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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Far East Official Wins One For Free Speech




This week while thumbing through the newspaper Novosti looking for Russian words I understand, such as "Mr. Working" and "illiterate and dumb" and "boundless evil," I came across a letter from an astute reader critiquing a story I had recently freelanced for a U.S. paper.


The letter was signed by Yury Ukhov, chairman of the Far Eastern Shipping Company Trade Union, and my initial delight in finding that he was a regular consumer of American journalism gave way to consternation once I had digested the contents, with the help of our staff reporter.


"What a beast Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko is!" Anatoly translated.


"Oh, come on, he can't be serious," I said. "Pick up any paper, turn on any TV station. Everybody has only praise for the governor."


But as it turned out, the letter was attacking me for implying such a thing in my story. I was distressed to encounter such a reading of my work, a story about a British businessman's claim that the governor threatened to jail him in an attempt to extort control of Far Eastern Shipping Company. The letter raised many valid points about Russian ownership of the commercial shipping fleet, all ofwhich I concur with. I do not think Russians wear velveteen pants, very few of them sleep on stoves, and anyone who steals a cucumber out of a guy's garden (or a ship out of his fleet) deserves to be shouted at.


If this were simply a matter of condemning foreign raiders and their media hirelings, what right-minded honorary Slav such as myself would fail to applaud?


However, the letter had a curious nascence. The day before it ran, the regional administration called our parent paper, the daily Vladivostok, asking them to print a letter as a paid "advertorial" (Russian newspapers regularly print official opinions disguised as letters or news stories). They had not yet decided who would sign it, they said, but they would find a name. When the letter arrived by fax, Ukhov's name was scrawled at the bottom. At the top was the fax number of the governor's press secretary, Natalya Vstovskaya, along with her first name.


Inexplicably, my bosses passed up the chance to make a buck off an advertorial condemning a story a staff member had published elsewhere. So Novosti ran the letter.


When our deputy editor called Ukhov to ask how well he reads English and how he came across the story, he snapped, "I am ashamed that you, a Russian woman, are defending foreigners." He hung up.


Some foreigners and their media hirelings may be tempted to draw conclusions from this. I, for one, was delighted that public officials are facilitating free expression on important matters. Ukhov's thoughts deserved to be aired. And surely, we should admire anyone with the guts to sign her name to her opinions.