On March 4, Roman Romanenko, a journalist and publisher in Russia's northwest Vologda region, took a break from the news in Crimea and sat down to write a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We've learned that you want to send troops to Crimea to defend the rights of the Russian-speaking population," Romanenko typed. "In relation to that, we have a big request -- to send troops into Vologda. We all totally speak Russian here, and our rights are frequently violated."
Romanenko went on to describe just some of the ills affecting Vologda residents -- poor medical care, sinking education standards, and agricultural stagnation.
If Putin was intent on rescuing a foreign territory like Crimea from similar squalor, Romanenko reasoned, then surely he'd want to do the same in his own country.
"You're planning to spend a lot of money to normalize life in Crimea," he hinted gingerly. "I hate to ask, but is there any chance you could spend that money on normalizing life in Vologda?"
A Sensitive Spot
The letter, not surprisingly, was never sent. Instead, Romanenko -- the head of Vologda's Premier media company and publisher of the "Premier" newspaper -- posted the missive on his Facebook page
, thinking it would amuse his friends.
Since then, the letter has been shared more than 3,500 times and spawned copycat jokes in cities like Tver, Yaroslavl, and Perm. With Russia's own crumbling infrastructure and widespread poverty, Romanenko says many people were ready to laugh at the notion of Putin leaping to the rescue of Russian-speakers who not only lived in another country, but had lived there for years without asking for help.
"We conducted an opinion poll on the air on Premier Radio. We asked our listeners whether they would sign this letter. Eighty-two percent out of more than a thousand respondents said they would," he says. "That's why I don't even find [this letter] provocative. Apparently, the reason behind its popularity is that it hit a very sensitive spot."
Not everyone, however, was amused. This week, Romanenko returned from a vacation to find he had been invited to a meeting with local prosecutors. Romanenko, whose bushy mustache covers a wide, playful grin, says he went out of "curiosity" -- and was shocked to realize his letter was being investigated for possible extremism at the request of the regional governor, Oleg Kuvshinnikov.
"The next hour and a half was pretty tiresome, with me trying to explain the point of my prank -- whom I was referring to, what kinds of facts and documents I had to back up my claim that local health care and agriculture weren't all that they could be, etc.," Romanenko says. "I had the impression that the staffers in the prosecutor's office were fairly intelligent and civilized. I didn't sense any aggression from them."
'Lviv Scum, Ukrainian Jew'
Romanenko's sense of well-being didn't last long. He went home to discover the door of his apartment had been covered with a swastika and the slogan "Stop Maidan," a reference to Ukraine's pro-democracy protests.
"We called the police and they found leaflets in [my neighbors'] mailboxes that said: 'To the knowledge of the residents of this apartment block -- there is a Lviv scum living in your neighborhood who supports the West and the destruction of Ukraine, blah-blah. Beware! The apartment of Romanenko, a Ukrainian Jew, may be used as an undercover headquarters of Ukrainian "patriots."'"
Russia's SeverInform news agency quoted an unnamed law enforcement official as explaining the attack by saying the population of Vologda was "almost unanimous" in its support for Putin's policy on Ukraine, and that the graffiti was a direct response to Romanenko's "cynical" stunt.
For his part, Romanenko believes the pressure comes not from the public but from Kuvshinnikov, the target of several critical articles published in "Premier."
The Facebook letter -- which refers to local officials as "occupiers who seized power through fraudulent elections" -- probably didn't help, either. ("We'll be very grateful to you and will guarantee that there will be no partisan war against our liberators," Romanenko wrote, adding that no international sanctions were likely to follow.)
Prosecutors have a month to conclude their investigation.
Written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Ivan Belyayev of RFE/RL's Russian Service