Young Political Activists Caught Up In Russia's Criminal Justice System

Sep 17, 2019
Originally published on September 17, 2019 10:01 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. In Russia, there were big protests over the summer in opposition to the Putin government, and the government responded by cracking down. Amnesty International called it an unprecedented attack on freedom of assembly and free speech.

NPR's Lucian Kim went out, and he met the new generation of political activists.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: At the beginning of this summer, Yegor Zhukov was just a 21-year-old political science student, though he had criticized President Vladimir Putin on his YouTube blog and briefly considered running for Moscow city council. But things changed after he took part in an anti-government protest in July. That demonstration ended in mass arrests, with some protesters facing criminal charges and stiff prison sentences.

On his video blog, Zhukov described the pervasive sense of fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

YEGOR ZHUKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Russia will eventually be free," he said. "But if we don't overcome our fear, we may not live to see it."

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KIM: Zhukov ended his post with an ominous sound of a doorbell ringing. And within a few hours, the police really did come for him and charged him with rioting, which he denied. Students at Zhukov's university immediately started raising funds to support his legal defense. Hundreds of professors vouched for Zhukov's character. And one of Russia's most famous rappers offered to pay a 2-million-ruble bond for his release. The judge ignored them all and kept Zhukov in pre-trial detention.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES PASSING)

KIM: Zhukov's university, the Higher School of Economics, is located on a busy street in downtown Moscow. Like any campus, it has lots of outdoor cafes, burger joints and even a Starbucks. But now it's also a hub of opposition activity.

ARTYOM TYURIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Artyom Tyurin, an 18-year-old political science major, says a lot of the students here go to opposition rallies. He spent a week in jail just for showing up at a protest to demand Zhukov's release.

TYURIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Tyurin says he's unhappy with glaring social injustice in Russia and that he wants to change the country for the better. Young Russians are organizing like never before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KIM: One group recently held an auction to raise money for political prisoners. Khatima Mutayeva (ph), an 18-year-old journalism student, was selling Free Yegor Zhukov T-shirts. She says, despite her fear, she's determined to continue campaigning for his freedom.

KHATIMA MUTAYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Of course she's scared of retribution, Mutayeva says. But her conscience wouldn't let her just sit at home.

MUTAYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Her goal, she says, is for Zhukov to walk free. But that might take a while. Although he's been moved to house arrest, prosecutors are now charging Zhukov with extremism. He faces up to five years in prison.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL AGED'S "BH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.