Fake Degrees and Propaganda as History

By | October 10, 2016

Vladimir Medinsky

In April 2016, two Russian historians, Drs. Vyacheslav Kozlyakov and Konstantin Yerusalimsky, specialists on the Russian history of the 15th-17th Centuries, and Dr. Ivan Babitsky, an expert in the Latin Renaissance literature who currently is working at Florence University, Italy, sent the Russian Ministry of Education and Science a 21-page-long review of Vladimir Medinsky’s dissertation, accusing him of unprofessionalism. The reviewers demanded Medinsky be stripped of his Doctor of Sciences degree that he acquired in 2011. Medinsky is the Russian Minister of Culture and Chairman of the Russian Military-Historical Society (RVIO) that supported the recent publication of Ivan Serov’s controversial memoir Notes from a Suitcase.

The Dissertation Council of Ural Federal University (UrFU), in the city of Yekaterinburg was put in charge of examining the review. The professors of the UrFU History Department concurred with the negative evaluation of the Medinsky dissertation and prepared a report for the Dissertation Council meeting on October 4, 2016. Despite protests of some of the Council members, a discussion of Medinsky’s dissertation and of the question of depriving him of his doctoral degree was postponed despite protests of some members of the Council. Medinsky did not come to the meeting claiming that his schedule had changed, and instead of him, three Moscow officials came to the University. The next day it was officially announced that the appeal of the three experts could not be considered, supposedly due procedural questions.

The procedure of dissertation defense and scientific degree awarding in Russia differs significantly from the American system. There are two levels of scientific degrees, Candidate, an approximate equivalent of the American PhD, and Doctor of Sciences, requiring significant original research. The procedure of granting these degrees requires some explanation

After graduating from a Russian university a person receives a diploma. If he or she wants to continue working in science, special exams must be passed and for the next three years studies as a graduate student (aspirant). During that period, he or she needs to complete original research, publish several papers and write a dissertation thesis. After that, the dissertation is defended at a Dissertation Council of the institution. Members of that council are experts from the institution and invited experts from other institutes.

Before the defense, copies of the thesis are sent to two appointed experts in the field called opponents who send their reviews back to the Dissertation Council. In addition, several institutions send their own reviews of a shortened published synopsis of the thesis generally called an Avtoreferat (Autoreview). The defense is an open procedure to which any interested colleague can come and ask questions. The contender gives a detailed presentation of his/her work, answers questions raised by the opponents of the thesis and from the audience. After that the Council members vote on whether to aware the contender a Candidate of Sciences degree.

Frequently, if a Candidate continues his career in science, he writes and defends a Doctor of Science dissertation. The requirements for this dissertation are much higher than for the Candidate dissertation. In general, the contender needs to work for five years on this dissertation, publish a substantial number of papers and/or, books, and the dissertation should include a significant contribution to science.

However, the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) controls the final awarding of scientific degrees. All Dissertation Councils report to VAK. VAK’s own councils also consider the dissertation after its defense in a Dissertation Council and give their approval or disapproval of the Dissertation Council decision. Currently, Vladimir Filippov, Rector of the RUDN University (Moscow) is VAK Chairman. It was VAK who cancelled the UrFU Dissertation Council’s review of Medinsky’s dissertation.

VAK reports to the Russian Ministry of Education and Science. The current Minister, Olga Vasilieva, was appointed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin recently, on August 19, 2016. Before that, she was deputy head of the President’s Directorate on Public Projects, in effect she was a member of Putin’s entourage responsible for propaganda. The Russian scientific community was in shock after this appointment. Ms. Vasilieva has had three careers. She was a choir conductor, then she graduated from Moscow Pedagogical Institute specializing in history, and after that, graduated from the Diplomatic Academy, specializing in international relations. After that, until 2002, she headed the Center of Religion and Church History at the Russian History Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Then she chaired the Department of History of Religion at the Academy of Public Administration controlled by President Putin (the former Academy of Social Sciences under the Communist Party’s Central Committee for the highest Communist Party bureaucrats, university teachers of the Communist Party history, and so forth); in 2010, it became the Russian Academy of National Economy and Administration (The Presidential Academy, RANEPA). Additionally, Vasiliev taught at the Sretinsky Theological Seminary, where she was invited by the Rector of the Seminary, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), who is allegedly Putin’s confessor.

