged his viewers to support the July 27 demonstrators arrested by police, calling on them to send food parcels to the detainees and attend their court hearings. “People will be sent away for five years for [chanting] slogans, convicted according to the rioting criminal statute, which actually involves violence and arson,” Zhukov said. “What else could better capture the concept of ‘political repression’?”

Before dawn on August 2, police officers raided Zhukov’s home, and in the morning brought him to the Investigative Committee, where he was interrogated and charged with participating in mass rioting. According to the website Mediazona, Zhukov refused to give any testimony. Throughout the latter half of the day, while officials were deciding whether or not to jail Zhukov, a group of supporters gathered at the courthouse where he was arraigned. Both Higher School of Economics Deputy Provost Valeriya Kasamara and Yekaterina Vinokurova, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council and a journalist at Russia Today, vouched for Zhukov, and asked the judge not to keep him in custody.

Video of Egor Zhukov’s arraignment

In court, prosecutors revealed the sole evidence against Zhukov: an unpublished video from the July 27 demonstration were certain “specified persons gesture to the right.” Alexey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the radio station Ekho Moskvy and the head of the Moscow City Duma’s Election Monitoring Public Headquarters, says “sources” later sent him the footage in question, and he says it shows Zhukov in a crowd saying “To the right! To the right!” and waving protesters to the right, toward an alley in the Lubyanka Square area. Venediktov says Zhukov was in fact steering people from the street to the sidewalk, “meaning he was actually leading them back into observing the law.”

After Zhukov was jailed, students, staff, and graduates from the Higher School of Economics published an open letter at Doxa Journal, calling on the university’s management and faculty to support Zhukov, to vouch for him in court, and to raise his case “with all state institutions, wherever appropriate.” Zhukov’s supporters have also organized a collection drive to send him food parcels in jail and to crowdfund his legal defense, and they’ve even collected the names of more than 400 people who vouch for him. Both Venediktov and Novaya Gazeta editorial board chief Dmitry Muratov have filed letters of guarantee with Moscow’s courts stating their readiness to hire Zhukov as a journalist.

On August 5, Zhukov’s supporters launched a series of one-person pickets outside the Moscow Interior Ministry’s headquarters on Petrovka Street and near the Higher School of Economics. Four demonstrators who joined the protest were later arrested. Eyewitnesses say the police told the activists that they violated Russia’s public-assembly laws by passing signs between each other. Officers reportedly planned to hold one of the picketers at the police station for 48 hours, but he was instead taken to the hospital because of a mild respiratory infection.

Text by Viktor Davydov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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