Medinsky Dissertation in Trouble

By | October 9, 2017

On October 2, 2017, the Expert Council on History of the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) voted to deprive of Vladimir Medinsky, Russian Minister of Culture, of the Doctor of Historical Sciences degree.

A very detailed official review of the VAK experts says that Medinsky did not present anything new in his work. The experts wrote: “The fact that many foreigners in their writings ‘were tendentious’ and wrote ‘under the influence of a certain political conjuncture’ is known to Russian historical science since 1866 thanks to the classic work of Vladimir Klyuchevsky ‘The Legends of Foreigners on the Moscow State.’” Professor of Moscow University and Academician Klyuchevsky (1841-1911) created his original view on Russian history and was the leader of the Moscow Historical School. Also, the experts stated that Medinsky’s thesis that “Russia’s national interests create an absolute standard of truth” contradicts methodological principles of historical science.

As the experts noted, Medinsky did not use original sources, but their translations, and selectively cited historical chronicles. The expert council doubted that Medinsky even worked in the archives. The experts concluded: “Of course, some shortcomings, errors, inaccuracies, misprints could be found in any study. However, their number in Medinsky’s dissertation is off the scale, being a systemic, qualitative problem.” At the same time, Medinsky did not use a significant amount of current studies on the problem.

Scientists demonstrated that Medinsky’s text “is full of blunders.” For example, he writes that during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, ecclesiastical books in Russia were written in Russian, so it was easy to understand them, unlike the religious works of Catholics and Protestants, which were written in Latin. “In one sentence, he managed to show that he knows nothing about the Church Slavonic language, nor about the translation of the Holy Scripture into German, made by Luther,” the statement said. In addition, Medinsky believes that the Russians were the first among Europeans to face the attack of non-Christians. However, for two and a half centuries before the baptism of Kievan Rus (988 AD), in 732, at the Battle of Poitiers, the French stopped the invasion of the Arabs, scientists recall. Medinsky sites Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, an Italian humanist of the 15th century, as a German. He disputes Rurik’s origin from Denmark by the fact that the chronicles say that the prince was a Varangian and came from Scandinavia, though Denmark is part of Scandinavia. Rurik (c. 830 – 879) was the founder of the Rurik Dynasty that ruled the Kievan Rus from the 9th to 13th Century.

As I’ve already reported, Medinsky’s troubles with his dissertation started in April 2016, when Doctors of Historical Sciences Vyacheslav Kozlyakov and Konstantin Yerusalimsky, as well as Ivan Babitsky, who holds a Ph.D., published an appeal stating that Medinsky should be deprived of his Doctor of Sciences degree due to the poor quality of his dissertation. While analyzing Medinsky’s thesis “Problems of Objectivity in Descriptions of Russian History of the Second Part of the 15th-17th Centuries”, they questioned its scientific value.

The dissertation was to be considered by the Dissertation Council of the Ural Federal University (UrFU) in the city of Yekaterinburg. However, on October 4, 2016, the meeting was postponed “in connection with the impossibility of the presence” of Medinsky. On October 7, VAK withdrew the application from the UrFU, referring to the expiry of the two-month period for considering the dissertation.

On November 25, 2016, the consideration of the Medinsky’s dissertation was transferred to Moscow State University. But on February 7, 2017, its Dissertation Council on History refused to consider the application. As Sergei Mironenko, Chair of the Department of Russian History of the 19th-early 20th Century said, the voting took place with a lot of violations. On March 2, it became known that the Moscow State University’s council was disbanded.

After that, the Expert Council of VAK on History proposed to consider Medinsky’s dissertation at the Dissertation Council of the Belgorod State University (BGU). On July 7, 2017, this Council confirmed Medinsky’s Doctor of Sciences degree. Members of the BGU council did not find formal violations in the thesis, but noted the presence of “some inaccuracies” and “individual elements of ideological tendentiousness” in the work. VAK’s Presidium supported this conclusion.

The new decision of VAK’s Expert Council on History contradicts BGU’s conclusion. Ivan Babitsky, who fought for the deprivation of Medinsky of the doctor degree since April 2016, commented on the Expert Council’s decision on his Facebook page:

Well, finally, something happened that should have happened.

The Expert Council of VAK on History just voted against the decision of the Belgorod Council with an overwhelming majority of votes to support our application for the deprivation of Medinsky of a scientific degree of Doctor of Historical Sciences. The decision was announced in my presence, as well as of representatives of Medinsky – [Mikhail] Myagkov, [Konstantin] Averyanov and [Sergei] Chernyakhovsky.

