- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

The news from Russia is far, far worse than anyone imagined.

The brutal suppression of Chechnya was bad enough. Vladimir Putin's obstinate refusal to consider Bill Clinton's gift of a joint missile-defense system was discouraging.

The veneration of the Communist state, for so long a staple of Soviet society, hobbles the mind well unto the sixth power. A mind acclimated to state socialism will acclimate to anything.

Consider, for example, the veneration in the old Soviet Union of that abomination of every written language with one, the exclamation point. Good writers avoid the exclamation point, and conscientious editors delete it with delight.

The editor in chief of this newspaper, a bit of an old crab, has more or less threatened to terminate with extreme prejudice the next writer who uses one. The exclamation point must be reserved for unique events that are either really important or actually incredible to the point of fantasy: "War!" or "Martians Land!" or "Clinton Comes Clean!" Once the exclamation point becomes routine, newspapers will have nothing left for the headline "Christ Returns!" The rule here is clear: "No more exclamation points unless there is an express waiver from the editor or the managing editor. Delete them all. A period does nicely. This applies to all copy, staff, wire, syndicate and otherwise. No exceptions."

Naturally a country as primitive and backward as the old Soviet Union, with aging commissars still a step or two this side of the graveyard, have a different view of the exclamation point. Only last week one Anya Provorova, a pretty 17-year-old high-school honors graduate who was on her way to medical school, came afoul of the bureaucrats when she addressed a letter to President Putin without the exclamation point.

The Russian custom, as the New York Times' Michael Wines cabled from Moscow (perhaps it arrived by e-mail, but there's no romance in e-mail), is to "fire off important missives with gunpowder," to address letters not with a colon (:), but with the exclamation point, i.e., "Dear Respected President!," or, "Dear L.L. Bean!"

You can see how silly that looks, but it's the ancient Russian custom. In her letter to President Putin from her one-ass town far to the north of the capital, where there's hardly enough work to keep even one ass and cart employed, Miss Provorova described how she and her classmates wanted to make a video of their commencement ceremonies, to put on tape the only exciting thing that had ever happened in the village, if they only had a video camera. One of her five classmates scribbled, at the bottom of the note, an invitation to President Putin: "Come and visit us yourself on June 17. You will have a rest, and we will treat you to pies."

A shot in the dark, but Miss Provorova reasoned, not unreasonably, that this was the kind of photo-op that a president's spinmeisters dream of. Bill Clinton would have rolled Air Force One out of the hangar himself. And so might Mr. Putin have, too, if Miss Provorova's letter had not been intercepted by a minor government bureaucrat with the requisite wooden head. Someone in the Kremlin sent the letter back to the provincial government seeking an address, perhaps to reply with good news. The provincial bureaucrat bucked it back to the school administrative office, and the world fell in on poor Anya Provorova.

There, Nikolai Sych, the director of the municipal education administration who is thrilled with his ability to speak prose, discovered the missing exclamation point in the salutation of Miss Provorova's letter. "We were ashamed," he said. "This is not what educated and smart people do."

Two inspectors were dispatched to the school, armed with a critique of the letter, which, they had discovered, also included a word improperly capitalized and (gasp) missing a comma. The mistakes were not even Miss Provorova's, but those of the careless boy who had scribbled the P.S. at the bottom of her letter.

To the astonishment of the town, President Putin sent a video camera to the school, but it's of small consolation to Miss Provorova, who was stripped of the silver medal she had won for academic excellence. This probably means she must forfeit her dream of medical school. She expects instead to become a dairy maid.

All because she understood the true value of the exclamation point. Here's an opportunity for an American university with an eye for a public relations coup, by restoring the dream of an innocent and deserving Russian farm girl. (Is anyone reading this at Hillsdale College? Liberty University?) Barring that stroke of fortune, she can have a job on our copy desk. There are several young men in our newsroom who are always willing to teach a pretty girl to type.

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