MOSCOW — A newspaper editor in Vologda had a simple question for President Vladimir Putin. Considering all that Mr. Putin has done in Crimea to protect the rights of downtrodden Russian-speakers there, won’t he please consider sending troops to do the same for long-suffering residents of Vologda?
The open letter was tongue in cheek, of course. Vologda is a Russian city deep inside its country’s borders and about 300 miles north of Moscow. And the letter wasn’t even published in print: Roman Romanenko, its author, posted it to Facebook.
But now he is being investigated for the serious crime of “extremism,” and could face prison time.
It’s a cautionary tale of how risky it can be to strike a discordant note amid a patriotic surge like the one that accompanied Mr. Putin’s decision last month to introduce Russian troops into Crimea to defend the rights of allegedly beleaguered Russian-speaking compatriots there. A lot was said in the accompanying parliamentary discussion about the threats to popular welfare and miserable conditions faced by folks in eastern Ukraine.
Crimea, subsequently annexed by Russia, is being offered billions in state subsidies and has received pledges to raise local living standards.
So, Mr. Romanenko, editor and part owner of Premier, a fairly mainstream newsweekly in Vologda, thought it might be thought-provoking to adapt the plot of “The Mouse that Roared” and ask the Kremlin to send troops to throw off Vologda’s corrupt oppressors and free the Russian population.
“Our rights are very restricted, we suffer greatly,” Romanenko’s open letter to Putin says. “The occupiers who seized power here with the help of fraudulent elections do nothing to help the conquered population…. They lavish money on themselves, on their homes, offices, and private planes,” while living standards, education, agriculture, and child care are collapsing.
“We will be very grateful to you [for taking action] and we guarantee there will be no danger of guerrilla war [against you] here, nor are there likely to be any international sanctions as a result…. We’ve heard about all the money you’re going to spend in Crimea, and hardly dare to hope that you might do the same for Vologda region? Our region has become a debt pit, and we desperately need new bridges, roads, industrial development, new jobs…. With respect and profound hopes for liberation, the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Vologda,” it concludes.
Vologda’s governor, Oleg Kuvshinnikov, did not find that the least bit amusing. “The price of words is very great,” his spokesman told the online newspaper Gazeta.ru. “Such formulations are beyond my understanding or sense of humor.”
Mr. Kuvshinnikov turned the case over to the regional prosecutor, who is currently investigating the post, and Romanenko himself, for signs of “extremist activity and fomenting social, ethnic, and linguistic strife.”
In case there was any doubt, Romanenko, reached by phone Tuesday, insists that it was a joke and he only meant to stimulate a bit of discussion among his Facebook circles in Vologda.
“It was my reaction to the events in Crimea. It was a purely humorous piece, and I never thought it would go beyond [a few people in] Vologda,” he says.
But called into the prosecutor’s office late last month, he found himself facing a battery of harsh and insinuating questions. For example: “Did you write it yourself, or did somebody else write it for you?” and “What social group were you targeting” with this appeal?”
The investigation against Romanenko is ongoing. If he should be convicted of “extremist activity” under new, recently toughened laws, he faces up to 6 years in prison. And that’s no joke.