The Theater of Diplomacy

I wrote a review of Alexander Etkind’s Roads Not Taken: An Intellectual Biography of William C. Bullitt and Michael McFaul’s From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia for Bookforum. Unfortunately, the review is behind the dreaded paywall. So here’s the pdf.

The Russian Revolution as Past Made Present

Mikhail Zygar’s The Empire Must Die provides a narrative timeline for the Russian Revolution as an allegory for Russia’s present.

The Materiality of Russian Oil

I review Doug Rogers’ deconstruction of oil—not to uncover its relations of production—to trace the dispersion of its value in shaping the post-Soviet province of Perm.

Retrospective on Stalinism

Guest: Sheila Fitzpatrick on Stalinism.

A Life with the Russian Revolution

Guest: Alexander Rabinowitch on the Bolsheviks coming to power.

Autocracy, Marriage, and Power in Early Modern Russia



Russell Martin is a professor of History at Westminster College focusing on autocracy, marriage, power and the Romanov dynasty in early modern Russia. He is the author of many books and articles. His most recent book is A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia.


Russell Martin, “Eulogy for Ned Keenan.”

Greg Afinogenov, “Breaking Muscovy’s Silence: Edward Keenan, 1935-2015.”

Russell Martin, “Dowries, Diplomacy, and Marriage Politics in Muscovy.”

Russell Martin, “A Reappreciation of Sergei Fedorovich Platonov’s Ocherki po istorii smuty.”


The Smiths, “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” The Queen is Dead, 1986.

Pseudo-Doctorates in the Duma


Several years ago when I was living in Moscow I would often see people in the metro holding signs selling doctoral degrees. I even had a friend of a friend who earned money writing them on order. Fake diplomas, theses on order, and plagiarism. Already in 2006, Mikhail Kirpichnikov, the then head of State Commission on Academic Degrees, called the selling of diplomas and dissertations in the metro a “illness of society.” But it’s not just the buying of doctoral degrees that’s a problem in Russia. Plagiarism is quite endemic as well. In 2006, Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, found that Putin had lifted sixteen pages of his dissertation from a Russian translation of William King and David Cleland’s Strategic Planning and Policy. Indeed, Dmitry Livanov, Russia’s Education and Science Minister, admitted in 2014 that plagiarism was widespread, so much so that a 2013 study conducted by the Russian State Library estimated that ten percent of recent dissertations in history were plagiarized. Many of them were written by Russian officials.

The State Commission on Academic Degrees (BAK) is trying to stem the tide. In addition to adopting guidelines for awarding a masters or doctorate degrees, last year the agency drew up a list of 164 legitimate presses and academic journals for scholarly publications. This list was a extreme paring down of the 2269 on BAK’s 2014 list. The idea here was to especially eliminate the “large number of garbage journals” that will print anything if you’re willing to pay.

But the real fight against academic charlatans lies elsewhere. Dissernet, a crowd sourced project, stands in the front lines in the battle against fake or purchased dissertations and plagiarism in Russia. After many months of research, Dissernet in conjunction with Novaya gazeta, released the results from investigating the dissertations of State Duma deputies. They found that 57 members, or 12 percent of the Duma, had plagiarized, faked, bought or had their dissertation ghostwritten. Given that even Russia’s top dog did it, it’s not too surprising.

Below is a translation of the results.

A Mandate with Plagiarism
Dissernet and Novaya gazeta‘s guide to State Duma deputies’ dissertations.

We met Zayakin about three years ago. In January 2013, the physicist published his first examination of Duma deputies’ dissertations. Deputies Tatiana Alexeeva, Nikolai Bulaev and Richat Abubakirov were “busted.” You’ve probably heard that on November 20, 2015 the State Commission on Academic Degrees finally stripped Abubakirov of his doctorate in economics. This was the first such case in the history of the State Duma. And it all started with posts on Live Journal.

Over the years, activists from Dissernet, of which Andrei Zayakin is the co-founder, with the aid of Novaya Gazeta and other public and anonymous helpers have examined the dissertations of almost every Duma deputy. Here are the results of this work.

Regular readers of Novaya Gazeta will recall that Dissernet published its analysis as interactive tables where the cells were partially or fully filled with different colors. The more colors, the more examples of plagiarism. We decided to issue the final results about the State Duma along the same lines. Only it’s not a table, but a diagram of the parliament chamber on the Okhotny Ryad. And there are parliamentary seats instead of cells. “We need a smart ass infographic!,” demanded some Editor-in-Chief for some other reason. Here it is.

I clearly remember the meaning of what Zayakin told me in an interview three years ago: “The battle against swindlers and thieves should not be carried out with seriousness. It should be fun, like Carlson playing the bogeyman—ferocious, but loveable. It’s like fighting Freken Bok. After all, if you remember, at the end of the story, Freken Bok found a dignified gentleman and became a very nice lady, and not a terrible housekeeper.”

Nikita Girin, Novaya Gazeta

Research was conducted on all current State Duma deputies. The green group are dissertations we examined and found nothing. This does not mean that these deputies wrote these works themselves. It only indicates that we weren’t able to find any plagiarism.

A number of dissertations fell into the grey group because, for a variety of reasons, we didn’t get around to them, even if we wanted to. There are a few dissertations we didn’t check simply because we didn’t have the time (due to the turnover in the Duma and the bottleneck at Dissernet), but want to check because they don’t fall into the “old dissertation” category discussed below.

