Long before the series of exposures of high-level officials who plagiarized their academic theses, Igor Danchenko and Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution found out that Vladimir Putin’s thesis was “borrowed” from a book by two American scientists. In 2006 it was reported by the Washington Post and The Times. However in Russia that news did not spread beyond some online publications and “Vlast” magazine, that published parts of Putin’s thesis titled “Strategic Planning of Mineral Resources Replenishment at a Regional Level in Market Economy (St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region), ” as well as some parts from “Strategic Planning and Policy”, a book by William King and David Cleland. Despite the recent scandals involving stolen theses, the Russian leader’s name is hardly ever mentioned in this context. “Slon” interviewed one of the whistleblowers, Igor Danchenko, and asked him about how those facts had been found and why it was still important for today’s Russia.
Please tell us what did you do back in 2006, when you discovered that Putin’s thesis was plagiarized?
I studied political economy in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries. In fact, in 2006 I was more focused on academic studies and worked in the Brookings Institution, a major US think-tank. The Brookings Institution gets zero funds from the government, it is financed by grants from various funds (such as Carnegie and MacArthur), and donations by major natural resource companies that do it for promotional purposes. At that time issues related to oil and gas would come to the fore quite frequently. One of the major issues was a development strategy for Russia, and the importance of the oil and gas sector. Back then those issues were still debated. By now everybody has accepted the idea that if Russia does have any competitive advantage that would be related primarily to oil and gas, and that is the path the country is bound to follow over the next decades.
In this case, how did you decide to concentrate on Putin’s thesis? It doesn’t look like the subject of your studies.
Back then I was really curious about what goes through Vladimir Putin’s mind, the mind of a man who single-handedly defines how Russia develops. I wanted to understand what really drives him. I don’t think it’s been figured out yet. Western media still occasionally publishes speculative articles about Putin, asking the same question: “Who is Mr. Putin?” A spy? A villain? Sometimes they sling mud at him. Meanwhile, there are really few good sources in this regard. One of them is “First Person” (including interviews by Kommersant journalists Andrey Kolessnikov, Natalia Timakova, and Natalia Gevorkian, published in 2000. — Slon), where Putin, by the way, was quite sincere. Other than that, some occasional interviews in western media and transcripts of his speeches at the Kremlin website. At the same time it was known that Putin wrote a thesis. That must be quite an interesting source that needs to be examined.
Nevertheless you were the only one who bothered to do that. Was it difficult to find that paper?
All the newspapers and magazines claimed that the thesis was not publicly available, that it contains such valuable information, and you couldn’t get it anywhere. But I just came to the Lenin Library in Moscow, typed in the word “Putin” in the computer and got results, including the thesis. I paid 500 roubles, copied and read it.
When did Putin write it?
In 1997. By that time he had moved to Moscow and worked in the Presidential Administration. Putin presented it in Saint Petersburg Mining Institute where he got his PhD. His academic advisor was Mr. Vladimir Litvinenko, who is still in charge of that institute. By the way, he’s always acted as Putin’s agent at the elections. Now Mr. Litvinenko owns 5% shares in “Apatit” (a large mining facility in Murmansk region. – Slon). Knowing what those shares are worth, you can say that Mr. Litvinenko is a millionaire.
How did you find the plagiarized parts in the thesis?
One of the sources included in the References was a book on strategic planning by two professors from Pittsburgh University (Strategic Planning and Policy by William R. King and David I. Cleland, 1979. — Slon), that’s been shelved a while ago, because nobody is really interested. That concept of strategic planning has been of interest to the Soviet leaders. Back in the day, Andropov would try to find some hybrids of capitalist and socialist economic models. In 1982 the book was translated into Russian, and Putin referred to that translation. At first I couldn’t find the Russian version of the book, so I bought the English original online, and started to read. I randomly opened one of the chapters, I think it was Chapter 2. I started to read to realize that I’d seen it before. I looked closer, and decided to open the thesis by Putin. And here it is – everything is identical, except for the language. Paragraphs coincide, exactly the same graphs. Then I asked my colleague to copy a couple of chapters from the Russian version. Everything was identical. Word by word. They just changed some interjections, some punctuation. A total of 16 pages of the text and graphs is just “copy-paste”. Of the 216 pages, 140 pages are the guidelines on mineral resources, and the 16 pages of the main theoretical work is by the two Pittsburgh researchers. It looks like of the whole thing Putin himself wrote just a couple of pages. Before I wouldn’t deal with such things, never published any political stories, and from the academic point of view everything became clear.
And how did that information about the plagiarized thesis find its way into the press?
I didn’t do it. The story was told by my colleague, Clifford Gaddy. We did a joint presentation, in which he mentioned Putin’s plagiarism, and did it kind of in passing: “Oh, by the way, the academic situation in Russia is not perfect. Here, for example,…”. At that time “Vlast” was the only Russian publication that started asking questions. I pointed at a couple of general things, and said: “Just get that thesis in the archives, and do whatever you want with it, if you’re interested. I am not interested, and I don’t really care. I’ve found what I’ve been looking for”.
Why didn’t you take on this story or start some kind of investigation?
Well, I was never really into exposing politicians. It was just a by-product of the primary activity. I got a fact that tells a lot about the ongoing degradation of Russian science and academic education. You can really draw some conclusions if the President himself considers plagiarism a normal thing. That was meant to seriously alert those who continue forging academic degrees. At least discourage some from falsifying theses. Or, in the worst case get some more skillful people to write these fakes, and read abstracts from your own theses, just to have an idea what it’s about. Cliff Gaddy told everybody about Putin’s thesis, and from there on the Russian education system should take over. But politics is not my business, so I wouldn’t bother to dig any deeper.
