Where Did I Get my Degree? Uh…. Potemkin University, California

Uncle Volodya says, "I got my Candidate of Sciences degree in Kenya - you know, where President Obama was born""

It’s probably not fair, in the strictest sense, to hold up The Power Vertical as an example in the fake-diploma “scandal”, because the entire anti-Russian blogosphere is snickering up their sleeves at the story that some 70 engineers working at a Sukhoi assembly plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur were discovered to have fake diplomas. I have a couple of reasons for doing so. For one, I kind of expected better from these guys. I mean, La Russophobe is mostly a harmless clown, and the Moscow Times is little better than a supermarket tabloid (TWIN BABIES EATEN BY VLADIMIR PUTIN!!!). But these guys are supposed to be educated, and – in theory – unbiased. For another, I’m tired of the weird obsessive love affair russophobic “news” sources have with the word “Potemkin”, using it as a modifier for everything. In this, The Power Vertical is no improvement on La Russophobe – a quick search yields 6 pages worth of “Potemkin” references; one or two genuine, such as the battleship Potemkin, or a surname. But you’ll find numerous references to “Potemkin villages” or “Potemkin cities”, “Potemkin monitors”, “Potemkin style”, “Potemkin cuts”, “Potemkin president”, “Potemkin congress”, “Potemkin prisons”, “Potemkin projects”, “Potemkin party” (in fairness, that might have been a sailor-themed festivity on the battleship, but probably not), “Potemkin candidacies” and “Potemkin parliament”. Come on, guys – is it laziness, or just lack of imagination? Find a new hot-button word, what do you say? Give us a break.

All right. A bunch of “engineers” at a Russian aviation plant were found to have used fake degrees to get hired. This is big news. What conclusion are we supposed to draw from the reports? That Russians are fundamentally dishonest? That Russians are too stupid to achieve real degrees? Too lazy? All of the above? Supposedly the employment of false degrees is “rampant” in Russia – one source says one in three, one says a third and one says fifty percent, and all are talking about different things; so naturally, the highest figure is the one quoted. However, just a few sentences earlier the Moscow Times reports that “these schemes almost always go unnoticed”. Should you not recognize that, it’s another way of saying “nobody has a clue how many people do it”.

But let’s get back to what the use of fake diplomas says about the country. I’d be interested to know, because the world’s biggest market and supplier of fake diplomas, degrees and certificates is that beacon of public education, freedom and enterprise, the United States.

We’re informed that 70 engineers faking their qualifications for employment in Russia is suggestive of a lack of political will – that the government doesn’t care how much academic plagiarism has corrupted the education system. No substantiation is offered for this conclusion: is it because Putin said, “I don’t care”, or because the government has been unsuccessful at stopping the trade in fake documents?

A lack of political will. The government doesn’t care. What, then are we to make of the Associate Deputy in the Chief Information Office at the Department of Homeland Security who obtained her job using phony degrees from a diploma mill? The Director of Contracts, Proposals and Pricing at a major American defense contractor who got his MBA from the notorious St. Regis University, a bogus college that requires no coursework or skills? The former president of Microsoft China, who obtained his fake degrees from diploma mills in California and Hawaii? The teachers in Georgia who received pay raises based on fraudulent degrees? The board member of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools who had a fake doctorate from St. Regis university? The federal employees of the National Nuclear Security Administration who paid for degrees although they attended no classes? The United States Army recruiters, for the love of God, who advised an amateur journalist posing as a potential recruit to obtain a fake high school diploma – not to mention taking him to buy a detoxification kit so he could pass the drug test?? Would that qualify as “rampant”, do you think?

Make no mistake: it is. Diploma mills are big business, anywhere from $100 Million to $1 Billion a year – more than 100,000 fake degrees per year in the U.S.A. alone (estimated). They are quite candid in inferring they can match genuine diplomas, right down to the embossed seals the Moscow Times suggests are a giveaway that a diploma is a fake. Where are diploma mills located? Well, let’s see: there are 134 in California alone, because selling fake college degrees through the mail is not illegal in California. Hawaii is next with 94 diploma mills, and on down the list. As mentioned previously, the U.S.A. is far and away the leader in both the peddling and consuming of fake college/university degrees: 810 bogus institutions are known to be operating in America. The next closest and a very distant second is the U.K., with 271 fake universities – significantly more than the 158 legitimate schools and colleges operating.

To their credit, the Moscow Times doesn’t just point at the problem and laugh, as many russophobic bloggers do. It recommends forcing top universities to adopt an “honour code” that all students and faculty members would be required to uphold, or face expulsion. It sounds suspiciously like the plot of “Scent of a Woman“, but at least it’s an idea. Since the problem is even more rampant in the United States, Russia should probably adopt their federal legislation in toto, except for translation into Russian.

Oh, wait – problem. There is no federal legislation in the United States that outlaws diploma mills. Although some states have taken steps to ban trafficking in fake degrees, diplomas and certificates, there doesn’t seem to be – if you’ll forgive me – any political will to control an industry that is acknowledged to corrupt and degrade the education system. In fact, “even where it is explicitly illegal, both in some states and abroad, enforcement is erratic”. You don’t say – tell me more. “The U.S. federal government puts the responsibility on the states, and since it is a white collar crime, no large scale enforcement has taken place”. I know – let’s make them agree to an honour code!