Besides being an Orthodox conservative and Russian nationalist (“patriot”), Vasilieva promotes Stalin’s positive role in Soviet history. For instance, according to an attendee of a closed lecture for the leadership of Putin’s political party “United Party,” she stated: “Stalin, with all his shortcomings, was a public benefit, because before the [World] war [II] he began the unification of the nation, revived the heroes of pre-revolutionary Russia, and started the propaganda of the Russian language and literature, which, in the long run, allowed us to win the war.” In 2013, she organized an exhibition “The Orthodox Russia. The Romanovs” in the main Moscow exhibition hall, the Manezh. The exhibition glorified the Tsar’s family history. When she was appointed Minister, the Russian Patriarch Kirill blessed her. It is unclear how a person with such background can administrate science institutions.

Despite stringent formal requirements for scientific dissertations and seemingly complex and safe hierarchical system of awarding them, the number of fake dissertation mostly composed from plagiarized content is endemic in the current Russia. During the last approximately 15 years, almost every official and member of Parliament acquired a candidate or doctor degree for via a false dissertation.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin is guilty of plagiarism. As was demonstrated in 2006 by two researchers at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., the beginning of Putin’s Candidate dissertation thesis “had been heavily ‘borrowed’ from a 1978 textbook, ‘Strategic planning and Public Policy,’ written by University of Pittsburgh Professors David I. Cleland and William R. King. Numerous companies that create false dissertations for payment, as well as Dissertation Councils that consider approve such dissertations, the so-called “dissertation factories,” appeared. This obsession of Putin’s bureaucracy with scientific degrees is a cultural phenomenon because in the Soviet Union, scientific degrees were prestigious.

The community of real scientists responded to this wave of falsification by creating the “Dissernet,” an informal association of Russian concerned experts in various scientific fields, mathematicians who wrote special programs for exhaustive comparison of texts to discover plagarism, and some journalists. As the association describes itself, “Dissernet” is “the Free Community Network of experts, researchers and reporters who devote their work to revelations of scams, liars and falsifiers.” One of the authors of the appeal against Medinsky’s dissertation, Dr. Babitsky, is a member of “Dissernet”, and the “Dissernet” supported the conclusion of the three experts to deprive Medinsky of his Doctor of Sciences degree in a separate document.

After this long introduction, it is possible to describe Medinsky’s “scientific” career and why his dissertation was met with such hostility among professional historians. In 1992, Medinsky graduated as a journalist from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University, Moscow), a prestigious school attended mostly by the children of previously Soviet, now Russian elite. In 1997, he defended his Candidate of Science dissertation entitled “The Current Stage of the World Development and the Problems of Formation of the Russian Foreign Policy” and received a Candidate of Political Sciences degree.

The defense took place in the Dissertation Council of the Russian Academy of Public Administration, the same Academy where the current Minister of Education and Science Olga Vasilieva chaired the Department of History of Religion for many years. An analysis of the text of Medinsky’s candidate dissertation by the “Dissernet” demonstrated a very high level of plagiarism. Of 113 pages of the main text in the thesis, fragments of the text on 78 pages are practically identical to the texts of his scientific adviser, Sergei Proskurin, and there were also fragments of the text identical to the works of another political scientist, Aleksandr Ponarin.

