Plea to Putin backfires on schoolgirl

Respect: A Russian country high school student pays a heavy price for a perceived lack of etiquette in a letter she wrote to the president.

June 20, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A high school student in a tiny village deep in the Russian countryside made the mistake of sending a letter to President Vladimir V. Putin, and now she finds herself stripped of the graduation honors she had been expecting and enrolled in a dairy academy instead of heading for medical school.

The letter had nothing to do with politics, and its author, Anya Provorova certainly meant no disrespect. It was just that when the six graduating students of the little school in the quiet hamlet of Vorobyovo felt something was lacking, they fell back upon centuries of Russian tradition and decided to send a request for help all the way to the Kremlin.

It wasn't that crucial - all they wanted was a video camera so they could record their graduation - but it seemed worth a try, because you never know what might happen.

It couldn't hurt to ask, could it?

It could and it did.

The problem was this: It seems that in her salutation to "The Esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," the president of Russia, Provorova neglected to finish the phrase with an exclamation point. Further down, she used the Russian word for "you," referring to the president, without capitalizing it.

The letter, besmirched by these insulting errors, rocketed back from the Kremlin to the district capital of Vologda, and from Vologda to the regional center of Sokol, and from Sokol to the village of Vorobyovo. And on graduation day Friday in Vorobyovo, 17-year-old Anya Provorova learned that her final grades had been lowered by administrative fiat and that she would not be receiving the silver medal she had been expecting.

Provorova had hoped to go to medical school. Now she's headed to the local dairy institute.

"I don't think it's fair, especially because the medal commission had already confirmed my marks," she said yesterday. "I don't think these mistakes should be enough of a reason to lower my score."

The school's principal, Maria Guseva, defends her students. "The children are disappointed and confused," she said. "They are hurt."

But she is powerless before the district school commission.

Nobody remembers now whose idea it was to write to Putin. But for generations, Russians who have nowhere else to turn have been sending in appeals from the deepest recesses of the provinces to czars and general secretaries and presidents.

While the others dictated what to say, Provorova wrote the letter. Nobody even signed the letter; it was sent in the name of the "11th-grade students of Vorobyovo" - 11th being the highest grade in Russian schools.

Guseva said that it was a sort of note that anyone might dash off and that the students didn't really expect it would even be delivered. But it reached its destination and soon came bouncing back.

On June 8, two inspectors from the regional headquarters in Sokol descended on the school. They told Guseva that the letter was unacceptable and that it had been determined that the handwriting was Provorova's.

The students were taking their algebra exam that day. As soon as the exam was over, the six culprits were told to write an explanation of what they had done.

Their answers were not deemed sufficient. The school commission met soon after, condemned the letter to Putin, and chastised the students for their immaturity. A week later, at graduation, Provorova learned that she was not getting the silver medal she had earned. She said yesterday that two other girls who participated in the letter were denied medals.

There the story might have ended - a not-soon-to-be-forgotten lesson in the proper way to address one's superiors in modern-day Russia - except that the Vologda correspondent for the national newspaper Izvestia learned of what had happened, and yesterday the paper published the story.

After it appeared, school officials in Vologda immediately denied that the withdrawal of the medals had anything to do with the letter to Putin, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

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