Some law enforcement agencies are understandably frustrated. Says FBI Agent Robert Pence, “Diploma mills debase our entire educational system”. However, those who run diploma mills see it differently; Charles Durham, who has been charged with mail fraud in connection with operation of three diploma mills, says (through his lawyer), “the diplomas were only expensive novelties. People who bought these diplomas knew exactly what they were getting, and I don’t think the FBI can show otherwise”. For his part, Wayne del Corral – a finance teacher at Tulane University – is a satisfied customer. “Just the ability to put P.H.D. after my name is what I was looking for”, he says: “It’ll make things a lot easier with respect to submitting papers to journals and so forth”.

Postscript: Mr. Coalson has suggested the Power Vertical piece discussed herein is mischaracterized, and that his real purpose was to highlight the manner in which the Russian government is systematically making itself unaccountable to the public. Do me a favour, will you? Go to the subject item, and see if anything in it suggests to you that the government is making itself unaccountable to the public. I’ll wait. Back already? Yeah, me either – the closest is the speculation that the Kremlin will be unable to pursue a modernization agenda with so many fake degrees floating around. Say; I have a question. If the Kremlin is acknowledged to be pursuing a modernization agenda, where does the part about making itself less accountable to the public come in?

Also (to use a favoured Sarah Palin sentence), I’d submit that using as an example a practice that is not against the law is a hell of a funny way to point out that the government “doesn’t care”. It might be (read “is”) unethical, but there’s no current law forbidding it. Moreover, there’s no law against it in the USA, either, where the problem is much bigger. So why all the finger-pointing and indignation at Russia? If Mr. Coalson means to suggest someone should be setting an example – lead the way. I’ll be watching for your Americaphobic piece that will humiliate the federal government into taking action. I notice the article points out that employers seldom check, because Russian universities will not provide that information. The USA is ahead of you there, too, Russia – if you check the services offered by some of those American diploma mills, some provide a phone number where someone will lie to your employer and tell him/ her that you actually attended that university, and achieved those grades. Again, apparently not illegal.

He further suggests all the examples provided to illustrate the extent of the problem in the USA are “whataboutism”. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means offering a distraction from what I don’t want you to look at, by shouting “Over here!! Look over here!! What about this??” It’s a fair criticism, since such things are in the eye of the beholder, so I’ll attempt to explain why I did that. Take all those citations of unethical (but not illegal) use of fake diplomas and credentials to obtain pay raises, better jobs or jobs you just plain wouldn’t qualify for without your supposed level of education, and roll them into the following sentence.

If your own government doesn’t recognize the practice as illegal and will not commit to a law that eliminates it, despite your domestic law enforcement’s complaints that it degrades the national education system and spits on the efforts of students who follow the rules….who the hell are you to hold the Russian government to a higher standard?

Physician – heal thyself.

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54 Responses to Where Did I Get my Degree? Uh…. Potemkin University, California

  1. “Potemkin” is one of those tropes, like “re-Stalinization”, “Tsar-Batyushka”, “the legacy of the Tatar-Mongol yoke”, etc, which every Western journalist has to use once in a while to confirm his / her credentials and in-group status with the rest of the Russia-watching commentariat.

    The funniest thing is, of course, that this is a Potemkin discourse; indeed, a Potemkin Potemkinism. For as is well known to students of this history, Potemkin showed Catherine and Co. thriving settlements in a new Russian lands, with no intent to deceive, but to illustrate the area’s real potential (including through creative use of embellishments). And soon after this territory became Russia’s breadbasket.

    So what can we about the Western commentariat who talk of Potemkin Russia and Potemkin Russian things?

    1) They see the things happening in Russia and they recognize they have brilliant prospects for the future, but can’t admit it in the articles for fear of being fired by their Russophobic managers. Instead, they convey their true feelings through this truly ingenious use of Aesopian language, safely buried within the text.

    2) They are historically illiterate and rely on tired tropes like the hacks they all really are!

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  3. Robert says:

    Although we have all been dismissed as stooges and hacks, it might be worth responding anyway. If anyone bothers to read the links that Stooge cites in his “whataboutism” tour de force, they’ll notice that almost every one of the people involved in the scandals mentioned was either fired or suspended or resigned or is being investigated. They’ll also notice the role of independent investigative journalists and oversight agencies with real independent authority in exposing these frauds. The point isn’t that these things don’t happen in other countries — the point is that the current government in Russia has systematically eliminated all mechanisms for holding itself accountable before the public. But you knew all that already, didn’t you?

    • Yalensis says:

      Is this the same “Robert” who comments all the time on La Russophobe’s blog? I hope she appreciates how fortunate she is to have such a loyal disciple!

      • Robert says:

        Different Robert, Yal. It is a common name. In fact, even the author of the Power Vertical piece cited here is named “Robert.” As is Bob Dylan!