In 2011, Medinsky defended his Doctor of Sciences dissertation entitled “Problems of Objectivity in Descriptions of Russian History of the Second Part of 15th-17th Centuries” before the Dissertation Council of the Russian State Social University (RGSU, Moscow). In 1978, this university was organized as Moscow Higher Communist Party School [i.e., college], and it is still tightly connected with the current Russian government. In February 2015, its Dissertation Council, widely known as “a dissertation factory”, was disbanded, and RGSU Rector Lidiya Fedyakina was fired, and four historians who were given their Doctors of Sciences degrees by this Council, were deprived of the degrees for plagiarism and falsification.

The corruption and nepotism in the RGSU and its Dissertation Council was unparalled. Lydiya Fedyakina’s father, Academician Vasily Zhukov, was the founder and Honorary Rector of the RGSU, as well as the scientific adviser of Medinsky’s dissertation. Her mother, Galina Zhukova, was a Vice-Rector of the RGSU, while Lydiya Fedyakina’s husband Vitaly was another Vice-Rector. Her sister Galina was a professor. Later she was deprived of her Doctor degree. On the whole, the RGSU Dissertation Council approved 28 falsified Candidate and Doctor of Sciences dissertations.

The current RGSU Rector, Nataliya Pochinok, before she was appointed, was First Vice President of the Pension Fund established by the Russian state bank “Sberbank.” After the appointment, she also became a member of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. Since the RGSU Dissertation Council had been eliminated, VAK assigned the UrFU Dissertation Council to consider the negative review of Medinsky’s dissertation.

The story with Medinsky’s doctor degree began in 2012, soon after Medinsky’s defense. Professional reviews of Medinsky’s dissertation and its avtoreferat clearly demonstrated that both texts contain numerous examples of plagiarism from the works of other authors. On whole, according to the opinion of a number of historians, the dissertation was totally unprofessional, written without knowledge of basic historical sources, and did not contain the original research, which is the main criteria of a doctor dissertation.

Medinsky brushed off accusations and disdainfully responded to his critics. In 2014, he said on Ekho Moskvy: “I think the whole fuss around [my] thesis is disgusting… It is usually people incapable of writing anything longer than 140 characters on Twitter who dabble and poke around in this. But they persistently look for a speck in their brother’s eye.”

Medinsky made a lot of money by writing books with a populist presentation of historical facts. Only in 2010, he received 2 million rubles as honorarium for the books printed by the Olma Media Group, which later published Serov’s memoir..

However, just a few examples illustrate why Russian intellectuals are so upset. “As it is known, all books of Orthodox believers were written in Russian, and, because of that, it was easy to understand their contents. The situation with the Catholics and Protestants was different. They had the Holy Bible in Latin that common believers did not know” (pp. 240-241 of the dissertation). One does not need to be a historian to know that the Russian Orthodox texts were not written in Russian, but in the Church Slavonic language, and that Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German in 1522. Medinsky also states that Catholics are not Christians: “The differences between the Christian and Catholic churches gave rise to a certain lack of understanding and mistrust between them” (p. 165).

It is also unclear if Medinsky knows anything about European history: “From the Russian chronicles it is known that the Russian people were facing the aggression of infidels, i.e., not Christians, long before the Europeans, and for several centuries successfully beat it off” (p. 189). Apparently, he does not know that the conquest of the Pyrenean Peninsula by the Arabs occurred in the 8th Century and that they were defeated and stopped on the territory of France in 732, 256 years before the Christianization of Russia.

Medinsky’s dissertation attempts to illustrate Russian superiority to the Europeans at the time he described. But according to the reviewers, the dissertation content and the style of Medinsky’s conclusions “are similar to a propaganda pamphlet, and it is practically impossible to consider them to be a result of a scientific research, even of a poor one.”

In his previous review written in 2012, Dr. Kozlyakov demonstrated that Medinsky even included non-existent papers and invented five monographs that had never been printed. As this reviewer wrote, Medinsky honestly explained the reason why he wrote his dissertation: “A separate state history propaganda organization is needed. It should be involved in the studies and preservation of the historical heritage, in the questions of historical memory and propaganda of history. The dissertation author thinks that this organization should play a counterpropaganda role” (p. 452).