And what can you tell about the content of the thesis?
It was about planning for replenishment of mineral resources in the Leningrad region. It contained some obvious examples: sand, clay, how to transport them, what ports to use. There were some general things, such as development of an oil and gas cluster in the northwestern part of the country. Obviously, Putin thought about that back then, and that idea was partially implemented in the form of “Primorsky” terminal in Vysotsk and Ust-Luga. By the way, Mr. Sechin wrote a similar thesis back in 1998, but he had some more specific suggestions on ports and oil transit. Back then Sechin was preparing himself for future work in that industry.
Can you see Putin’s personality in the thesis?
Yes, at some points you can notice his style. In the introductory part, and in the conclusion there are some general points, where you can spot some geostrategic aspects. Such as “Russia has lost all its ports in the Baltic region, we have to develop our own ports to become an independent exporter”, or “after the breakup of the Soviet Union we didn’t inherit anything. Everything was left for Ukraine and the Baltic countries”. You can see that Putin at least tried to edit the thesis. It closely follows the style of his first policy article “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium” he wrote before becoming the president in 2000. But with the exception of a few things the thesis was written, or copied, to be precise, by somebody else. They probably asked someone in the Mining Institute to complete the work, and that someone did a really poor job. Maybe they didn’t pay that person enough. Or maybe, back then nobody could even imagine that the thesis would ever be checked for plagiarism. In fact, it never was checked specifically for this purpose. It happened by chance.
Why do you think so few people care about Putin’s plagiarism? Nowadays similar stories involving some deputies immediately get everybody’s attention, while Putin’s thesis is hardly ever mentioned?
That’s right, back in 2006 “Vlast” was the only magazine that published some passages, some word-for-word sentences. They also published some comments by Vladimir Litvinenko and Mr. Sadovnichiy who suggested that Putin is an excellent academician, and his thesis should be eligible for doctorate, and all this talk about plagiarism is nothing but a Western plot. That was pretty much it. It didn’t go any further.
But you kind of distanced yourself from that story, you didn’t take it on.
Because this is a dirty business. Why should I accuse a person of plagiarism? If he feels ashamed he will admit everything. In a few cases around the world politicians would admit such things. If they want to downplay that, I don’t care. That’s what happened, and nobody learned any lessons.
Why do you think they hardly ever mention Putin’s thesis against the background of all these plagiarism scandals?
I have no idea. If anybody cares now and has time to find the plagiarized parts in Putin’s thesis, they have every opportunity to do that. The thesis is publicly available. The issue is kind of swept under the carpet. Why and how, I don’t know. It could be that they just think about that story of something of the past, something that happened but now we can get over it.
Have you ever received any threats because of your “discovery”?
Well, yes, I got a couple of calls with threats. I don’t know who called, I couldn’t see their ID over the phone. Probably some of Putin’s stooges. They would call and say: “Drop that subject, it’s a blatant lie. You won’t be able to work for government agencies after that”. And I would reply: “Okay, I won’t work for the government, what a tragedy! What else can you threaten me with? With hurting my family? No? Then I’m done with you. Bye”.
Why do you think the issue of plagiarism in theses has become so relevant?
The main reason is that academia have revolted. Besides, some people use this for political purposes, digging up some dirt, that is also obvious. But that wave was generated by a strong protest mood among the academia. Because scientists basically got fed up dealing with those characters with fake degrees. Everybody knows that their degrees are fake: their theses are either plagiarized or written by somebody else. That discredits the whole system of science and education in the country. The problem has reached a critical mass: nobody in the world takes Russian education seriously. But of course, everything can be blamed on the CIA.
There are professors who can no longer tolerate this situation. They are trying to do their job honestly, but their effort is undermined by those who get their doctorates through the back door. Everybody knows how widespread corruption is in Russia. They bribe everybody – doctors, teachers, police officers. But when it comes to academic degrees – that’s too much, that’s where it has to stop, because it undermines the whole academic system. To be a scientist in a modern world is extremely difficult. You can’t make a lot of money doing that, not even in the West. Just a few become the Nobel prize winners. The majority of scientists are working hard for many years writing their scientific papers. At the same time anybody – be it a president or a deputy – can get the same academic status, just to feel better about themselves, just to boost their ego with that additional line in their resume. In fact, speaking of Putin, nothing prevents him from doing the right thing with his thesis. After all, he was honest and straightforward about his divorce situation.
But it turns out that if Putin is involved in this theses scam, he is the highest level official who would try to cover this up and stop any investigations into these scandals?
It’s possible. If I was him, I would come clean, just like he did with his spouse. If his advisers and he decide that this subject is sensitive or dangerous, they will do something about it. They know that such things happen in the West as well. Just recently the German education minister had to resign when they found out that her thesis was plagiarized. That was the end of her career, a disgrace. Another example is the US Vice-President Joe Biden. In 1988 he tried to run for president and participated in the Democratic primaries. His chances were decent until journalists found out that in one of his speeches he used a couple of somebody else’s remarks. Then they found out that back in college he had some issues with plagiarism. At that point Biden had to quit the primaries.
That’s true, everybody stood up for Putin and his thesis, but there are certain facts. And if he denounces his thesis that would be a huge step in terms of boosting the reputation of science and academia. However at this moment it doesn’t look like Putin cares about that smaller part of the society that does worry about plagiarism in theses. But what if he suddenly decides to help the Academy of Sciences to put an end to this story: “Okay, guys, a lot of people mishandle their theses, including me. I was involved in one such scandal. Let’s clean that thing up, let’s introduce an “Anti-Platiagism” system at all levels, starting with the sixth grade”.