    • marknesop says:

      It isn’t meant to be “whataboutism”, Robert, and is merely an advance preparation for the horde of busybodies who will shout, “you didn’t cite any sources!!”. I didn’t call anyone a stooge or a hack. However, I note that in the original Power Vertical piece, there is no mention of the problem being as widespread as it is. The reader is coaxed toward the viewpoint that the problem is endemic only in Russia, and it is that prepackaged misconception I seek to correct. The USA is the biggest source and consumer of diploma mill products. I’m not concerned with who resigned or was fired, although some cited did neither. That doesn’t address the root of the problem; that those individuals, some of whom applied for jobs requiring high security clearances or would work with sensitive or personal data, knew well that they were vaulting over other prospective applicants by pretending to have a better education than they actually have. That’s fraud, Robert.

      Much was made of the fact that Sukhoi wouldn’t fire their phony “engineers”. Why should they? For one thing, it’s not illegal. If you went to Microsoft – as an investigative journalist – and discovered half their programmers had fake degrees, and demanded their firing, would Microsoft oblige? The hell they would, because it would start an investigative-journalist witch hunt that would see a good part of the industry unemployed and investigative journalists drunk with power. One more time – The United States has no federal law against the generation and sale of fake diplomas that will surely be used to imply educational credentials that were not earned. One reason I’ve read is that such a law would be too difficult to write in a manner that would fairly discriminate between diploma mills and legitimate institutions. That’s as may be, although I note individual states have addressed the matter. That’s not the point – the point is that you are holding Russia to a standard that the purported leader of the free world cannot and does not maintain.

      You can certainly expose fraud as you like, and doubtless society will be the better for your doing so. But if the point of sneering at and mocking the entire country was to highlight how the Russian government is systematically making itself unaccountable, you hid it well. You also chose a poor issue to demonstrate it, if the practice is not illegal, and it isn’t. Why should the Russian government make itself accountable for stopping a practice that is not against the law? Arguably it should be, in which case you’d have been wise to take a different tack. But I respectfully suggest Russia will never take steps to break new legal ground as long as press sources meet every initiative with scorn and derision rather than thoughtful analysis. And when there’s a federal law against selling or buying fake diplomas in the U.S., which every major law enforcement agency says is hurting the education system but which remains a legal – and highly lucrative – business in most of the country, you’ll have something to point to as an example.

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  5. Natalie says:

    I’ve heard that China has quite a fake diploma problem as well, yet we hear nary a bit of criticism from LR concerning China, because obviously Russia is the Great Evil in the world today, even though I’d venture to say that China has much, much more so-cof alled human rights abuses than Russia.

    I loved your characterization of the Moscow Times as a supermarket tabloid 🙂

    • marknesop says:

      Hi, Natalie! Yes, fake credentials are a problem in China as well, although – interestingly, to my mind – the examples discussed in any depth reported that the culprit bought fake diplomas to avoid disappointing parents and relatives more often than to gain an unfair employment advantage. If China can maintain its explosive growth and aggressive repositioning, I daresay many of its human-rights abuses (and you’re correct, they are legion) will gradually fade out with the continuing emergence of the middle class. China can use sweet-talk to get what it wants rather than the fist; it just prefers the fist for now. But their careful engagement of Taiwan (which I’m betting will be part of a reunited China within 10 years and maybe less) is an example writ large. They’re just reluctant to address problems when there’s nothing in it for them. That seems to be a western-democracies quirk.

  6. Nils says:

    @ Sublime Гэбня. I Like your posts, opinions and weblog a lot Anatoly but I do not understand your comment. What is wrong in mentioning the Mongol/Tartar Yoke, it DID have a lot of influence on everything. The Russian word for money comes from the Tartar language for example. I agree with your analysis of “re-Stalinization” but does the Yoke belong in this enumeration?

    @ marknesop
    Excellent weblog you have here, I try to read it everyday (between my courses on the modern Russian economy and the post-soviet cinema). One small advice: maybe u should try not to look at America or other countries that much, the blog is about Russia and its problems including the problem of fake degrees. Otherwise u fall in the Soviet like whataboutism rhetoric and that is a shame. Ofcourse a comparisson with other countries is still necessary on some issues, like Nathalie described in her comment. Try to find a balance. Nevertheless: very good blog.

    • Hi Nils,

      Re-Tatars. It’s overdone, overused, i.e., a trope. Discussing Russia’s Tatar legacy is fine and dandy when it’s about the etymology of certain words, a deep exposition of Russian culture, etc. But it has no place in journalistic-style commentary on Russian politics, and lazily invoking it just serves to demonstrate a certain poverty of imagination and cultural breadth on the part of the writer.

      Also, sorry for addressing a question to Mark, but I dislike these criticisms of whataboutism. It is circular (“and what about that what about”), illogical, and frequently hypocritical attempt to prevent things being placed into a fair and proper comparative context.

      I agree that “whataboutism” is a poor response when done to deflect genuine, well-wished criticism of Russia’s (many) shortcomings. However, as soon as the focus shifts to scoring political points – and that is the MO of the majority of those accusing their opponents of whataboutism – using this rebuttal becomes fair game.

