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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Patriotic' Duties Coming Before Real Ones

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Last week Vsevolod Khmyrov, head of the administration of St. Petersburg's Frunzensky district, reproached me for being unpatriotic by calling into question a letter he had sent to 200 private housing committees, demanding that they work to ensure a high turnout in the presidential election next month.

Another official in St. Petersburg City Hall said that we have to love each other and be tolerant instead of paying attention to letters of this kind.

It's best if journalists avoid getting themselves into disputes with the people they interview, because the main purpose of the communication is to find out information or a person's opinion which will then be reported in an article without distortion.

Unfortunately, however, sometimes it happens -- as it did this time. One of the most hilarious things about my conversation with Khmyrov was that right from the beginning he was convinced the article I was writing was "ordered" by somebody in order to discredit him and smear his good name.

My guess is that authorities have become so used to "ordering" such articles themselves that they do not have a clue how real journalism works.

I have to admit I was trying quite hard to avoid getting into a debate with him, but Khmyrov was quite insensitive.

My argument was that everyone should stick to their own job and not meddle in other matters. Khmyrov's job is to ensure that the people who live in the district he is responsible for have a good quality of life. It is not they who are obliged to do things for him, but Khmyrov who was hired to serve the 400,000 residents of the Frunzensky district, to keep their yards clean and apartments warm in winter.

Unfortunately, the Frunzensky district administration does not work along these lines. It would be quite wrong to assume that everything is working so well in the district that the authorities have time on their hands to devote to sending out letters expressing concerns about the level of patriotism in the area.

As I found out, the officials there consider patriotism more important than ensuring a reliable supply of hot or cold water to people's apartments.

Khmyrov claimed it was purely his own initiative to pressure the private housing committees to work for a higher turnout. When I asked him if there had been a meeting of some sort at City Hall, where Governor Valentina Matviyenko might have ordered administrators to send out such letters, his voice changed, turning rather squeaky.

From time to time I wish I had a lie detector connected to my phone that would help me to draw conclusions based on the timbre of a person's voice.

I have not got one yet, so the only thing left for me to do was to burst out laughing.

It is quite clear to me that Khmyrov's feelings of patriotism are only as big as the post he holds (and is afraid of losing). There is a well established tradition of regional officials being ordered "to get the vote out" and being punished if they do not.

While talking to Khmyrov I kept thinking of an NTV report on the eve of the Dec. 7 State Duma elections. It told of doctors in a local hospital in one of the cities of Komi-Permyatsky autonomous district refusing to assist pregnant women if the women did not have official confirmation from a polling station that they had voted.

I am far from wanting to insult Frunzensky district officials, but it seems to me the words "patriotism" and "madness" have become synonyms in their heads. It is hard to be tolerant in these conditions.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a Staff Writer for The St. Petersburg Times.