Medinsky v. Herberstein

Whenever I vow to myself, nulla dies sine linea, catatonia sets on and the inner voter goes for blogger’s block. I’m back with an amusing snippet from the new Russian chronicles of shame. The Moscow Times reported on October 20:

Russia’s state academic panel has ruled that Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky will keep his PhD despite claims of his doctorate not meeting academic standards…

Earlier this month, its expert council voted in favor of stripping the minister of his Urals Federal University PhD.

This is a good enough summary of the case although the title is a little off:

Vladimir Medinsky Keeps PhD, Despite Plagiarism Allegations.

The Russian doctorate is actually a post-doctoral degree so the hurdle is high in theory but seldom properly cleared in practice. The principal charge against Medinsky is not plagiarism: his scholarly critics claim his dissertation is amateurish and adds no value to age-old discussions. There are also doubts that it was submitted and defended in full compliance with the standard procedure.

Medinsky is the author of pop-history books and novels so his cavalier approach to scholarship is not surprising. His smuggling childishly ignorant arguments into a doctoral dissertation suggests a certain impudence, but it should not surprise us either considering the minister’s Komsomol and MGIMO background.

Here’s one curious example. Every Russian and Ukrainian schoolchild is supposed to know the story of Olga’s revenge. Around 945, Igor, the prince of Kiev, was killed while collecting tribute in the land of the Drevlians, about 90 miles north-west of Kiev. The triumphant Drevlians suggested that Olga, Igor’s widow, marry their prince Mal. Olga exacted terrible revenge upon the offending tribe, which included burning their warriors alive in a wooden bathhouse. This episode is suspiciously reminiscent of Queen Sigrid’s incinerating her suitors; perhaps Olga’s revenge is a late interpolation into Nestor’s Primary Chronicle.

Later – most likely in 957 – Olga visited Constantinople as the “archontissa” or “hegemon” of Rus’. She was baptized either during that visit or earlier. (See, for instance, Once Again concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’ by the Polish Byzantinist Andrzej Poppe.) Olga was the first Christian ruler of Rus’; her grandson Vladimir introduced Christianity as the state religion.

Six centuries after Olga’s subjugation of the Drevlians, Sigismund Herberstein wrote in his Notes on Muscovite Affairs:

He [Igor] met his death subsequently at the hand of Maldittus, a prince of the Drevlians, at a place called Ciresti, and was there buried.

This is close to the chronicles except for the names: “Ciresti” should be Iskorosten or Korosten, and Maldittus is an odd Latinization of Mal, as if a play on “maledictus.” (By way of coincidence, Mal is the name of the wise old Neanderthal, the leader of a tribe reduced to a family, in William Golding’s The Inheritors.) It’s probably the Slavic root mal, “small.” Perhaps the prince was a hunchback or a giant.

Medinsky, however, attacks Herberstein from an unexpected angle. The Russian translation Medinsky is using to make his point calls Maldittus gosudar’, which the aspiring historian finds inappropriate since the Drevlian leader did not hold this “title.” The doctorant appears to hold it self-evident that gosudar’ means a king or a tsar, neither of which Mal could have been. Medinsky’s critics point out that that a serious historian would have checked with the original, and since the Latin text has princeps and the German version has Fürst, there is nothing to argue about.

But the failure here is at a more basic level. Medinsky’s suggestion that gosudar’ can only refer to a crowned monarch is patently incorrect, unless it narrowly refers to the usage of a none too educated modern Russian speaker, such as the average reader of the minister’s pophistorischen tracts. As a political scientist (he has a doctorate in that field, too), he must know that the standard Russian translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince (Il Principe) is Gosudar’. Moreover, Dahl’s dictionary definition of gosudar’ is…

any secular potentate, supreme head of a country, sovereign: emperor, tsar, king, sovereign duke or prince, etc…

Dahl adds that in “old times,” gosudar’ was used interchangeably with lord, master, landlord, magnate. To argue that it’s necessarily a royal title is about as absurd, naive or dishonest as to argue that “Sire” can only refer to French monarchs or that anyone addressed as “my lord” must be a rich English landowner.

Much of this has been known since 2012, when Medinsky’s dissertation was first savaged by real historians: not so much a work of history, it turned out, as a lengthy diatribe by a not particularly convincing journalist. Now I’ve sampled its childish trickery.

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