On a recent, pleasantly warm Tuesday evening in Moscow, a group of people was standing in front of the Basmanny District Court, and the young faces were smiling happily. The day had turned out to be a good one after all, at least for the friends of Yegor Zhukov.
Just a short time before, the political science student had been sitting inside a cage in the courtroom. He was just coming off a month of pretrial detention and was facing the possibility of an eight-year prison sentence due to alleged participation in “mass unrest.” The term “mass unrest” is a formula used by the Russian judiciary to describe the Moscow protests held to demand free and fair elections on September 8 for the Moscow city parliament. Zhukov had taken part in those protests.
On that Tuesday evening, though, the judge issued a surprise ruling releasing Zhukov from pretrial detention in favor of house arrest, while investigators announced that he was only being charged with “extremism,” a violation that carried a maximum sentence of just five years instead of eight. It was a perfect illustration of where Russia finds itself in late summer 2019: It has become a place where opposition activists breathe a sigh of relief when one absurd accusation is replaced by another.