      • marknesop says:

        I’m glad you brought that up, Anatoly, and Misha touched on it as well. The easiest way to blunt the effectiveness of a technique that makes you uncomfortable, or requires a disproportionate amount of effort to deal with, is to disparage it by labeling it with a catchy name and then implying that anyone who engages in it is intellectually bankrupt. Hence “whataboutism”. Mr. Coalson is quite correct if he points out that all the unfavourable comparisons in the world are not going to help Russia address its problems – and he could (and does) thereby imply that I am wasting everyone’s time by offering examples of where the problem is worse. That’s not my purpose. My intention is to show that Mr. Coalson and others like him are not digging for dirt on Russia out of “tough love” because they are motivated by a desire to see improvement. They do it because they get a boner from spilling the whole smelly mess out on the floor, pointing to it and snorting, “can you believe what those stupid Russians did now?”. If Mr. Coalson were genuinely interested in stamping out the traffic in fake degrees and the employment-line pole vault that goes along with it, his posts would focus on California, not Khabarovsk. I’m not saying, “you must not criticize Russia!!!”; I’m saying, “perform a careful check of your own six before you start pointing and laughing at someone in front of you”.

        “But you lynch negroes” is whataboutism – a knee-jerk attempt to excuse one’s own behaviour by offering a stock distraction. Careful excavation of dead bodies in the critic’s backyard is not whataboutism.

      • Yalensis says:

        Yeah, the Tatar-Mongol thing is just the lazy Westerner’s way of saying that “Russia is inferior to the West because they were ruled by yellow-skinned Asian hordes for a while, and those inferior Asians stamped their slavish mentality onto Russians.” If they came out and said it that bluntly, it would sound racist, because it is. That was precisely the argument (or one of the arguments) that the Hitlerite Nazis used to demean the Russian people (and explain why “Ukrainians” were not as inferior, albeit Slavs, because at least the Ukes hadn’t interbred so much with Mongoloids).
        Once again, I feel the need to point out that the Tatar-Mongol legacy was not all bad for Russia. The Mongols are a tough and creative people; among many other contributions they introduced new crafts and industries to the Slavic tribes.
        On the cultural contributions of the nomads, please watch the “Polovetsian dance” sequence in Borodin’s opera Князь Игорь — those dudes really knew how to throw a party!

    • marknesop says:

      Thanks, Nils. I honestly try to avoid using America every time, because there are many things about the United States I personally like and admire, and I’ve never personally met an American I didn’t like. However, the instigator of this blog was La Russophobe, who is an American and makes no apologies for constantly holding her country up as an example to Russians while she gratuitously insults them. I kind of made an assumption that Robert Coalson is an American as well; I honestly don’t know. If he were British and I knew it, I would have concentrated on highlighting Britain’s problems. I have no objection to honest criticism of Russia, substantiated and coupled with suggestions for improvement that are rooted in an honest desire to see the country succeed. I sense none of that about La Russophobe or The Power Vertical; rather, my impression is of people who welcome Russian stumblings and failures, and use them to make themselves feel good about being (in this case) Americans. Americans I admire are those figures throughout history and in the present who have offered sensitive criticism and generous help with the same hand – snickering and insult are recognized by such people as useless if you genuinely want to see improvement rather than a hardening of resolve against you. My posts on such occasions are intentionally antagonistic. I hope I don’t have to insult all Americans to make my point, because that’s not my intention.

      • Misha says:

        The origin or at least popular usage of “whataboutism” seems to come from some folks with views that would be considered in the “Russophobe” category.

        An ironic aspect to their usage of that term is how they periodically engage in their own versions of “whataboutism.”

      • Natalie says:

        …I’ve never personally met an American I didn’t like

        Delighted to hear that 🙂 Most of us actually are quite rational people, not raving lunatics like LR.

        • Yalensis says:

          Greetings, Natalie, I did once meet one American whom I disliked intensely. But that was the only exception. Everybody else is great!

  7. Giuseppe Flavio says:

    Hello Mark,
    thanks a lot for this post, I find it really interesting. First, because I’m an University teacher here in Italy, and secondly, I’m eager to know how things really work (or don’t work) abroad, especially in the US which many here take as a reference.
    Before reading this post I held the common (for Italians) belief that in Anglo-Saxon countries there isn’t an accreditation system for educational institutions. Ironically, some Italian politicians campaign for the abolition of the accreditation system on the basis that “it’s so in the US, where things work marvelously”.
    The more I read about the US, the more I realize that many things there are a real mess, worser than in Italy. The accreditation system for education is a mess. The home loan system is a mess. The political system that produced a 2400 pages healthcare reform is a mess. And no one seems too concerned, neither I see the accountability Robert is talking about. “since it is a white collar crime, no large scale enforcement has taken place” writes the consumerfraudreporting website about the fake diplomas, people that have lied about their income to obtain an home loan are not prosecuted.

    • marknesop says:

      Hey, Giuseppe! Yes, North American countries have an accreditation system, and it’s actually further evidence that those who purchase phony degrees know exactly what they’re doing – you could hardly miss all the internet info sites that offer guidance to properly accredited institutions and schools, not to mention those that warn against fake degrees and certificates.

