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Pressure Mounts On Russian Journalist Over Crimea Prank

Roman Romanenko has had a swastika daubed on his door.
MOSCOW -- Roman Romanenko, a journalist, publisher, and charity activist in Russia's northwestern Vologda region, had long suspected authorities of lacking a sense of humor.

But he's still in disbelief at the backlash sparked by a joke he pulled in March when he called on the Kremlin to send troops to liberate Russian-speakers from corrupt officials in his region. It was a not-so-subtle reference to President Vladimir Putin's decision to deploy troops to Crimea, which Russia has since annexed from Ukraine.

Romanenko's March 4 letter, which he posted on his Facebook page, has already earned him two interrogations by prosecutors, who are mulling pressing extremism charges against him.

The door of his apartment has been daubed with a swastika and leaflets have been stuffed in his neighbors' letterboxes branding him a "scum" and a "Ukrainian Jew."

Now, the medical charity that he runs is under threat.

On April 4, exactly one month after Romanenko penned his ill-fated letter, inspectors launched a spot check on the group, saying they suspected it of embezzlement and money laundering.

"We undergo mandatory audits and we've never received any complaints," he told RFE/RL. "I believe these actions aim to damage the group's reputation, because people think that if it's being inspected then there must be grounds for suspicion."

Romanenko's charity, "Good People," cares for critically ill patients in the Vologda region.
The Plight Of Russia's Terminally Ill

He says the organization fills a vital health-care gap and fears its closure will deprive many patients of life-saving financial and moral support.

"There are many bed-ridden patients, including cancer patients, who are completely alone with their diseases," he says. "People still contact us, and we are continuing to pay for medicine or treatment. But I'm very concerned about the group's future."

Anticorruption Crusader

Romanenko suspects regional governor Oleg Kuvshinnikov, the man who ordered the probe against him, of using the letter as a pretext to settle old scores.

The journalist, who has not balked at denouncing official corruption in his newspaper, "Premier," has long targeted the governor and his entourage.

"We've had a long-standing conflict, ever since we published several articles about how regional authorities spend money," says Romanenko. "Although the Vologda region is severely strapped for cash, officials save money on everyone but themselves. After we wrote about them renovating and buying new furniture for their administrations, I was told I'm now the governor's enemy."

Despite its playful tone, Romanenko's plea to Putin, too, paints a damning picture of authorities in Vologda.

"Everyone here is a Russian speaker and our rights are severely violated," the letter said.

"Our sick cannot get the medicine and treatment they need, the level of our education is decreasing every year, children's clubs and interest groups are closing, agriculture has virtually been destroyed."

Romanenko also asked that the money earmarked for Crimea be spent instead on medicine and education in the Vologda region.

The instant popularity of his letter, which went viral on the Russian Internet and has since generated similar jokes in a string of cities, suggests many Vologda residents share his view.

"We are suffering a lot," Romanenko wrote to Putin.

"But the occupiers, who have seized power with the help of dishonest elections," he added, "are not doing anything for the conquered people."
Natalya Dzhanpoladova reported from Moscow. Claire Bigg reported and wrote from Prague
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    Natalya Dzhanpoladova

    Natalya Dzhanpoladova is a journalist for RFE/RL Russian's Service focusing on human rights themes. She has co-hosted and co-edited the podcast You Have The Right since 2020, and she has been an editor on the TV program of the same name since 2017.  Dzhanpoladova joined RFE/RL in 2011, working mainly as a court and field reporter, providing coverage both for radio and TV. 

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.