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 criticises 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.

Tags: ;