      The basic tripwires against hiring someone with a fake diploma are in place, and employers do call – I saw a comment on Sublime Oblivion that suggested nobody could get away with using a phony degree in the USA for long, because they’re always checking up. True – but as soon as you put another check in place, the phony institutions circumvent it. As I pointed out, some services provide a telephone number where the operator will say, “Giuseppe Flavio? Oh, yeah; I remember him. A whiz at Quantum Theory of Fields, but I didn’t like him because he was always pinching my ass”. Realistically, how far is an employer going to check? Are they going to drive to the address and see if there’s actually a university-looking building there?

      A lot of Americans may appear unconcerned about the economic mess (and actually, I doubt that’s accurate, because polling establishes it as the number one worry on American minds) because they’re distracted with the barrage of false information – the president was born in Kenya, he’s a secret Muslim, he wants to take away your guns, blah, blah. But you’re right that things were allowed to get very shaky before average people noticed; there were, literally, people qualifying to buy large houses who had no steady income. The banks got away with it by repackaging the loans with other financial instruments, but there’s no way it could work and I’m surprised it staggered on as long as it did. So were the banks – many of them established hedges against the bad debts they had just issued; betting they would fail, and making even more money on the deal. Part of the reason people loathe the bailout is because it rewarded the banks for their perfidy. That’s at least partly true; however, people forget (1) there weren’t a lot of options, and (2) the bailout bill was passed and signed in 2008, when George W. Bush was still president.

      The deeply-underlying message that I’m surprised nobody has picked up on – and that the universities likely hope nobody will, is that maybe you don’t need a college education to do these jobs. The engineers at Sukhoi were doing fine putting planes together (and of course, they were – Sukhoi denied it, but there’s no way they had 70 engineers sweeping floors. The only other explanation would be that they were working in design, which would look even worse). But the gal at Homeland Security was doing fine; it was a random background check that caught her. Ditto the others who had done their jobs for some time, and apparently well enough to obtain raises (like the teachers in Georgia). The guys working for the Nuclear Agency must have been quite bright, and the guy working for the college accreditation agency apparently performed satisfactorily. As far as I could determine, nobody was ever tied to a phony diploma through incompetence.

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        I don’t understand why employers want to check by telephone calls. They can open this page and do the check (I’ve reached this webpage from the consumerfraudreporting website). Am I missing something, e.g. that database isn’t complete?
        Speaking about home loan, a thing I fail to understand is the reason for stated income loans, better known as “liar loans”. Wikipedia says that “These loans are nominally intended for self-employed borrowers, or other borrowers who might have difficulty documenting their income”, but isn’t the income stated in tax forms? All the lender needs to do is to ask for a copy of the tax form to the prospective borrower.
        My impression about the US public sector is that it needs a serious restructuring, there are too many government or quasi-government agencies with similar and often overlapping tasks, e.g. Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, Medicare & Medicaid, the various security agencies mentioned by Eugene Ivanov.
        Perhaps it’s so because Americans are not used to burocracy like continental Europeans, because many people fear a centralized state so every attempt at restructuring results in half-baked measures, and because every politician wants his personal fief.
        As for Sukhoi fake engineers, they’re surely not working in design, which is done in Moscow, Komsomolsk-on-Amur deals only with production. From the Moscow Times article it seems that these guys were already working at Sukhoi, possibly as specialized workers, and then got a degree to have their wages raised. It would be interesting to read the actual reaction from Sukhoi about the scandal.

        • marknesop says:

          Hi, Giuseppe. Perhaps they do check online – I really don’t know. That’d be effective if the school (diploma mill) concerned advertised the degree as being achieved at its own campus, which didn’t exist. That’s what happened to St. Regis, which was shut down by the U.S. government in 2005. But starting up a diploma mill is no more complicated than having an Internet connection and an account – you can run it from your house, and many do. The FBI’s complaint is that as soon as you shut one down (usually for mail fraud, something like that), it pops up under a different name somewhere else. It’s impossible to keep the lists current. I had the impression also that some diploma mills issue diplomas drawn on the names of legitimate institutions, like Cambridge. That must be illegal. In any case, I suspect that if an employer couldn’t find the name of your school on either list (diploma mills/legitimate institutions), they’d call. That’s where the answering service comes in.

          Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not government agencies. They are private organizations owned by shareholders, although they are protected by the Federal government and exempt from income taxes and SEC oversight. Obviously, the latter was a huge mistake. Eugene knows far more about this subject than I do, but offhand I’d agree there is a great deal of government waste. It’s hard to prevent when every senator is trying to get pet projects approved for his/her district (whether they need them or not) and can actually hold up legitimate legislation until they get their own way. That requires modifying senate rules, though, which is a touchy subject. Both parties are very cautious about amending rules so that they achieve short-term gain, but which might be used against them to disastrous effect when they are out of power.

