June 23, 2000

Students Stumble Over Nits in a Letter to Putin


New York Times- June 23, 2000



Westerners cap the salutations of their business letters with a colon, to wit: Dear Mr. Doe:. Not so Russians, who fire off important missives with gunpowder, as with "Respected Rodion Romanovich!" or "Dear Mrs. Raskolnikov!"


The exclamation point is a flyspeck of formality, a nit of politesse. When Anya Provorova, a 17-year-old from a four-street village in Russia's north, dashed off a letter last month that began, "Respected Vladimir Vladimirovich" no exclamation point, no colon, no comma -- she thought nothing more of it.


But when Vladimir Vladimirovich's last name is Putin -- as in President Putin -- some people here take flyspecks very seriously.


Among them are officials of the local school district, who came across Ms. Provorova's letter, got as far as the salutation, and blanched.


Since then, her grades on final examinations have been lowered, she has lost a silver medal for academic excellence and, by some accounts, her chances to go to medical school have been endangered.


"I don't understand why this happened to me," she said in a telephone interview this week from Vorobyovo, where she lives.


The chief of the district insists it is all an unhappy coincidence. In a nation where goose-stepping bureaucracy is as Russian as cabbage pie, practically nobody believes it.


Rather, people consider it a given that Ms. Provorova's oversight would bring trouble.


It is a curious reward for what was, after all, merely an attempt to liven up her school graduation party.


In Vorobyovo, a gaunt farm town about 300 miles northeast of Moscow, that is not a very big party. The class of 2000 at Vorobyovo Secondary School consists of six 11th graders (11 is the final grade in Russian high schools) -- five girls and one boy.


"Not only Anya, but all the students from this class were very active and smart," the class's mathematics teacher, Augusta Smirnova, said by telephone on Wednesday.


Three girls have been accepted at the Vologda Pedagogical University, the province's teaching college. Another plans to study medicine in the northern city of Arkhangelsk. The lone boy plans to study radioelectronics at a military institute.


Anya also wants to study medicine in Arkhangelsk -- she hopes to be a plastic surgeon -- but she says she is loath to leave her village. Why is a puzzle: a farm depression has spread poverty, and families have fled, shrinking the Vorobyovo Secondary School by more than two-thirds in the last decade.


It is a place that could use a lift. Last month, the class of 2000 hit on a way to get one.


"We had a big dream to film our graduation party," Anya said, "and we read an article in the newspaper that said one couple asked President Putin to give them something, and he gave it to them. So we figured, why not?"


The one-page letter to Mr. Putin, handwritten on lined schoolbook paper, began with a request for a handout. "We would like to shoot our graduation party on a video camera," it read, "but we don't have such a possibility. That's why we are asking you to help us. Send us a video camera, please, and we will be grateful to you."


But it closed with an even cheekier request, scribbled by the boy in the class. "Come to visit us yourself on June 17," it read. "You will have a rest, and we will treat you to pies."


Signed only "Goodbye, the 11th grade," the note left Vorobyovo in late May and reached the Kremlin on June 3. The Kremlin sent it back to the Vologda Province government, asking for the authors' names so it could reply. The Vologda government kicked it to the municipal school administration, in the nearby town of Sokol.


Shortly afterward, the trouble began. Besides the missing exclamation point, school officials found a missing comma, as well as a capitalization mistake made by the boy.


"We were ashamed that some students of our district wrote a letter to the president on a very small and dirty piece of paper and with mistakes," Nikolai Sych, the director of the municipal educational administration in Sokol, said in a telephone interview. "This is not what educated and smart people do."


The class, its final exams finished, was giddily unaware of this. Of the six classmates, three girls had performed so well that the school had nominated them for gold and silver medals, an honor bestowed on perhaps five percent of all graduates.


The final decision lay with reviewers in the municipal administration, who had decided to award silver medals to Ms. Provorova and one other girl. But on June 7, the letter to Mr. Putin landed on the desks of Sokol's top officials.


On June 8, two inspectors from Sokol arrived at the Vorobyovo Secondary School.


"They ordered the director of our school to write an explanatory note and to come to the Sokol administration to talk about this letter," Mrs. Smirnova said. They also ordered the school to find out who had actually written the note.


And after that, Mrs. Smirnova said, "they said we should send an application to the department to cancel this silver medal for Anya because they thought this girl's grammatical errors were very high."


No application was needed.


Sokol officials later called in reviewers to re-examine the work of Ms. Provorova and other students. When they finished, the two silver medals had been revoked.


Mr. Sych and other officials have offered various explanations of why the class lost its medals. In an interview, he said the decision to revoke the awards was made before the letter was discovered. Challenged on that, he said the school and its students were lying.


As Moscow newspapers and television stations have seized on the story this week, Mr. Sych has said the marks were lowered because the first reviewers missed mistakes.


In Russian schools, losing such an award is no small matter. One medalist, Lena Kryazheva, already had been accepted as a science major at the regional teaching university.


For Ms. Provorova, who was considering medical school but had not been accepted, it means that her sights are now set mostly on the Vologda Dairy Academy.


But she does have some consolation: the Vologda government has opened an inquiry into what happened, and has pledged to punish any wrongdoers. And on Wednesday a package arrived at the governor's office, for delivery to the Vorobyovo Secondary School.


It was from the Kremlin. Inside was a new video camera -- just in time for this weekend's graduation.