The Kremlin has long sought to clamp down on opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s appeal among younger Russians — as President Vladimir Putin, 66, has struggled to maintain his popularity among members of a generation that has essentially known him as the country’s sole leader their entire lives.
That approach took a new twist on Wednesday in Moscow — when Russian authorities announced criminal charges against four editors of a university news publication — accusing journalists of the publication DOXA of “inciting minors to take place in illegal rallies” in support of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny earlier this year.
Police raided the homes of Armen Aramyan, Vladimir Metelkin, Alla Gutnikova and Natasha Tyshkevich — all young editors in their early 20s who cover news for the online student publication — in what was widely seen as a show of force designed to intimidate.
In addition to raids on the journalists, law enforcement also broke down the publication’s office door to seize video equipment and carried out searches of two of the journalist’s parents' homes.
The moves were tied to a DOXA video titled “You Can’t Defeat Youth” published last January — in which the publication denounced efforts by university administrations to expel students over participation in protests in support of Navalny as illegal.
In fact, after Russia’s Internet governing body demanded the video be taken down, DOXA removed the offending content but announced it would appeal the decision.
Yet, late Wednesday, a Moscow court placed all four journalists under what amounted to house arrest pending a criminal trial.
“We’re supposed to stay at home from midnight until 11:59 p.m. every day,” said Metelkin, speaking to the press as he stepped out of the courthouse late Wednesday.
“So, I can step out for just a minute.”
The judge also banned the journalists from using the Internet and phones pending trial.
“It looks like I won’t see you for a few months, I’m about to undergo quarantine #2 … only this time without the Internet,” joked Tyshkevich, in a quick post to Telegram after the court ruling. “But I hope in that time I’ll write up a great investigation.”
A crowd of several hundred people — mostly university students — gathered outside Moscow’s Basmanny Court Wednesday evening — chanting “We are Doxa!” and forming a human chain as the proceedings went late into the night.
If convicted on the charges, the journalists each face a possible three-year prison term — a punishment that seemed only more egregious given the publication had bent to the state’s demands regarding content.
When asked about the legal merits of the case by reporters Thursday, the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment but noted that DOXA “began as a student publication but for some time had taken on social-political character.”
“It’s doubtful anyone would deny that,” added Peskov.
Fight for Russia’s youth
The pressure against DOXA comes amid growing Kremlin concern over lagging support for President Putin among younger Russians nationwide.
A February poll by the independent Levada Center found nearly half of Russians between the ages of 18-24 disapproved of Putin’s performance — while elder Russians continue to overwhelmingly support the Russian leader.
Increasingly, the dynamic has played out in Russian university life — where student political activism has clashed with the rigid university administrations.
In DOXA’s case, the publication was stripped of its affiliation with Moscow’s Higher School of Economics in 2019—after the university faced government criticism over student protests against the ban on opposition candidates from local elections that fall.
As if to underline that fallout, DOXA published Thursday a joint investigation with the online investigative Proekt Media that alleges the vast majority of Russian university administrations now consist of Kremlin loyalists determined to stamp out campus activism— particularly where it concerns Navalny.
Indeed, the government repeatedly has accused Navalny and his allies of luring unwitting minors to swell the ranks of street rallies the state deems illegal.
In 2017, the state passed a law that imposed steep fines on organizers who encourage attendance by minors in “unauthorized” protests.
Navalny’s chief strategist Leonid Volkov was the first to be charged under the provision last January—after thousands took part in nationwide protests in support of the opposition figure.
“It’s hard to know which criminal case is more absurd,” said Volkov in a post to Facebook reacting to news of the journalists’ arrest.
Navalny and his allies have long dismissed accusations that its political base consists of young teenagers as a Kremlin talking point spread by state media.
Independent observers also note that attempts to portray students as children only feeds younger Russians' ire.
"Students are already adults. What minors are we talking about?" argued political analyst Alexander Kynev, addressing the DOXA charges on Echo of Moscow radio.
“It’s obvious that this is a political story that can be explained simply as a repressive bureaucratic machine that needs to justify its existence.”
The pressure on DOXA comes amid a wider crackdown tied to Navalny’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment last February.
The opposition politician currently is serving out a 2.5-year sentence on charges of violating parole obligations last fall as he recovered from a near fatal poisoning attack he blames on the Russian government.
He also is into his third week of a hunger strike to protest a lack of proper medical care to address lingering symptoms from the attack.
His detention upon his return to Russia last January sparked a wave of protests and more than 11,000 arrests and dozens of criminal cases launched against demonstrators and associates.
Journalists, too, have increasingly come under fire.
Earlier this week, Russia’s investigative committee raided the home of Roman Anin, a journalist with the iStories investigative media outlet, which has published several high-profile investigations into corruption among Kremlin elite.
Journalists have been repeatedly detained while covering recent protests — a fact that DOXA acknowledged in a statement thanking the public for support.
"The pressure that the journalistic community has encountered recently is unprecedented, but we are not stopping our activity,” DOXA said in a statement.
“We will continue to cover what is important for young people and continue to defend their rights.”