          • Giuseppe Flavio says:

            Thanks for your answer Mark, now it’s clearer.
            As for Fannie & Freddie, I maintain these are quasi-government agencies for the following reason. Before the current economic crisis, Russia held part of her reserves in Fannie and Freddie bonds. These were the only bonds from “private” enterprises in Russia’s reserves because by statute of the Central Bank of Russia, only very safe securities could be used. Safe like US, UK and German government bonds (big economies with AAA rating) while even bonds from big enterprises with AAA rating (like Boeing) were not used. This means that the US government gave guarantees about Fannie & Freddie bonds to foreign institutional investors, and in fact when Russia and China sold those bonds the US Treasury bought them for their full price.

  8. Nils says:

    Ok I understood your stance Anatoly, keep up the good work.

    Thanks for explaining your way of thinking Mark. I have a Twitter account including The Power Vertical and I also noticed that the only thing they do is collect all negative things in Russia and retweet them. Someone should write an article or log criticising them like you do with the Russophone.

  9. Igor, AU says:

    Thanks for an informative post, Mark. My own impression was that RFL/RFE was by far less critical than the original Moscow Times article (although Coalson’s suggesting that this situation was Kremlin’s intent (“systematically making itself unaccountable”) is more than laughable. ) I did not sense much sneering in RFL presentation, though – just reciting the source. Would it be better if they did not mention the problem?

    I agree with you remark in one of the comments, questioning the relevance (don’t want to use the word “value” 🙂 of high education in some if not most of real-life employment situations. You did not say that this relevance was a clear cut case – nor will I. The problem has been discussed since before even I got my first degree and is a two-fold: how much education a job really needs and what are we teaching at universities? I am more with the classic who said that education benefits only those who don’t really need it. But there are some important corrections to this.


    • marknesop says:

      Hi, Igor; perhaps you’re right, but I make no apologies for a confrontational stance with The Power Vertical. For one thing, their piece on the issue was only a paragraph. The Moscow Times sounded a lot more critical because they provided a lot more detail. However, the tone of the entire Power Vertical piece was snide and mocking, and included no advice on how to correct the situations observed. The whole thing had the feel of an investigative journalist who sees himself/herself as God’s Avenging Sword, laying bare human failings and imperfections for the world to see with no regard whatever for the damage caused by their personal desire to get themselves off. What if Sukhoi had fired all 70 of those engineers? That’d be 70 families who likely just lost their breadwinner. Sukhoi wouldn’t be better off, they’d be down 70 positions that they’d be unable to fill quickly. Just mentioning the problem isn’t enough, especially when you mention it with a spin that’s only calculated to undermine people’s national pride and cause embarrassment. The Power Vertical didn’t really expect all those people would be fired, and wouldn’t have gotten as much of a kick out of reporting it if they had. The real enjoyment was in catching those stupid Russkies out again. If there were any real interest in curtailing the practice, the story would have centred on the technical college that provided the fake diplomas; who specifically was involved, and why they would do such a thing. What government has the time or resources to watch every college in the nation to see if someone is up to something? Certainly not the U.S. government, which delegates the responsibility to the states. It’s like discovering a local farmer isn’t observing proper sanitary procedures when packaging chickens for market, and then posing the rhetorical question, “Why doesn’t Vladimir Putin’s government check every chicken sold in Russia to ensure it’s safe to eat before it’s sold? What, doesn’t he care?”. Also, starting off the piece with the title “Potemkinism” was like a red rag to a bull.

      The underlying message I get from that sort of material is “Why can’t Russia be more like America?” That’s fine, if America really is a good example of the practice/policy being discussed. Often, it’s not.

  10. BTW, one more thing I’d like to add to this discussion.

    I have not a few Russian acquaintances who teach technical subjects at British universities. In the past decade, under the pressure of the government’s sloganeering about the need to increase the percentage of people with higher educations, many state institutions have begun sending their workers, and especially managers, to get degrees in order to expand their skill sets – or so that’s the theory.

    In practice, it’s somewhat different. The people that get sent back (or off for the first time) to university already know everything they need for their job and learning calculus – or rather, learning how to derive solutions of standard problems that are quite trivial and can be done with any computer – in no way enhances their real value to their organization. Both teachers and students acknowledge that it’s all a waste of time. Furthermore, the university administration “calibrates” standards to ensure that almost everybody passes with minimal effort, regardless of whether they learned anything or not.

    The students go back to their jobs, a bit rustier thanks to the two years or whatever they spent in education, and having learned almost nothing in terms of useful skills (certainly nothing in terms of cultural enlightenment about which the modern British state couldn’t care less). Whatever theoretical knowledge they might have acquired is soon forgotten. The university lecturers spend time reading out of a textbook and filling out mountains of paperwork, when they could have been doing research or actually doing real teaching. The government’s budget goes even deeper into the red (to pay both the universities and the state institutions for this meaningless activity).

    One wonders whether just paying an educational institution a bulk fee for a bunch of phony degrees, as done by Sukhoi, might not be the more efficient solution in a world that values pieces of paper so much. At least nobody wastes their time.

    • marknesop says:

      Reminds me of the Soviet-era slogan, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”. The pertinent version might be, “They pretend to educate us, and we pretend to need it”.