In some of the “grey” dissertations we found matching content, but the presence of collaborative work and co-authors in the dissertation doesn’t allow us to make definitive conclusions that these borrowings are wrong or we think there could be additional sources. All such cases are classified as “There are signs of matching content. Our work continues.”

The most interesting group among the “grey” are the phantoms, that is, dissertations that don’t exist. In early November, Novaya Gazeta sent twenty-four requests to dissertation authors and abstracts that don’t have references in the Russian State Library, the St. Petersburg Public Library, or TsITIS. Even the titles of these works are unknown. We received six responses: In one case, it pointed us to an old work, which we missed, in three cases the dissertations were classified, and two cases of fake dissertations. These are useless scraps of paper produced in “mickey-mouse outfits” and not recognized by the State Commission on Academic Degrees. According to our findings, such “dissertations” belong to Elena Drapeko (according to her comments to the press, her dissertation defense was held at a certain International Academy of Education), Victor Pautov (at the International Academy of Authors of Scientific Discoveries and Inventions) and Sergei Chizhov (his “degree” was awarded by the Higher Inter-Academic Attestation Commission of the International Inter-Academic Union of the Higher Expert-Qualification Committee). That said, Sergei Chizhov told Novaya Gazeta (quite truthfully, we might add) that he doesn’t have a scholarly degree, and after our inquiry he removed information about it from his State Duma website. That’s when we first made screenshots of these pages.

As a rule, if a deputy has a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation, this table will only have the doctorate. Master’s theses are usually written in more ancient times, and they are not so interesting to verify. The exception was United Russia’s Sergei Naryshkin and Alexandr Remezkov, who we have an interest displaying a master’s thesis and doctoral work, as it’s noted in the diagram.

Some dissertations weren’t checked because they were written a long time ago and, as a rule, before the deputy had a political career. Such dissertations are difficult to obtain and aren’t interesting to analyze, and in our experience, if there is plagiarism, it is practically impossible to dig it up. Therefore, we assigned such dissertations with the color purple.

Andrei Zayakin, co-founder of Dissernet

Kotkin and Zizek Discuss Stalin

Stephen Kotkin and Slavoj Zizek discussed Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 at the New York Public Library. Both the audio and video are available on the Library’s site but I thought I’d repost it here to increase exposure.


Putin’s World


I wrote a review of Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s newly expanded edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin for OpenDemocracy. Here’s an excerpt:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said that President Vladimir Putin lives ‘in another world.’ Putin was delusional, out of touch with reality, and perhaps even crazy. Some observers have since argued that Putin believes his own propaganda. But to think that Putin is delusional or even crazy is more a projection of our assumptions, our fears and our world onto Putin. In fact, argue Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their newly-expanded portrait Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Putin sees the world fundamentally different than his American and European counterparts. Putin’s world is a combination of the lineages of Russian history and culture, and his personal experiences, and the contexts that have shaped them. These provide the circumstances for Putin’s motivations and actions. Figuring out what drives Putin to act the way he does is essential, Hill and Gaddy insist, because to not do so will lead to gross miscalculations on how to confront him.

Who is Vladimir Putin? It is a question often posed, perhaps too often, in numerous books and articles. Uncovering the Putin mystery has become more acute since the crisis in Ukraine, when to many, Putin has become erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. There are enough Putin books to form their own academic niche, Putinology. In most of these texts, Putin always plays the villain, a vile, corrupt, and power-hungry figure who seeks to expand and maintain his singular grip on power, to restore the Russian empire and even the Soviet Union. In these renditions, Putin appears as a caricature of a super villain, an image, one suspects, Putin secretly enjoys.

Mr. Putin fits uneasily within this canon. Putin is the singular focus, and his life, world view, and actions epitomise the system as a whole. What is refreshing about the narrative is that it lacks the gory details of the ‘Putin regime.’ Moral pontifications and condemnations are absent. Also missing are retellings of already well-worn information about the various conspiracies involving Putin and other drumbeats of authoritarianism. Other Putin biographers have done this service. In addition, many of these episodes in the Putin narrative speak more to our concerns than uncovering Putin’s motivations. When Hill and Gaddy address scandals involving Putin, like the infamous food scandal in St Petersburg in 1992, they try to figure out what Putin learned from these events, and how they influenced his future perceptions and actions. It’s an invitation into Putin’s world.

Still, Putin is a hard nut to crack hence all the speculation about his biography. The information we have about his early life, time in the KGB, as an agent in Dresden, Germany, his days in St Petersburg in the 1990s, and his improbable, yet quick, rise to power, has been tightly packaged. As are his personal habits, public appearances, and publicity stunts. Putin and his team are masters of the image successfully turning the brand Vladimir Putin into a construct where the spectator fills the content. Putin can be anyone and no one: a KGB agent, a free marketeer, a populist, a nationalist, a muzhik [regular guy], and never really be any of these. To pin Putin with one identity only evokes a slew of contradictory identities. Hill and Gaddy liken him to the British cartoon favourite Mr Benn who dons one character after another or as Masha Gessen titled her anti-Putin screed, he’s the man without a face.

Yet these are the texts biographers have to work with, replete with their many narratives and meta-narratives. To make matters even more difficult, much of the Putinist texts are not constructed to represent the truth or reality. They are packaged to illicit a response with which Putin analyses and judges. The key to understanding Putin is to recognise how he uses information to tell him who we think he is and how that communicates who we are, what we want, and what our interests are. For Putin, the goal is to not to represent himself, but to be represented. Putin is the ‘ultimate international political performance artist.’ I would call him the ultimate postmodernist.

Read the whole review here.

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