Salzburg Diary: Putin the plagiarizer

Salzburg Diary: Putin the plagiarizer

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Greetings from Salzburg, Austria, where I will be blogging this week from the Salzburg Global Seminar‘s session on Russia: The 2020 Perspective. I’m here thanks to the generosity of the Knight Foundation, which paid my way. I’m by no means an expert on Russia, but with Vladimir Putin’s succesor now chosen and the NATO summit freshly ended, the timing couldn’t be better for me to get up to speed.

One of the assigned readings for the session was “Putin’s Plan,” a fascinating  Washington Quarterly article by Brookings scholar Clifford Gaddy and CSIS Russia expert Andrew Kuchins. Gaddy and Kuchins got their hands on a dissertation Putin wrote for his 1997 graduate degree for the School of Mines in St. Petersburg. They argue that the thesis, “Strategic Planning of the Reproduction of the Mineral Resource Base of a Region,” does much to explain Putin’s behavior as CEO of Russia, Inc. Other scholars, notably the Carnegie Endowment’s Martha Brill Olcott, have examined excerpts from the dissertation before, looking for clues to Putin’s thinking about the relationship of energy companies to the state. But Gaddy and Kuchins extend the analysis to the Medvedev succession, arguing that Putin was looking above all for someone who could replace him as Russia’s top “strategic planner.”

In the course of his research, Gaddy discovered that Putin — or whoever really wrote the disseration — had actually lifted 16 of the document’s 218 pages nearly verbatim from a Russian translation of Strategic Planning and Policy, a 1978 mangement tome written by University of Pittsburgh professors William R. King and David Cleland (though the author did include a reference to the book).

It’s actually quite common for Russian politicians to beef up their resumes with questionable degrees and/or have ghostwriters pen their theses. It’s also standard practice, I’m told, for intelligence officers to borrow analyses with attribution. Perhaps Putin was merely upholding the academic standards of the KGB, his former employer. Whatever the case, the outgoing Russian president obviously never suffered the fate of U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, whose presidential aspirations were doomed in 1987 by accusations of plagiarism. Instead, the Russian media leapt to Putin’s defense and said that King and Cleland had gotten their ideas from Soviet economists. Still, Russia’s CEO seems touchy about the topic. When Gaddy asked Putin about his dissertation a few years back, he tensed up and dodged the question.

As for Dmitry Medvedev, many analysts here seem to be searching for clues that the Russian president-elect won’t simply “plagiarize” Putin’s policies. Will he be his own man? How long will it be before he can stake out a different path? More on this important issue in the next installment.

Blake Hounshell is Web Editor of He has been blogging this week from the Salzburg Global Seminar session on

Russia: The 2020 Perspective