      I’m an advocate of higher education, and a great respecter of a legitimate college education (speaking as one who never had any, being “invited” to leave secondary school in Grade 11 for…ahem…behavioral problems. I got provincial Grade 12 equivalency much later when I was an adult, through the General Education Diploma (GED) program) for applications in which the individual will need to stay abreast of serious movers and shakers, perhaps in an international setting. Examples might be minor government roles, University professors, leading figures or management in technical and publishing fields, especially those who might go abroad or be frequently interviewed for television or radio. You don’t want your more prominent figures to appear stupid in front of a potentially international audience. What the United States must have suffered during the Bush years is beyond my descriptive powers.

      In fact, the latter might be the best argument yet for the contention that a college education doesn’t necessarily make you any smarter, even if you pass.

      • Igor, AU says:

        You know, Mark, looking at your vocabulary (not to mention quite frequent dangerously deep remarks 🙂 I start to feel respect to whatever this “General Education Diploma” program is. To compare, I know more than one person with (“western”) PhDs who don’t even know what Ecclesiastes is…

        • marknesop says:

          Thanks, Igor; that’s very flattering. But a General Educational Diploma is what’s often obtained by people who never finished Grade 12 Secondary (as high as it goes here: except Ontario, which has (or had, I’m not sure) Grade 13. That was a sort of college-prep syllabus) like me, and foreigners who speak English as a second language. High-school grades here when I went to school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) were typically broken down into 4 categories – for example, Grade 10A, 10B, 10C and 10D. 10A and 10B would be the academic levels, 10C sort of a mix and 10D the general. General level was typically for students in the lowest percentile, but still passing, and your placement was based on your grades the previous year. So, while not taking anything away from people who worked hard to achieve a GED, it’s not very difficult.

          All of my vocabulary came from reading; everything – fiction, history, biographies, even romance (except not that sappy Danielle Steele stuff). Most of whatever other knowledge I have comes from experience and travel. My job allows me to travel the world, and I’ve seen a good bit of it. But it’s funny how that comes up in this sort of a discussion, because diploma mills often say they issue degrees based on “life experience”. Is a life experience like traveling to Russia, living there for a time and mingling with the people as good as a university course in Russian history? NO!!! Many of the people you talk to might be the dumbest of their kind, and what you’re getting is a snapshot of what they think is their country’s history. A student (of Russian history, or economics or whatever) in a North American university has a working knowledge of events which shaped Russia’s history that some of the locals in Russia don’t even know took place. I’m a good example – a Russian student of Canadian history would be far better off to stay in St Petersburg and learn about Louis Riel than to live here and ask me – I remembered who he was long enough to write down his name on the exam, and that’s it. Now I recall he was executed as a rebel, but the events surrounding his rise to become a symbol to the Metis people are long gone.

          So, you’re right. Life experience is certainly better than nothing, but it’s no substitute for a university education, and a university education and life experience blows both into the weeds. Oftentimes a college education is like an off-the-rack suit compared to a tailor-made Giorgio Armani. The former will fit most people (teach them to solve basic problems for most situations), but its overall effectiveness is muted by its requirement to accommodate a wide range of variables. A university education and life experience is the Giorgio Armani of knowledge.

          • Igor, AU says:

            The thing is that anyone can read any course in anything. By themselves. Choosing the best to teach you and not just who is available at uni. The purpose of a good Unversity education is to remove the fear of solving problems on your own (by hoping that you will figure out how to do that on your own just looking at the examples), show you that no supernatural abilities are needed to get a degree and – yes- to enable you to evaluate people who claim that they are “scientists”, for what they are really worth (you would find that usually not much) . Another important function of systematic education is to enable you to understand the language. Eg. to teach you to see that behind intimidating equations spanning the whole page or more, there really is a very simple and not necessarily correct thinking. Or when you hear some unusual term, to understand that it was most likely invented to scare un-initiated & very rarely means anything you won’t be able to find in less than 1 minute

            • marknesop says:

              It’s very true that the rise of the internet as an educational tool has made the process a great deal less intimidating. It has also made some people “Wikipedia experts” who quickly get out of their depth; that’s why I try not to cite it as a reference unless I have to, although it is often accurate and contains much useful information. In fact, Wikipedia serves as an instructive example, because you can’t know what to quote from it unless you know at least a little about the subject, or you’ll rapidly find yourself embarrassed by those who know it well. It’s not that there’s no accurate information there, it’s that the gold is mixed with a lot of partisan dirt that has no foundation anywhere but in opinion.

              But your description of the principles underpinning systematic education is an excellent one. Some of those principles are founded in sensible and reasonable motivation, and remain effective – some people learn better in a forum of their peers, for various reasons. Some lack the self-discipline to follow the curriculum without supervision; some need constant pingback of their ideas and reasoning. But perhaps the most significant point you make is that educating yourself is still a form of acquiring background on the subject. For most management functions and all of the trades except advanced electronics or advanced programming, it’s probably enough to get you in a job and sufficiently comfortable that you won’t kill yourself or a co-worker while you pick up the remaining skills you need. You certainly don’t need an engineering degree to put together airplanes from prefabricated parts which each have an established post-assembly test procedure (at least in the case of powertrain and avionics packages). Which takes us a step further: is our system of values obsessed with education to the exclusion of talent?

