Putin’s Ph.D.: Can a Plagiarism Probe Upend Russian Politics?

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a meeting of senior military officials in Moscow on Feb. 27, 2013

It’s an open secret in Russia today that many politicians and businessmen pad their resumes with fake diplomas, either plagiarizing their dissertations or paying someone to do it for roughly the cost of a midsize sedan. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, no real effort has been made to stop this practice, in part because so many of the country’s elite — all the way up to President Vladimir Putin — might have their graduate work scrutinized. But on Feb. 6, Putin’s political underling Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev broke the taboo. At a meeting with government officials and academics, he announced a campaign to ferret out fake degrees at every level of society. The number of “phony” diplomas had “burst through all possible limits,” Medvedev said. “This will be a sort of purge.” So how far is he willing to go?

Last September, when Medvedev first brought up the issue on his video blog, he aimed low. In time for the start of the school year, he urged Russian high school and college students not to copy their work from the Internet, saying plagiarism is “a road to nowhere.” A week later, the Russian news website Slon, as well as numerous bloggers, dared him to preach further up the hierarchy. Slon offered a list of four names to start with: Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defense, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture, and at the top, President Putin. All of them, Slon pointed out, have faced accusations of plagiarism that have never been investigated. All four have either denied the claims or, in Putin’s case, declined to comment.

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The man in charge of Medvedev’s purge is Igor Fedyukin, a rookie official with a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and just eight months’ experience as the Deputy Minister of Education and Science. Fedyukin was part of a group of academics who in January exposed the extent of Russia’s plagiarism crisis by reviewing 25 dissertations chosen at random from the prestigious history department of Moscow Pedagogical State University. All but one were at least 50% plagiarized, with some as much as 90% copied from other sources. “That created the impression in the academic sphere that this phenomenon is pretty massive,” Fedyukin told me a few weeks later at his ministry, just up the block from the Kremlin.

When the subject turned to Putin and other high-ranking officials, Fedyukin became jittery. (The government spokesman who attended our interview, at the sound of Putin’s name, glanced up from his smart phone with a look of horror.) Repeatedly asked if Putin’s dissertation might be reviewed amid the purge, Fedyukin, his right leg tapping beneath the table, said, “It’s possible to review any dissertation when there are grounds to do so.” Later he added, “Status has nothing to do with it.”

The grounds for reviewing Putin’s dissertation in economics, which he received in 1996 from the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, stem from a 2006 report by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. That year, two Brookings researchers obtained a copy of Putin’s opus, which journalists had for years been unable to find. In poring over the 218-page work, they found 16 pages copied with minor changes from a Russian translation of an American economics textbook published in 1978. Apart from a reference in the bibliography, there were no signs to indicate that Putin was appropriating entire paragraphs without quotation marks. Six diagrams in Putin’s dissertation were also nearly identical to work in the American textbook and appeared without citation.

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The Brookings report caused a stir in the Russian press that spring, but not exactly a sensation. State TV networks did not cover the story, even though Russian bloggers were going berserk and a respected independent weekly, Kommersant Vlast, published a cover story, which extensively quoted Clifford Gaddy, one of the Brookings researchers. It also quoted the head of Putin’s alma mater, Vladimir Litvinenko, who said he had “no doubts” Putin wrote the work himself. Since the scandal broke, Putin has repeatedly declined to comment, as did his spokesman when I reached him last week. “The approach has been to simply ignore it,” Gaddy says by phone from Washington. “It’s the elephant in the room. Everybody knows about it, but nobody wants to bring it up.”

Now that Medvedev is turning the issue into a national crusade, it may become a lot harder to ignore. In the past few months, several lawmakers have faced plagiarism scandals, which have become a favorite way for political rivals to attack one another. On Feb. 18, the liberal lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov demanded that the leader of a nationalist party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, be stripped of his parliamentary immunity for allegedly buying a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1998. Zhirinovsky denies the claim.

The Russian scientific community, meanwhile, has long been calling for a crackdown. Its reputation abroad has been devastated by the diploma mills, which have pushed Russian universities lower in the global rankings. Even the math and physics brain trusts that developed Soviet space and nuclear programs no longer carry much weight in the West, while the most prestigious school in Russia, Moscow State University, with 11 Nobel laureates among its alumni, places well below the University of Iowa and UC Santa Barbara in the Times Higher Education rankings.

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Konstantin Sonin, a professor of economics who blogs about plagiarism, says the roots of the crisis go back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the best scholars in Russia were forced out of universities and Marxist-Leninist dogma came to dominate every discipline in the humanities. Cut off from their international peers, Russian academics suffered “a return to the Middle Ages,” says Sonin. After four generations of isolation, many of the scholars who emerged from behind the Iron Curtain could offer little more than “indecipherable blather,” Sonin says. At the same time, the arrival of capitalism turned doctoral degrees into a status symbol, like a Lamborghini or a Rolex. “So our academics learned to do one thing well,” Sonin says. “They churn out these dissertations.”

Not everyone is convinced that Medvedev’s crusade will address the problem. Some experts feel his “purge” could be a way of hitting back at the conservatives surrounding Putin, who have mounted a campaign against Medvedev. On Feb. 19, a Kremlin-connected communications firm, Minchenko Consulting, published a report claiming that Putin had begun to seek a successor for Medvedev, setting off a scramble for the post of Prime Minister.

The report came after numerous attacks against Medvedev in state-run media, which have accused his government of mismanagement. The Skolkovo technology hub outside Moscow, Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley and Medvedev’s pet project, has been wracked by allegations of corruption. Kirill Petrov, who co-authored the Minchenko report, says the plagiarism issue “could be some small tactical move to injure one group in this battle.” The most likely political target from the Slon list is Shoigu, the recently appointed Defense Minister, who is a leading contender to replace Medvedev.

Despite the Brookings report and Medvedev’s political troubles, the plagiarism purge is unlikely to implicate Putin himself. “The entire campaign would become null and void,” says Sonin, the economics professor. “The Ministry of Education will immediately sweep it under the rug.” In the West, plagiarism scandals have ended political careers, most recently in Germany, where Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned in 2011 after his alma mater found flaws in his doctoral thesis and revoked his Ph.D. But Putin’s reputation as a leader doesn’t rely on his bookishness; a thorough review of his dissertation would hardly make a dent in his ratings. “For the Russian people, this is not even a tertiary issue. It is way down on the list,” says Petrov. “Nobody really cares outside of academic circles.” Those circles will likely be the only ones affected. It may be more ambitious than chiding freshmen for copying their homework, but Medvedev’s purge will hardly matter for Russia’s most powerful cheats.

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