MOSCOW—Yegor Zhukov is the face of a new generation of Putin opponents using social media as well as student rallies to stand up to the regime. On Sunday night, he was beaten up outside his home in Moscow hours after posting a YouTube video criticizing Putin. In a statement to the police, he said: “I have not suffered any property damage, but my face is broken.”
An image of the 22-year-old’s bruised face, with bleeding lips and a swollen eye, has already gone viral online—an instant new symbol of Putin’s latest crackdown.
The country’s leading opposition figure, Aleksey Navalny, was already comatose in a hospital bed in Berlin, fighting to regain consciousness after what German doctors describe as exposure to a poisonous substance whose effects are consistent with a nerve agent.
This has been a summer of doom for Putin’s opponents. The Russian president prevailed in a constitutional referendum in July, which is likely to keep him in power until 2036. Since then, Russians have watched bloody police crackdowns on protesters in Belarus, including alleged cases of torture and rape, ordered by Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator now being aided and abetted by Putin. Last week, the country was horrified to wake up to the news of Navalny’s poisoning in Siberia. The attack on Zhukov—who is really just a kid—only added to a widespread sense of repression.
On Sunday, Zhukov posted a video on his YouTube channel, which has 227,000 subscribers, about a crackdown against Putin’s critics at his university, the Higher School of Economics. The school used to be a bastion of free speech in a country where that is increasingly rare.
Zhukov, who was arrested last year during anti-government protests and threatened with eight years in prison, was due to begin his studies on the Masters program this fall.
The video was posted in response to university administrators who abruptly told him that he would not be enrolled this year, even though he had already been accepted and had paid to start the course.
Almost 200,000 people online watched Zhukov say: “Clearly, no professional person, who is serious about political science, would describe Vladimir Putin’s regime as effective.”
Within hours, the student opposition leader was badly beaten outside his house in Moscow by unknown assailants.
In the two decades of the Putin era, Russia has seen crackdowns on the media, human rights defenders, and opposition parties. Universities are the latest target. Professors and students believe potential students are blacklisted from enrolling at the Higher School of Economics by the FSB, Russia’s successor to the KGB.
“Authorities must be aware of Russia’s history: students have always united in political movements,” former Higher School of Economics professor and founder of Transparency International, Yelena Pamfilova, told The Daily Beast. “There is a giant crisis and not only in Russia: people in trouble, like Zhukov, want to call police for help but there is no trust for police and that is very dangerous.”
Intellectuals have long used the Higher School of Economics as a safe space where progressive political and economic ideas could be formulated and shared. “Recently, all professors with skeptical attitudes toward the government have lost their contracts,” Zhukov said. “Our opposition student media was deprived of its status as a student organization.”
Last summer, Zhukov, who is morer libertarian than liberal, joined protests triggered by numerous violations at Moscow City Council elections. He was arrested and charged with public appeals for extremism. He could have been sentenced to eight years in prison, but he became a cause célèbre with thousands of students, professors, and ordinary Russians protesting that the charges should be dropped.
The case against him was eventually dismissed but the university took action to avoid a repeat of the controversy, and in January all students and university staff were banned from making any political declarations in public or engaging in political activity.
Zhukov believes the university was forced to make these announcements by the authorities. “The government got scared of our unity, that we were together with the university’s management. It is hard for me to believe that people who for years built ‘the most liberal university of the country,’ all of a sudden turned into the guardians of the government,” he said.
It is unclear who or what scared the university management into the sudden policy change, but some of its best professors stopped working, including Yulia Galyamina, a linguist and opposition leader. Police broke her jaw, cracked her teeth, and gave her a severe concussion when she took part in a protest.
Yelena Lukyanova, another professor who left the university, said kicking out Zhukov had forced the crackdown into the public eye. “At least they told the man everything openly, while all we heard was some indirect hints,” she wrote on social media. Lukyakova and three other former professors have started “the Free University,” an independent educational project free of political pressure and censorship.
“There will be no ‘disloyal’ students at the Higher School of Economics, we spoke about these horrible changes six months ago, and here is the nail in the coffin of my alma mater,” wrote former student Roman Kiselyov-Augustus on Facebook. “They can ban you from studying for your political activity.”
Zhukov returned home on Monday still badly bruised, but doctors said there would be no lasting damage from the attack. From the hospital, he had repeated the favorite slogan of former Putin nemesis Boris Nemtsov: “Russia will be free.”
The Russian opposition leader was assassinated beneath the walls of the Kremlin in February 2015, when Zhukov was 18 years old.
In neighboring Belarus, crowds are also demanding freedom after discredited elections. More than 100,000 protesters marched across the bridge in Minsk to the presidential residence, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation on Sunday.
The Kremlin had stayed quiet for the first couple of weeks of the protests, while hundreds of Belarusians were detained, many beaten and tortured. Putin has since signaled growing support for the Lukashenko regime.
To demonstrate Moscow’s backing, Putin called Lukashenko on Sunday with birthday greetings, while a crowd of protesters was outside chanting, “Happy birthday, Lukashenko, you are a rat!”
Putin has also promised to send men from Moscow to help Lukashenko “halt extremist activity in the republic if an urgent need arises,” a spokesman said.
Veteran human rights defender and chairwoman of the Civic Assistance Committee, Svetlana Gannushkina, said the two autocrats from the former Soviet Union had been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s calls to violently put down protests in the U.S.
“Looking at Trump, they think it is OK to solve problems with the opposition outside of the rule of law,” she said.
“In Russia the first target for the Kremlin’s reprisal is always the intelligentsia. Until recently, Zhukov’s university, the Higher School of Economics, was the source of progressive liberal ideas. Clearly it was an unpleasant place for the authoritarian government.”