The country’s main opposition figure, Aleksey Navalny, was already in a coma in a hospital bed in Berlin, struggling to regain consciousness after what German doctors describe as exposure to a toxic substance with compatible effects with a nerve agent.
This summer has been a disaster for Putin’s opponents. The Russian president prevailed in a constitutional referendum in July, which is expected to keep him in power until 2036. Since then, Russians have witnessed bloody police crackdowns on protesters in Belarus, including suspected cases of torture and rape, ordered by Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator is now aided and encouraged 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 in reality only a child – only added to a widespread feeling of repression.
Zhukov posted a video on his YouTube channel, which has 227,000 subscribers, on Sunday about a crackdown on Putin’s criticism at his university, the Higher School of Economics. The school was once a bastion of free speech in a country where it is increasingly rare.
Zhukov, who was arrested last year during anti-government protests and threatened with eight years in prison, was due to start his studies on the master’s program this fall.
The video was posted in response to university administrators who bluntly told him he would not be enrolled this year, even though he had already been accepted and paid to start the course.
Almost 200,000 people online watched Zhukov say, “It is clear that no serious professional in political science would describe Vladimir Putin’s regime as effective.”
Within hours, the leader of the student opposition was severely beaten outside his Moscow home by unknown assailants.
During the two decades of the Putin era, Russia saw repression against the media, human rights defenders and opposition parties. Universities are the last target. Professors and students believe that potential students are blacklisted for enrollment in the Graduate School of Economics by the FSB, Russia’s successor to the KGB.
“The authorities must be aware of the history of Russia: students have always united in political movements,” former professor at the Graduate School of Economics and founder of Transparency International told Daily Beast, Yelena Pamfilova . “There is a giant crisis and not only in Russia: people in difficulty, like Zhukov, want to call the police for help, but there is no trust in the police and it is very dangerous.
Intellectuals have long used the Graduate School of Economics as a safe space where progressive political and economic ideas could be formulated and shared. “Recently, all the professors with skeptical attitudes towards the government have lost their contracts,” Zhukov said. “Our opposition student media have been deprived of their student organization status.
Last summer Zhukov, who is more libertarian than liberal, joined the protests sparked by numerous violations during the 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 famous cause with thousands of students, professors and ordinary Russians protesting against the dropping of charges.
The case against him was ultimately dismissed, but the university took steps to avoid a repeat of the controversy, and in January all students and academic staff were banned from making political statements in public or from s ” engage in political activities.
Zhukov believes the university was forced to make the announcements by the authorities. “The government was afraid of our unity, because we were with the university leadership. I find it hard to believe that the people who for years built “the most liberal university in the country” suddenly turned into government gatekeepers, “he said.
It’s unclear who or what scared the university leadership into the sudden change in policy, but some of its best professors have stopped working, including Yulia Galyamina, linguist and leader of the opposition. Police broke her jaw, cracked her teeth, and gave her a severe concussion when she participated in a protest.
Yelena Lukyanova, another professor who left the university, said Zhukov’s expulsion forced the crackdown in the public eye. “At least they openly told the man everything, while we only heard indirect clues,” she wrote on social media. Lukyakova and three other former professors launched “The Free University”, an independent educational project free from political pressure and censorship.
“There will be no ‘disloyal’ students at the Graduate School of Economics, we talked 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 severely bruised, but medics said the attack would not cause lasting damage. From the hospital, he repeated the favorite slogan of the former enemy of Putin Boris Nemtsov: “Russia will be free”.
The Russian opposition leader was assassinated under the walls of the Kremlin in February 2015, when Zhukov was 18.
In neighboring Belarus, crowds are also clamoring for freedom after discredited elections. More than 100,000 protesters crossed the Minsk Bridge to the presidential residence, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation on Sunday.
The Kremlin had remained silent for the first two weeks of the protests, while hundreds of Belarusians were detained, many of whom were beaten and tortured. Putin has since signaled growing support for the Lukashenko regime.
To demonstrate Moscow’s support, Putin called Lukashenko Sunday with birthday greetings, while a crowd of protesters was outside chanting, “Happy birthday, Lukashenko, you’re a rat!
Putin also promised to send men from Moscow to help Lukashenko “end extremist activities in the republic in case of urgent need,” a spokesman said.
Veteran human rights defender and chair of the Civic Assistance Committee Svetlana Gannushkina said the two autocrats from the former Soviet Union were encouraged by calls from President Donald Trump to violently crack down on protests in the United States .
“Looking at Trump, they think it’s okay to resolve issues with the opposition outside of the rule of law,” she said.
“In Russia, the primary target of the Kremlin’s reprisals is always the intelligentsia. Until recently, Zhukov University, the Graduate School of Economics, was the source of progressive liberal ideas. It was clearly an unpleasant place for the authoritarian government.