In ancient times, the Hindus had a good literary epithet, “remembering the duty of the noble” (satam dharmam anusmaran). Today this is about the Expert Council of VAK. Not everything is rotten in our country, no matter how much the authorities want to believe the opposite.

It seems Babitsky was too optimistic. Olga Vasilieva, Russian Minister of Education and Science, immediately defended Medinsky in the press. She said: “In two-three weeks, this [decision] will be considered, but I immediately want to emphasize that there was a positive decision of two [dissertation] councils [of Moscow State University and Belgorod State University] and the lack of plagiarism in the work is a very important point. And the fact that the author presented his own vision of history, this is just the very polemic history, as it should be.” Vasilieva totally ignored examples of plagiarism in the dissertation that were mentioned in the Council decision (“some fragments of the dissertation by V. R. Medinsky represent an account of the conclusions of other researchers”) and in more detail, in the original application of Kozlyakov, Yerusalimsky, and Babitsky. A considerable number of “borrowed” fragments of texts was also found in the short version of the dissertation, the so-called “Avtoreferat” (“Autoreview”).

Pavel Uvarov, Chairman of the Expert Council of VAK, was also unclear on the question if Medinsky might be deprived of the degree: “I am sure that the degree obtained under the formal procedure is not subject to cancellation.”

As for Medinsky, he claimed the criticism of his opponents was ideological: “They first looked for plagiarism, and they did not find it. […] Then, they say, [I used] the wrong methodology. I have a very simple methodology: I do not approach the evaluation of historical events from an abstract point of view, but from the point of view of the state’s national interests at this historical moment.” For Medinsky, the country’s interests are more important than “abstract positions, common historicism”. Apparently, Medinsky is against the principles that make history research a science.

The final decision on Medinsky’s academic degree will be made by the VAK Presidium at a meeting on October 20, 2017.

On October 3, 2017, the day after the Expert Council of VAK on History issued its decision on Medinsky’s dissertation, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, headed by Olga Vasilieva, deprived the St. Petersburg historian Kirill Aleksandrov of his Doctor of Sciences degree. Previously, on March 1, 2016, Aleksandrov had successfully defended his dissertation entitled “General and Officer Cadres of the Armed Formations of the Committee of Liberation of Russia, 1943-1946,” at the Dissertation Council meeting of the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The deprivation of Aleksandrov of his degree was a political decision since the dissertation discussed the army of General Andrei Vlasov that fought against the Red Army at the end of WWII on the German side.

On May 29, 2017, the Expert Council of VAK on History did not agree with the  St. Petersburg Institute’s decision to award Aleksandrov a doctorate. Experts under the guidance of Paul Uvarov concluded that Aleksandrov’s dissertation “does not open up prospects for research in the theoretical field.” This decision was made after the Dissertation Council of the Military History Institute within the Russian Defense Ministry produced a negative review of the dissertation on March 7, 2017.

Later Aleksandrov described how unusual nature of the defense was:

Following the results of the defense, which lasted more than eight hours, out of 18 members of the Dissertation Council, who participated in a very stormy meeting, 17 people voted “for” and one “against” giving the degree. In addition, despite critical remarks, three official opponents and the author of the review of the leading organization — qualified experts on the problems of the collaboration of Soviet citizens with the enemy during the Second World War — provided generally positive reviews. A real scientific discussion took place with official opponents.

According to the VAK rules, to defend a Doctor dissertation, it is necessary to receive official reviews from three reviewers (opponents) and one research institute in the field (called “the leading organization”). Before accepting a dissertation for defense, the Dissertation Council approves the names of specialists and the “leading organization” that will review the dissertation.

The defense of Aleksandrov’s dissertation turned into a real political show. Aleksandrov’s sympathy to Vlasov’s Army is widely known. That is why activists of the patriotic “People’s Council” and veterans’ organizations came to the meeting. They publicly accused the historian of apologizing for traitors. Some scientists joined them. Others, on the contrary, argued that science should remain out of politics, and researchers have the right to touch the most uncomfortable topics. In addition, supporters of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation picketed the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the “People’s Council” complained about Aleksandrov’s work to the prosecutor’s office.

Aleksandrov told the press that he did not plan to fight for the return of the degree. For the return, he was offered to change the main points of the dissertation, but he refused.

Author: Vadim Birstein

Dr. Vadim J. Birstein is a historian and geneticist. He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and books and has written two scholarly historical works, "The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science" and "SMERSH, Stalin's Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII". He received the inaugural "St. Ermin's Intelligence Book Award" in 2012 for SMERSH.

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