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Profile: Aleksandr Sokolov

  • Victor Yasmann

One of the biggest surprises to emerge from President Vladimir Putin's 9 March cabinet restructuring was the appointment of Moscow State Conservatory Rector Aleksandr Sokolov to the newly created post of culture and mass communications minister.

The new ministry will take over and combine the responsibilities of the old Culture Ministry -- which was headed by Mikhail Shvydkoi in the previous government and which oversees cultural matters including the arts, cinema, and show business -- and the old Media Ministry, which was headed by Mikhail Lesin and which manages the mass media, publishing, and audio/video production.

Sokolov has spent his entire life working in the field of music education, spending most of his career in management posts. He was born in Leningrad on 8 August 1949 and is the grandson of the 19th-century nature writer Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov. He graduated from Moscow's Gnesin Music Academy in 1967 specializing in the violin and, in 1973, from the music history and theory department of the Moscow State Conservatory. He has been associated with the conservatory ever since, getting his master's degree there in 1981 and his doctorate in 1992. Gazeta.ru reported on 9 March that during the Soviet period Sokolov was the secretary of the Communist Party committee at the conservatory. Usually, such work is a fulltime job, meaning that Sokolov probably dealt more with ideological and organizational work than with music theory. This experience might have been part of what Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov had in mind when he presented Sokolov at a government meeting on 9 March and described him as "a good manager."

In 1992, Sokolov was named vice rector of the conservatory, overseeing research and academics. In 2001, former conservatory Rector Mikhail Ovchinnikov was removed from his post for his alleged involvement in a financial scandal, and Sokolov took over the post. Since then, he has run the Moscow State Conservatory, which is considered one of the finest musical-education institutions in the world.

Sokolov has spent his entire life working in the field of music education, spending most of his career in management posts.
Sokolov's long tenure as vice rector for research and academics has led to speculation that he might have had some relationship with Russia's secret services, which have often used this post -- in the Soviet and the post-Soviet periods -- as a front for their representatives at institutions of higher education. Although no evidence of such a connection, the rumors are likely to be persistent given rumors of a similar connection between Fradkov and the secret services. Fradkov served for a long time in a number of foreign-trade missions, which were also widely used as cover for secret-service representatives. At the very least, such missions were under constant KGB scrutiny, so it is difficult to imagine that Fradkov did not establish such contacts during this period. In the first hours following the appointment, neither Putin nor Fradkov gave any substantial explanation for their surprising choice or their confidence in Sokolov.

Sokolov himself was unavailable for comment following the announcement, as he was in Japan representing Russia as a judge at the Tchaikovsky International Competition for Young Musicians. His colleagues from the conservatory characterized him as a man with a solid reputation and impeccable manners, although he is also reputed to be something of a womanizer, according to gazeta.ru.

It is widely expected that Sokolov will have two deputy ministers, one in charge of culture and the other overseeing the mass media. Among the candidates reportedly under consideration for the latter post, the most-often mentioned are State Duma Deputy Valerii Bogomolov and Federation Council Information Policy Committee Chairman Dmitrii Mezentsev, who represents the administration of Irkutsk Oblast in the upper chamber.

Fradkov told RTR on 10 March that Shvydkoi will be offered the position of head of the new Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency, which is an component of the new Culture and Mass Communications Ministry. He also said that he believes Sokolov will appoint Lesin as his deputy minister responsible for the mass media. Fradkov's statements seemed to call into question exactly how radical Putin's restructuring of the government will be.
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