Apparently the Russian authorities agree with replacement of history with propaganda. In May 2012, Medinsky was appointed Minister of Culture, and in March 2013, he became Chairman of the RVIO. The RVIO was created in December 2012 on President Putin’s order, and it is financially supported primarily by the Russian government. In 2015, the RVIO received 325 million rubles from the governmental budget, a sum 14 percent higher than in 2014; of it, 40 million rubles were used for administration.

In addition, about 100-150 million rubles were donated privately that year. The society has a capital fund, the “RVIO Target Capital” (“Tselevoi capital RVIO”), of approximately 300 million rubles, administered by the Russian gas industry bank Gazprombank. The fund director is Yelena Krechetova, Medinsky’s business co-worker from the 1990s, when he owned the PR-agency “Corporation Me” (“Korporatsiya Ya”). The fund does not spend money, only saves it up. An unnamed director of a federal museum described Medinsky: “If he had to choose between the RVIO and the Ministry of Culture, he would choose the first one. People of culture always whine and moan, while in the RVIO there are strong good guys in military caps.”

It is understandable that Medinsky feels that “strong good guys in military caps” are closer to him than “people of culture” as he was born into a military family. During an interview in 2015, Medinsky said about his father, Rostislav Igantievich, who is Adviser to the RVIO: “He served in the first MBR [intercontinental ballistic missiles] units, and was in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Afghanistan, and in Chernobyl [in 1986], restored [the city of] Spitak [in Armenia] after the [1988] earthquake, he has a tremendous experience.”

In the 2015 interview, Medinsky also recalled with some nostalgia: “I remember that even when I was seven years old, I avidly read the ‘Book of the Future Commanders,’ and since then I have been keeping it in my library… It was probably the best book in the USSR on military history for schoolchildren. In it, the entire history of wars and heroes, from the Spartans to the Great Patriotic War, is described in a very fine language.” This book, which so impressed the 7-year-old boy, was published in 1974 and, of course, contained all Soviet myths about the Great Patriotic War, as World War II (WWII) is known in Russia.

In 2014, Medinsky became the center of an international scandal. On May 12, a ceremony in which he was to receive an Honorary Fellowship at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy, was cancelled at the last moment. The decision to award Medinsky was made on March 24, 2014, by the Scientific Council (Senato Accademico) of that University, but it was kept in secrecy for a while. The official reason for postponing the ceremony was a conflict in the Minister’s schedule, and the event was transferred to Moscow. The real reason of the cancellation in Venice was a petition signed by 100 professors and lecturers of the University who protested against Medinsky’s nationalistic, homophobic, and generally ignorant statements, as well as the plagiarism in his dissertation. On the day of the venue in Moscow, 50 Russian intellectuals also published in Italy an open letter protesting against the award.

In Moscow, the ceremony took place on May 15, 2014. Associate Professor Silvia Burini, then Vice Rector for the Cultural Productions and Relations with the Scientific and Cultural Institutions at Ca’ Foscari University, handed the University’s diploma and gown over to Medinsky. Despite the protests of Italian and Russian intellectuals, she said that Medinsky was awarded not as a minister, but as a historian who made a great contribution to the development of Russian science and promoted the cooperation between the two countries.

In the interview on the next day, Professor Burini explained that the name of Medinsky was suggested by “my Philosophy and Arts Department because it’s the Year of Culture in Russia and Italy… But Medinsky’s candidacy was proposed long time ago.” She added: “You know, we have a group of people [at the University] who are protesting for any reason. It’s impossible to engage them in a constructive dialogue.” The reaction at Ca’ Foscari University was immediate and furious, 200 teachers and 1,000 of students signed a new petition against Professor Burini and she was forced to resign from the Vice Rector post.

