MOSCOW – Prominent Russian blogger Yegor Zhukov was beaten near his Moscow home late Sunday in the latest attack on a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Zhukov was beaten on the head and face by two people waiting near his apartment who escaped on scooters.
The attack came weeks after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned during a trip to Siberia, falling ill on an Aug. 20 flight, before being flown to Germany two days later for medical treatment. He is in a coma and expected to survive, although doctors have said the long-term effects are not yet clear.
It also comes amid a crackdown by authorities on activists, bloggers and journalists in recent weeks.
German doctors have confirmed that Navalny had symptoms of poisoning, likely by a cholinesterase inhibitor, examples of which include chemical nerve agents and pesticides. German tests have not identified the poison.
It is not the first attack on Zhukov. He reported an attempted assault near his home in late July, saying that he escaped without injury.
Zhukov’s press secretary, Stanislav Toporkov, said Monday that Zhukov was examined at a hospital and allowed to return home, where he was recovering.
“Yegor is at home now with his parents. The MRI showed that he does not have any serious brain injuries or internal hemorrhaging. He’s sleeping now after a rough night,” Toporkov said.
Zhukov, a libertarian who frequently criticizes Putin, was arrested last year and jailed for a month, accused of helping direct a mass protest in Moscow on July 27, 2019, in support of opposition candidates barred from running for Moscow’s city council. At the time, riot police arrested more than 1,300 protesters, some of whom were sentenced to four or five years.
But after video appeared to show a case of mistaken identity, police dropped the charges, before leveling a more serious charge of extremism related to his blog. He was given a suspended three-year sentence last year and prohibited from blogging, although he continues to do so.
Zhukov’s persecution has only won him more followers. His YouTube channel now has 226,000 subscribers, compared to 100,000 a year ago, and more than 17 million views, making him a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Police have opened a case investigating the crime, in contrast to the Navalny case.
“I have not suffered any property damage, but my face is broken and I feel very bad. I believe that the attackers attempted to cause serious harm to my health, for this purpose they inflicted multiple blows on my head, including after I fell to the ground,” Zhukov’s statement to police said, according to independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Pro-Kremlin media played down the attack. A report in Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper said, “the attack itself looks more like hooliganism. The blogger’s injuries are minor. He did not need hospitalization.”
Putin’s spokesman said there was no link between the attack on Zhukov and Navalny’s situation.
“I wouldn’t make any connections there. We don’t know who beat up Zhukov, and we don’t know why, but we do know that officers of law enforcement are conducting inquiries,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “We hope that those responsible [for the attack on Zhukov] will be identified and punished in accordance with the law.”
The attack came hours after Zhukov posted a video on his YouTube channel reporting that he had been admitted to study for a master’s degree at Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics, only to see his admission abruptly withdrawn just 90 minutes later.
In a statement, the institution admitted accepting Zhukov’s payment for a master’s degree in cinematography at the Art and Design School, but explained that the department was then closed and the money refunded.
In his video, Zhukov maintained it was “connected to politics” and said conditions had changed at the university after many students united last year in a campaign for his release from prison and acquittal, “and that frightened the authorities.”
“As you understand, no professional political scientist with common sense would call the regime of Vladimir Putin effective and the situation in Russia today as desirable,” he said in Sunday’s YouTube broadcast. “An intelligent person can’t help but see the existing disadvantages in Russia’s political situation.”
Zhukov won admiration for a powerful statement to the court in December calling on Russians to eschew fear and resist repression.
“I don’t know if I will be free, but Russia will definitely be free,” he said.
Russian analysts, opposition politicians and activists reacted to the Zhukov beating with anger and dismay, calling the attack political.
“A dirty dictatorship,” tweeted Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “First, Yegor Zhukov was denied permission to study for a Master’s Degree. Now he is beaten. Putin’s regime is incorrigible and hopeless. Kremlin scoundrels,” he tweeted.
Leonid Gozman, chairman of the opposition Union of Right Forces movement, linked Zhukov’s attack to the Navalny situation.
“I am sure that the order to beat Yegor Zhukov was given by the same people who ordered the poisoning of Navalny. They also started a war against Ukraine, intimidate Belarus and plunder the country,” he tweeted.
Lev Shlosberg, a Pskov regional lawmaker and opposition politician, blamed prosecutors’ failure to investigate the attack on Navalny for creating an atmosphere of impunity.
“Two amoral monsters beat Yegor Zhukov. If the authorities do not initiate a case on the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny by some scum, then other scum will attack another person. Impunity corrupts,” he said.
In a letter from prison in September 2019 that gained widespread attention, Zhukov wrote that Putin would eventually fall and Russia would one day be free.
“But that day will come, and just as suddenly and unexpectedly as the plainclothes officer who appeared at my door,” he said referring to his arrest for protesting. “What we once thought was impossible will suddenly happen. And in retrospect, it will appear to have been inevitable.”