A Profile of Putin's Controversial New Culture Minister
Alternative history? Speculative fiction? No, these are actual snippets from the academic writings of Russia's new culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky.
Kremlin allies have praised the controversial author's unexpected May 21 appointment. Andrei Isayev of the ruling United Russia party calls Medinsky "an energetic man, a good manager and ideologue." Likewise, Yelena Drapeko, who sits on the State Duma's Culture Committee, says he is "entirely qualified" and "professional."
But among the opposition and many scholars, his appointment has been condemned and met with a blend of shock and disappointment.
The bespectacled 41-year-old academic and author of more than a dozen history tomes has been accused by his peers of everything from dubious scholarship, to plagiarism, to outright propaganda.
Mark Solonin, a historian and specialist on World War II, likens Medinsky to the Third Reich's notorious propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, and calls his appointment an insult to Russia's rich cultural heritage.
"They have selected a fairly mediocre propagandist and, what's more, a propagandist of the shameless Goebbels variety," Solonin says. "The fact that they are appointing that kind of propagandist to the post of culture minister in a country that gave the world Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy--this, of course, is a certain challenge and a certain signal. What did they want to say with this message?"
A prolific writer, Medinsky is best-known for his best-selling series "Myths," in which he purports to debunk stereotypes purportedly dreamed up by foreigners to besmirch Russia and its people. One title, for example, is titled: "On Drunkenness, Laziness and Cruelty."
One of the more controversial volumes, "War. Myths of the USSR. 1939-45," has been derided by Aleksei Isayev, a World War II historian, as "agitprop" and "nonsense."
The books have nevertheless been huge hits with the public. In 2009, the daily "Kommersant" reported the series had become the "most widely circulated history book in modern Russia."
They were also well received by the Kremlin. In 2009, Vladislav Surkov, who was then deputy Kremlin chief of staff and the regime's informal ideologist, said of the first volume of "Myths," "The concept of the book is very divisive and contentious, but it is absolutely to the benefit of Russia."
Accusations Of Plagiarism
Prior to his appointment as culture minister, Medinsky was last in the spotlight in January, when a group of historians accused him of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. One Russian history website has collated 16 paragraphs and stretches of text from his paper that strongly resemble extracts by other historians.
Medinsky denies the allegations. But historian Lev Usyskin nevertheless says the plagiarism charges should disqualify him from serving as culture minister.
"A person in that kind of position must meet certain moral standards. And we all know what kind of standards Vladimir Rostislavovich Medinsky conforms to. We know about his doctoral dissertation in which they discovered a large portion of plagiarism," Usyskin says.
"The bits that weren't plagiarized did not conform to the slightest academic rigor. This is actually a fraudulent scientific degree. The doctor himself knows this perfectly well -- this is a person who is not embarrassed to stand before the world as a fraudster," he adds. "His morals are clear."
In the late 1980s, Medinsky studied English and journalism at the prestigious Moscow State Institution of International Relations and worked in the press office of the Russian Embassy in Washington in 1991-92.
A noted scholar of the Russian intelligence services, Amy Knight, wrote in "The New York Review of Books" that these two facts "[raise] the possibility that he was on the foreign intelligence rather than the diplomatic track. Journalism has long been a cover for spying among Russians."
After the Soviet breakup, Medinsky returned to Moscow and, at the age of 22, was named head of the Russian branch of the Ya Corporation, a public-relations firm. In 1998, he took a job in the press office of the tax police.
In the 1999 State Duma elections, he worked as campaign manager for the Fatherland-All Russia party, which eventually merged with United Russia. He served two terms in the State Duma and in 2010 then-President Dmitry Medvedev named him to the Presidential Commission Against the Falsification of History.
Medinsky failed in his attempt to win a third term in the Duma in the December 2011 elections.
Analysts are divided, and puzzled, over the motivations behind such a controversial appointment.
Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of United Russia and expert on political elites, says she knows the reason Medinsky was appointed but "cannot tell the press."
Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov of the Petersburg Politics Foundation notes that United Russia promised its leading members ministerial positions. He also suggests that Surkov, now the government's chief of staff, has close ties to Medinsky and could be behind the appointment.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is given by Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank. The Kremlin, he suggests, simply couldn't find anybody else.
"It's not the kind of position that people fight for. It's not easy to find a person for this post," Pribylovsky says. "Perhaps there was a competition between fools and they simply chose the most patriotic one."
Copyright © 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.