Putin’s probe could upend Russian politics

It’s an open secret in Russia today that many politicians and businessmen pad their resumes with fake diplomas, either plagiarising their dissertations or paying someone to do it for roughly the cost of a mid-sized sedan.

Report by Time

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 scrutinised.

But on February 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 that 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 defence, Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler 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.

The man in charge of Medvedev’s purge is Igor Fedyukin, a rookie official with a PhD 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% plagiarised, 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.
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.

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