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Russia's 'Myth'-Busting Culture Minister Embroiled In Doctoral Thesis Scandal

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (file photo)
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (file photo)

MOSCOW -- He's the arch-patriotic culture minister and the best-selling author of books purporting to debunk nefarious Western "myths" about Russia.

But Vladimir Medinsky is under fire from within his own ranks, facing calls from a top education authority to strip him of his doctorate for unscholarly work.

A top Russian academic council on October 2 recommended revoking Medinsky's 2011 doctorate, taking umbrage with his thesis that looked at "problems of objectivity" in the coverage of Russian history from the second half of the 15th century to the 17th century.

The findings of the expert council of the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) -- which oversees the awarding of advanced academic degrees -- have been passed to the commission's presidium, which will decide in two or three weeks whether or not to implement the recommendation.

Medinsky's detractors say council recommendations are generally followed by the presidium -- although in this case it is likely to be a political decision, they would also need to be approved by the Education Ministry.

'Downright Absurd'

His dissertation has been in the spotlight since April 2016, when philologist Ivan Babitsky and two historians submitted a complaint to the Education Ministry, likening the dissertation to a "propaganda pamphlet."

In a Facebook post on September 2016, Babitsky described Medinsky's dissertation as "simply unscholarly, and in places downright absurd."

The expert council on October 2 appeared to concur with at least some of their assessment in findings reported in Kommersant on October 3.

According to the business newspaper, council experts took issue with various aspects of the dissertation, accusing Medinsky, for instance, of "ignoring sources if they contradict his theses" and of not working dispassionately.

The dissertation seeks to show how foreigners propagate tendentious, biased views about Russia.

But experts said the dissertation did not use original sources, but rather Russian translations, which is not appropriate for a doctoral thesis and had even led to "curious errors." It also found the dissertation omitted a raft of relevant and important foreign voices. The experts also argued that Medinsky "said nothing new."

Medinsky declined to speak about the findings in comments to Russian media, saying simply that he was "not there, so I cannot comment."

'No Plagiarism'

On October 3, Education and Science Minister Olga Vasiliyeva leapt to Medinsky's defense -- although she was careful in the wording she used.

In an interview with the state RIA Novosti agency, she insisted there was "no plagiarism" in Medinsky's dissertation -- although he is not accused of plagiarism. She added that "the author presented his view of history…that very polemical history, which there should be.”

The dissertation was first sent for independent reevaluation to academic councils at the Urals Federal University and then Moscow State University, although neither of them examined the thesis.

It was then sent to a Belgorod State University council which in July voted overwhelmingly in support of Medinsky's dissertation, saying he should not be stripped of his doctorate.

Vasiliyeva emphasized these earlier findings in her comments to RIA Novosti.

Medinsky was appointed culture minister in May 2012 as President Vladimir Putin began a six year presidential term in which he has cemented his grip on power with conservative policies and confrontation with the West.

The appointment of Medinsky ruffled feathers -- with liberal intellectuals in the minority dubbing him a "propaganda minister" or "culture cop."

Medinsky is the chairman of the Russian Military Historical Society that has recently raised controversial statues in Moscow to Prince Vladimir the Great and another to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle. The latter monument became the subject of online mockery after an eagle-eyed historian spotted a rifle depicted on the sculpture that was not an AK-47, but rather a German World War II gun developed by the Nazis.

'Important Moment'

Yekaterina Shulman, a political scientist, speculated that the furor around the doctorate might indicate infighting between government groups and attacks being ramped up against Medinsky and his ministry.

"They've gone for the ministry and its resources -- that of course is the first thought."

On October 3, speaking to state news agency TASS, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on whether Medinsky could be sacked if he is stripped of his doctorate.

Others, like Sergei Parkhomenko, a prominent liberal journalist, saw the action against Medinsky as a victory for Russian academia.

"It seems to me that we are witnessing an important moment: the community of Russian historians has managed to uphold the dignity of their profession and put an ignorant and impudent impostor in his place," he wrote on Facebook.

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