The situation with Medinsky and Burini becomes a little bit more clear if one takes into consideration that Professor Burini is also Director of the Center for the Study of Russian Arts (CSAR) at Ca’ Foscari University. The CSAR was established in 2011 with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Education and Science, and opened by Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of then Russian President Medvedev.  Apparently, the Russians also provided financial support for Russian art exhibitions at the center.

Also in 2014, Professor Burini was one of 24 people to be awarded the Pushkin medal by Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the award recipients, Hans Boland, a prominent Dutch linguist and translator of Russian poetry, refused to take the medal from Vladimir Putin’s hands: “I despise [Putin’s] behavior and manner of thought… For me, any connection between him and myself, between his name and Pushkin’s name, is disgusting and intolerable”. His award was cancelled. Additionally, at the end of 2014, Professor Burini became a Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Arts.

At the UrFU Scientific Council meeting on October 4, 2016, Dr. Ivan Babitsky represented the reviewers who demanded the retraction of Medinsky’s degree. He said: “We are talking about an unprecedented farce.” But Medinsky’s three supporters from Moscow also participated in the meeting–Yevgeny Tarlo, Doctor of Jurisprudence and former Senator of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian Parliament), Mikhail Myagkov, RVIO Scientific Director (in other words, Medinsky’s close colleague) and also head of the Center of War History and Geopolicy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Sergei Chernyakhovsky, a philosopher, Professor at the Theoretical History and Politics Department, Moscow State University and a member of the Russian Academy of Political Sciences. It is unclear how these three offer professional opinions about the Russian history of the 15th-17th Centuries. The only historian of the three, Myagkov, who specializes in WWII, declared “I came because I consider Medinsky’s dissertation to be a decent work, it has a scientific input. The dissertation creates a positive image of Russia . . . The work is not a plagiarism.”

The same day, when he did not attend the meeting at the UrFU, Medinsky officially called those who, due to the new archival revelations, doubt the myths of Stalin’s time about the Great Patriotic War “the worst scum”, referring specifically to the controversy around the “guardsmen-heros”. In Medinsky’s opinion, this myth is “a holy legend, which just no one can touch.” The legend concerns 28 members of the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division under the command of Major General Ivan Panfilov, who were wiped out as they blew up 18 German tanks while trying to stop the Nazi advance to Moscow in November 1941. The sacrifice of the Panfilov’s 28 guardsmen became a Soviet symbol of resistance to the enemy.

However, last year Sergei Mironenko, the longtime director of the Russian State Archive (GARF), debunked this legend and published archival documents to prove his position. It appears that in 1948, the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office (GVP) studied the official version of the legend and the real facts and recognized the legend as a fictional propaganda story written in 1941-42 by journalists of the military newspaper “Red Star.” At the same time, the GVP confirmed the fact of a heavy battle of the 316th Rifle Division with the advancing German tank division on November 16, 1941.

Medinsky immediately attacked Mironenko. In his opinion, “a head archivist should confine himself to handling documents and leave the interpretations to others.” Possibly Medinsky did not realize that one of the main documents, the 1948 GVP conclusion, had already been published in 1997.

In March 2015, Sergei Mironenko was demoted. In interviews he said that he had wanted to change positions but his colleagues were convinced that Mironenko fell victim to the new official approach to history promoted by Medinsky. Mironenko’s attitude to the situation was philosophical: “We have lived through even more cannibalistic times.” On October 4, 2016, Minister of Culture and Doctor of Sciences Medinsky repeatedly attacked Mironenko. As Peskov, Press Secretary of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, commented, “Minister of Culture . . . is defending the historical truth.”

The same day in the city of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, Russian President Putin and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev watched the just finished feature movie “The Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen.” The production was partly financed by both countries, Russia and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan participated in this effort because the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division was formed in July-August 1941 mostly in Alma-Ata, then the capital of Kazakhstan, and many soldiers of that division were Kazakhs. Peskov commented the movie: “I can only refer to the words of our Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, who is still in favor of the version given in the film, which is the closest to what actually took place in history.”

