In a court on the outskirts of Moscow, fellow students of Yegor Zhukov started weeping as he delivered a speech via a video link from jail.
“I don’t know if I’ll become free myself,” he said, “but Russia definitely will.”
The 21-year-old is among a group of young protesters with bright futures risking criminal convictions and life-changing jail terms as Russia attempts to quell dissent.
Zhukov is the most prominent among them thanks to his popular YouTube clips where he criticizes President Vladimir Putin‘s regime and backs the anti-corruption campaign of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
In recent weeks tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Moscow after authorities blocked Navalny’s allies from running in next month’s election for the city parliament.
Police have arrested around 3,000 people at the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in years, but most were released shortly after.
However, around 10 remain in pre-trial detention and face up to eight years in jail for participating in what prosecutors call “mass disorder.” Several others are facing related charges such as attacking police.
Zhukov, who was due to begin fourth-year studies at the prestigious Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE), saw dozens of HSE students and teachers come out to support him at his recent appeal hearing, but the judge ruled he must stay in prison pending trial.
“Many students feel that they could easily be in his place,” said HSE postgraduate Armen Aramyan, 22, condemning what he called “lawless actions by this repressive machine.”
Anastasia Solovyova, a 20-year-old student, said she was still emotional after the judge’s ruling.
“I’m very upset right now,” she said, adding that she was one of those who cried during the hearing.
First-year law student Boris Karpyshev said, “You fear a lot for your future.”
From Student to ‘Hero’
The “mass disorder” charge Zhukov faces technically only applies to extreme acts such as setting property on fire and using weapons and explosives.
None of this happened at the protest where he was arrested in late July, or at any other of the rallies, more of which are planned in coming weeks.
As well as the courts, Russian pro-Kremlin media has been swift to accuse Zhukov, reporting that he was the “coordinator” of a mass protest.
Private Ren-TV, known for negative coverage of the opposition, aired video it said showed him “deftly directing” the crowd. The case against him is solely based on these gestures, according to reports.
More than 300 teaching staff at the HSE signed an open letter urging the court to close the case against Zhukov and the others.
HSE, founded in 1992, is seen as one of Russia’s most progressive schools and has said it will not expel him.
But philosophy professor Kirill Martynov has predicted “quite a harsh collision of views” when the term starts in September as a group of teachers have urged the university to stay “outside politics.”
Zhukov was a “popular, independent student” but his behavior after his arrest has made him a “hero” to many, Martynov said.
By contrast another of the detained students, Daniil Konon, who is studying engineering at Moscow’s prestigious Bauman Institute, was not known to have strong political views.
Konon is a former cadet who has taken part in military parades on Red Square.
He attended the protest last month after collecting signatures in support of an opposition candidate as a summer job, his lawyer said.
When election authorities rejected prominent opposition candidates’ applications to stand, they cited faked signatures of support in several cases.
Ren-TV showed him gesturing at protesters and he told the channel he was showing them which way to go.
Fellow Bauman engineering student Daniil Khryashov, 21, said: “He’s patriotic … he wasn’t even against the current authorities.”
Konon went to the rally because he was upset that the authorities rejected the genuine signatures he had collected, Khryashov said.
His mother Natalya Konon, who runs a dog shelter, told AFP he “wasn’t involved in politics” and hadn’t gone to previous rallies.
“He wasn’t part of the opposition,” she insisted.
Also facing a criminal charge is Aidar Gubaidulin, who recently graduated from Moscow Physical and Technical University, a hot spot for top programmers.
Rectors at several other leading Moscow universities have warned students against breaking the law at protests on pain of expulsion.
Taking the Rap
The detentions have prompted some Russian celebrities to speak out in support, including popular rapper Oxxxymiron, whose real name is Miron Fyodorov.
Not previously known for his political views, the 34-year-old wore a T-shirt with Zhukov’s face at an August rally and attended court to offer him bail of two million rubles ($30,000).
“Yegor Zhukov is clearly a principled, idealistic guy that didn’t actually break any law,” he told AFP.
“If he’s being accused of being the organizer of a riot but the riot didn’t actually take place, that’s clearly absurd.”
Explaining his decision to speak out now, the rapper said: “Everyone has their personal boiling point.”