Duma's Dubious Degrees The Russian Parliament's Intellectual Giants

Peculiar doctoral theses have supposedly helped Russian politicians improve their images. A paper by President Putin raises questions.

The Russian parliament, or State Duma, is widely viewed as a low-maintenance parliament. Its members are noted for their subservience to the wishes of the Kremlin. Independent thinking, passionate debates or moments of intellectual brilliance, on the other hand, are not high on their list of attributes.

But apparently the Duma's reputation for submissiveness obscures a little-known fact about its deputies: 218 boast advanced degrees. In fact, the Duma could very well be setting a record as the world's most academically distinguished legislative body: Almost half of its 450 members hold doctorates. By comparison, only one in six members of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, can claim the same distinction.

Moscow's PhD-toting parliamentarians include chauvinistic blusterer and Duma Vice-Chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who wrote a doctoral thesis titled "The Past, Present and Future of the Russian Nation." Another is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose dissertation arrives at the conclusion -- surprising for a communist -- that Russia has "exhausted its reserve of revolutionary upheavals." Could this be academic self-criticism?

A so-called candidate dissertation, which is similar to a master's thesis, also graces the resume of the new prime minister, Viktor Subkov. The former Soviet Communist Party official and long-standing confidant of President Vladimir Putin wrote his thesis on the "Refinement of Tax Mechanisms in the Mineral and Natural Resource Complex, Using the Leningrad Region as an Example."

All three politicians decidedly reject all doubts as to the authorship of their academic theses.

That hasn't squelched rampant doubts in Russia. One common feature of the academic writings of many politicians is the remarkable speed with which the authors managed to attain their degrees. In fact, critics are convinced that anonymous ghostwriters penned many of these works.

What else, they ask, could explain Vladimir Yakovlev's PhD? A recently dismissed minister for regional development in the cabinet, Yakovlev, wrote his dissertation while serving as the governor of St. Petersburg in 2001. While the governor allowed the city to fall into decline, he managed to attain academic distinction with a study on the "Scientific Basis of Effective Management of a Megalopolis."

Even Ramzan Kadyrov, who Putin recently appointed president of Chechnya, can count academic honors on his resume. The fact that his relationship with Russian grammar might be described as uneasy at best hasn't stopped the former Chechen separatist from earning his credentials as an economist with a polished thesis on the "Optimal Management of Contractual Relationships in the Construction Industry."

Of course, both Yakovlev and Kadyrov insist that they wrote every sentence.

For aspiring political leaders in Russia, doctoral titles are a tool for eliminating inferiority complexes or boosting chances of being elected by polishing resumes. "We have a corrupt quasi-elite which compensates for its poor qualifications with purchased dissertations," says Boris Vinogradov, 58, a member of the opposition in the Duma and deputy education minister until 2002.

One of the country's intellectual high-flyers is Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Duma and leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

Trained as an engineer, Gryzlov, a close of associate of President Putin, acquired a doctorate in political science while serving as Russia's interior minister. In his dissertation, entitled "Political Parties and Russian Transformation," Gryzlov, a man not exactly known for his intellect, revealed a surprisingly profound knowledge of the latest in American professional literature on the subject.

President Putin submitted his dissertation at the Mining Institute of St. Petersburg in 1997. The 218-page work, titled "Strategic Planning of the Renewal of the Minerals-Raw Materials Base of the Region in Conditions of the Formation of Market Relations," offers a detailed description of the quality of Russian gravel pits. But the work, which Putin and his doctoral advisor insist is authentic, also reveals his political ambitions.

In the thesis, Putin argued for greater state control of the raw materials economy and outlined a plan for restructuring the Russian economy. By comparing text passages Clifford Gaddy, an American economist specializing in Russia, was able to prove that entire paragraphs in Putin's thesis were simply paraphrased from a US study.

A look at classified ads in Moscow newspapers reveals how easy it is to acquire academic degrees in Putin's realm. In a practice that is completely legal, the ads offer "ready-made dissertations," informing potential customers: "You save time and money -- the best option for busy people."

Depending on the quality and the field, the price of one of these quickie degrees can run anywhere from €3,000-35,000 ($4,452-51,937). On his first day in his new post in the parliament, Boris Vinogradov discovered just how intensive the trade in academic degrees is at the Duma. A young man walked into his office and promptly offered to mail him a dissertation -- needless to say, for cash. Vinogradov, already a professor, thanked the man and sent him on his way.

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