Two days later, on October 6, Medinsky published in the “Rossiiskaya Gazeta”, the official newspaper of the Russian government, an article entitled “28!” devoted to the coming 75th anniversary of the 28 Panfilov guardsmen’s act of bravery. He wrote:

The truth is that at the very moment, when the first soldier who held in his heart, as an example how to defend his homeland, the act of bravery of the Panfilov’s 28  guardsmen, this beautiful legend is no longer a legend. And the truth is that all of its subversives became enemies of this soldier, and of the millions of other victims, for whom the memory of the 28 guardsmen was holy.

As for those who are subverting today . . . One should not be naive, there is a subtle calculation behind them: Refute the stories of the 28, as well as the acts of bravery of Zoya Kosmodemyanskay, Aleksandr Matrosov, Nikolai Gastello, and it will be possible to question not only our propaganda during the Great Patriotic War, but the whole point of the sacrificial struggle of the Soviet people for their country.

In the last phrase, Medinsky added to the 28 Panfilov’s guardsmen other cases of persons whose brave actions were turned by the Soviet propaganda into iconic symbols, no matter of real facts and circumstances. Clearly, Medinsky, with the full support of the Russian political establishment, is trying to renew Stalin’s propaganda myths of WWII while historians, who believe in documented facts, in his opinion, are a sort of “the fifth column” that undermines the sacred symbols of the Russian people.

VAK’s decision regarding Medinsky’s dissertation and degree was scheduled for November of this year.

But events were unravelling very fast. Already on October 7, VAK called back its previous decision to consider the cancellation of Medinsky’s degree in the UrFU Dissertation Council. The VAK Chairman Vladimir Filippov (Rector of the RUDN University, Moscow) explained: “The fact is that, according to paragraph 70 of provisions to award academic degrees, which was approved by the Russian government, the two-months appeal period of this Dissertation Council is over.”

Dr. Babitsky, one of the authors of the initial appeal, was surprised: “If it is so, we are dealing with a secret operation on saving the Minister. I am not a jurist, but the publically known provisions of deprivation of a scientific degree do not imply withdrawal an appeal from the dissertation council.”

Leonid Volkov, a Yekaterinburg opposition politician, described what was going on behind the scene:

Two different sources have confirmed to me that the [UrFU] History Department prepared a negative review of Medinsky’s “dissertation” and, accordingly, at [October 4th] the meeting the Dissertation Council would cancel his degree of Doctor of Historical Sciences.

This is why a “landing party” of Moscow big wigs came to Yekaterinburg, and big bosses personally brought to our council the letters by Medinsky and from VAK with the request to postpone the Dissertation Council meeting.

This was the only way “to save” the Minister . . .

Most probably, no other meeting will take place. Simply the Ministry of Education and Science will call back Medinsky’s documents from the UrFU, and transfer the case for consideration in a loyal “Kuban Orthodox-Historical University” [this is Volkov-invented sarcastic name – V. B.]. There the needed [positive] review will be written.

Meanwhile, Medinsky’s supporter Mikhail Myagkov continues to defend Medinsky. On October 11, back in Moscow, he told the internet newspaper Lenta.ru that Medinsky’s dissertation “is a solid work that makes a big contribution to  science”. In Myagkov’s opinion, the three reviewers “find fault with the things that do not really know.” Myagkov was also convinced that the minister’s opponents have not read all of the thesis, but only briefly looked it through. He was surprised that the scientific value of the work was questioned. “It’s one thing when there is plagiarism. It’s quite another when there are questions about the content. Every scientist has the right to choose his own concept. Medinsky’s concept is that the state is the main value. Not everybody likes that, for instance, Babitsky. But this is not a subject for a debate about the validity of a scientific degree.”

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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