‘Why Don’t You Like Putin?’: Russian Students Pay A Heavy Price For Political Protests

Students protest in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in Vologda on January 23.  

VOLOGDA, Russia — Savely Narizhny is a 15-year-old former high school student in the northwestern Russian city of Vologda. On the evening of January 23, he was stopped in the center of the city after attending an unsanctioned mass demonstration in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who at the time was jailed and facing serious criminal charges. Narizhny wasn’t detained, but police confiscated his telephone. Three days later, police came for him at home.

Narizhny admits that he wrote graffiti calling longtime authoritarian President Vladimir Putin a "thief" on the wall of the regional administration headquarters. A short time later, prosecutors categorized the act as "an action committed by a group of people and motivated by political, ideological, race-based, nationalist, or religious hatred or enmity." If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison.

After the criminal charges were filed, Narizhny was called into the administration of his school. Officials pressured him into withdrawing from the school.

"They told me, ‘we don’t need criminals’ and so on," Narizhny told RFE/RL. "’It will be better for you to withdraw of your own volition.’"

Now he attends classes at night school while awaiting trial.

During the wave of protests in support of Navalny and against Putin’s government in January and February, Russian officials and state-controlled media — noting the relative youthfulness of the movement — regularly accused the opposition of luring minors

"It’s absolutely unacceptable to thrust minors forward," Putin said. "After all, that’s what terrorists do."

Leading state television moderator Dmitry Kiselyov railed against the opposition on his prime-time show, accusing them of "pulling children into politics like political pedophiles." Opposition supporters, however, were quick to create a video that overlaid Kiselyov’s tirade with a montage of photographs of small children attending events organized by the ruling United Russia party.

In the weeks since the demonstrations, local officials across the country have cracked down on young people — not just minors — who participated in the demonstrations. Many have found themselves facing expulsion from their educational institutions, serious criminal charges, or — as in Narizhny’s case — both.

Also caught up in the post-protest crackdown in Vologda was 17-year-old Ilya Yelshin. A self-confessed bad student at the Spassky Middle School, Yelshin spent most of his time cultivating his quirky YouTube channel featuring videos of him, for instance, watching a single clip by Russian rapper Morgenshtern for more than six hours or strolling around in temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius wearing just a t-shirt and jeans.

‘Getting Upset’

In January, however, as Navalny was preparing to return from Germany where he’d spent weeks recuperating from an August nerve-agent poisoning that he says was carried out by Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives at the behest of Putin and the government was threatening to arrest him if he appeared in Russia, Yelshin began including political content on his channel, including surveying other youths about whether they supported Navalny or Putin.

On January 23, he published a YouTube livestream from the Navalny demonstration in Vologda.

Pro-Navalny demonstrators march in Vologda on January 23. Pro-Navalny demonstrators march in Vologda on January 23.

"I started getting upset about what was happening in Russia at that moment. And things are still bad, as a matter of fact," he told RFE/RL. "The protests started, and I began looking into things. Russia’s problems, Putin…."

Although teachers had lectured students before the protest about the "danger" of participating in such activities, nothing happened to Yelshin during the demonstration. The next day, however, two plainclothes police showed up at his house and warned him that he was the target of a criminal investigation. Shortly thereafter, he was summoned to the regional prosecutor’s office.

"Don’t you understand that you are putting your life in danger by getting involved in this?" the prosecutor asked him, according to an audio recording that Yelshin made surreptitiously and posted on social media. "You are being used. You don’t even understand how they are using you."

"And have you thought about how you are being used?" Yelshin retorted.

Navalny’s supporters called for another major protest on January 31. Shortly before that date, Yelshin posted a video in which he said: "If you want to go, go. But think carefully many times before you decide not to go."

According to Yelshin’s lawyer, Sergei Tikhonov, the director of Yelshin’s school telephoned the police to report that video and soon his real troubles began.

Spassky Middle School Director Lyudmila Guseva declined to be interviewed for this article.

Vologda politician Yevgeny Domozhirov, who is a member of the Central Council of Navalny’s Party of Progress, posted an image of the police report of Guseva’s call dated January 29.

He accuses Guseva of hypocrisy for warning students not to get involved in politics while, at the same time, welcoming the United Russia party into her school.

"It is enough to go onto the school’s webpage and to see there the constant reposts from the party of crooks and thieves and photographs of their events at the school," Domozhirov wrote, using the dismissive moniker that Navalny coined to refer to United Russia, in a blog post that featured numerous links to such posts from the Spassky school’s social media pages.

‘It Will Only Get Worse’

Yelshin was detained at the January 31 demonstration. Police treated him as an "organizer" of the protest because of the video that Guseva had flagged for them. In the end, he was fined 20,000 rubles ($260) on that count and 10,000 rubles ($130) for participating in a second unsanctioned demonstration. In addition, his parents were fined 100 rubles ($1.30) for "failing to fulfill their parental obligations."

Within days, Yelshin — like Narizhny — was summoned to the school administration and pressured to withdraw.

"’Ilyusha, of course we aren’t forcing you to do anything, but it would be better if you withdrew,’" Yelshin said he was told. "They told me: ‘You know yourself that it will only get worse.’"

Since he left school, Yelshin said, he has more time to work on his YouTube channel. Among other things, he posted a video about how he was "driven out of school."

"Now I am no longer a student," he said. "I don’t study anywhere. In short, I’m a bum."

Student Vera Inozemtseva was expelled from university for attending a pro-Navalny protest in Astrakhan on January 23. Student Vera Inozemtseva was expelled from university for attending a pro-Navalny protest in Astrakhan on January 23.

In the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, 22-year-old Vera Inozemtseva and two other students were expelled from Astrakhan State University for attending the Navalny protest in that city on January 23. She said that after the demonstration she was "abducted" by plainclothes police officers who took her telephone and used it to post incriminating messages on her social media accounts.

"I was taken from room to room," she said of her time at a police station that evening, "and finally I was brought to a room and an officer from Center E came in." Center E is the Interior Ministry department responsible for combating extremism, which has been widely criticized for cracking down on peaceful political dissent.

"I tried to find out what was the legal grounds for this conversation and where my telephone was, but the officer didn’t answer my questions and just asked me why I don’t like Putin," she added. She said she was returned home by three masked men in an unmarked car. One of them asked her, "You are going to behave now, right?"

"I answered that I would complain to the prosecutor’s office," she said. As soon as the masked men let her go, two uniformed police officers walked up to her and ordered her to go with them.

‘I Don’t Want To Quit’

"I thought that maybe I had gone out of my mind or that I was in the middle of a nightmare," she said. In the end, she was fined 10,000 rubles for participating in the demonstration.

She filed her complaint with prosecutors on January 24, but the Investigative Committee declined to open an investigation.

"We are appealing that refusal," she said.

In March, a local court rejected Inozemtseva’s appeal against her expulsion from the university.

"Now we are preparing another appeal," Inozemtseva, who was working on a master’s degree in political science before being kicked out, told RFE/RL. "I am ready to go to the Supreme Court and to the European Court of Human Rights."

"But I want to win my case against the university here in Russia and not at the European court," she added. "And I want to see the people who abducted me on January 23 punished."

"I don’t want to quit," she concluded, falling into thought. "Quit what? You can’t even call it activism. I just do what I do. But if I stop doing that, I will become just another indifferent person. And although Russia does not love me, I cannot be indifferent to it."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Vologda by RFE/RL Russian Service North.Realities correspondent Kirill Kruglikov.. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Darya Yegorova contributed from Astrakhan.

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