Student YouTuber emerges as fresh face of the anti-Putin movement in Russia

Nataliya Vasilyeva
Russian protester Yegor Zhukov reacts after a court hearing in Moscow - REUTERS

A jubilant crowd cheered and chanted his name when 21-year-old Moscow student Yegor Zhukov stepped out of a Russian courthouse this week, effectively free after a judge handed down a three-year suspended sentence.  

The months-long case and public outcry against his prosecution have turned Mr Zhukov into a rising political star in the country, where calling for change can be an extremely risky endeavour.

The YouTuber was one of the protesters arrested after major anti-government rallies in Moscow this summer. The Kremlin reacted to the show of discontent with a prompt crackdown: a dozen random protesters were rounded up and charged with rioting for what was largely a peaceful demonstration, marred by police violence.

Mr Zhukov, a student at the liberal Higher School of Economics, spent a month in pre-trial detention in August before rioting charges against him were dropped amid a public campaign, supported by many Russian celebrities. He was then charged with inciting extremism related to four YouTube videos that he recorded in his bedroom in 2017.

In a country where an overwhelming majority of criminal cases end in conviction, Friday’s suspended sentence was seen as a win for the opposition.

Mr Zhukov’s name in Russian trended on Twitter on Friday, and some already see the 21-year old as an emerging opposition figure.

“Authorities by their actions are only helping people like Zhukov to become nationwide political figures,” Tatyana Stanovaya, nonresident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center and head of the R.Politik political analysis firm, told the Telegraph.

"His name is now recognisable throughout the country." 

The four-year student from Moscow’s west has been political for several years and ran a YouTube channel with dozens of thousands of subscribers months before he was arrested.

Contrary to the court ruling that sided with an expert who interpreted some of Mr Zhukov’s statements on his blog as calls for an armed revolt, the student in the videos recorded at his desk mostly mused about democracy and non-violent resistance. A self-described libertarian, Mr Zhukov had an unofficial libertarian flag hanging over his bunk bed.

Speaking on the steps of the Moscow courthouse on Friday, surrounded by several hundred supporters and journalists, Mr Zhukov sounded defiant despite the court barring him from managing blogs.

“If they think I’m going to stop my political activities - seriously, come on!” he said, holding symbolic white roses. 

“(Authorities) have turned courtrooms into an institute of repression, and we need to fight this.”