    • Igor, AU says:

      Anatoly, I think there is a lot of truth in what you’ve said. Most of it. However there are exceptions. I have less experience directly with industry, but what I do know, does excuse Sukhoi for not firing the “engineers”. On the other hand, to work in scientific research one needs a formal education – even if only to talk to others in the field using proper language. Another story is that (after so many centuries) we still don’t know how to teach students to generalize a number of known solutions to standard problems into some more general “methods” which then they can re-use and are not afraid to apply to other (real) problems. With the current system each is supposed to figure it out on his/her own (with most failing).

  11. Yalensis says:

    Quick comment on “whataboutism”: maybe it is frowned upon as a method in formal debate. But I think it is perfectly valid as a weapon in propaganda war. If one side shoots an arrow, other side can shoot it back. I don’t see why not?

    • marknesop says:

      Certainly, any tactic already introduced is fair to use if the object is to “win”. Certainly also, Mr. Coalson can point to any number of related failings in Russia. However, the reason for bringing similar abuses in the USA into the narrative is because Mr. Coalson is criticizing Russia from the viewpoint that this behavior is symptomatic of general rot and corruption in the country. Russia, to the best of my understanding, has made no such counteraccusation. The Power Vertical is all stick and no carrot, and I believe it’s important to be aware – or be made aware – that good foreign policy does not start with gratuitous insult. It’s even less a solid position when you’re condemning someone else for a practice in which you are the chief offender. Besides, the Moscow Times already reported the story in detail – was The Power Vertical worried it wouldn’t reach a wide enough audience? I’ve noticed no such concern on the part of positive stories that reflect well on Russia.

  12. Yalensis says:

    I have to agree with Igor on the necessity of higher education, especially in science and engineering. There are certain skills that simply cannot be faked. (Excluding the rare exceptional lone genius, of course…) In my own field, software engineering, I have seen my share of amateurs who believe that because they are “good with computers” (i.e., they have great Facebook page), this somehow translates into being able to design a database or software module according to internationally correct standards. Some of these folks never actually sat in a classroom and passed exams in the mathematics of set theory, boolean logic, and the other skills needed to be proficient in their field. Instead, they crouch in their Dilbert-like cubicles, earnestly typing random code onto the screen and praying that it somehow works. How do they get away with this? Because the boss never actually checked their credentials!

    • marknesop says:

      You’re absolutely right, in those circumstances. But I can’t even imagine the size of the balls on somebody who would go to a job interview as, say, a chemical engineer, with no knowledge of the subject and a phony diploma. His story would fall to pieces in seconds. There have been a zillion comedies written to that script, in which the guy knows nothing but somehow manages to miracle his way through the question minefield and is hired – whereupon hilarity ensues as he blows up everything he touches. That almost never happens in real life. I say “almost” because one of the references in this post reported the story of a “doctor” with a wall-full of fake PHD’s who instructed a woman to take her diabetic 8-year-old daughter off insulin – she promptly died. How anyone like that managed to get a license to practice is beyond me. Or maybe that was fake, too. I guess you could set yourself up in a medical office, if you had the money and the nerve, without being interviewed by anyone. Anyway, in the technical trades and other fields of employment for people with big foreheads and pocket protectors full of pens, you need serious education. To put together airplanes made of prefabricated parts where it says “insert tab A into slot B”, probably not so much.

    • Giuseppe Flavio says:

      From what I heard from friends working in the IT industry, it’s not just a matter of checking credentials. There are many accredited Universities that give degrees to people that don’t deserve them. I know people with an University degree (and even a Ph.D.) in IT that aren’t able to write a small program or manage a simple server.
      These people are able to get a position in the industry because, in many places, the human resources department that makes the selection is mostly manned by people with a degree in psychology or sociology, i.e. without any technical or scientific knowledge. The result is that the slightly sociopathic nerd has less chances than the sociable, well-dressed but incapable applicant. Also, HR refrain to ask for help to technicians, because of the fear to show their uselessness.
      Add to this that most managers have barely a technical or scientific education and are mostly inclined toward the latter type of worker, rather than toward nerd-like ones.

  13. Yalensis says:

    I know! I can’t even imagine what it is like to have such chutzpah to talk one’s way into a job that one is not qualified to do. But you’d be surprised how many people do just that, and they’re not all “loud-mouthed men with big balls”. Some ladies too (with over-inflated egos and gift of gab!) My profession, which is supposed to be for “big-forehead” propeller-heads only, also seems to have its share of “pretenders”, and I could tell you stories that would turn your hair white! But I won’t, as I wish you to preserve your youthful innocence…

    • marknesop says:

      A very funny example (in English), although I can’t think how you’d find it now (it’s fairly old, 1990) is “Opportunity Knocks” , starring Dana Carvey. It’s what I thought of right away as soon as this discussion began to gather headway. He fudges his way through the part of a junior business executive by blind luck, and it was my point that this is just what people who try it (with no background at all) hope will happen. It never does.

      It’s good of you to consider my youthful innocence, and if you see it around, I’d very much like to have it back.

  14. BTW, yet another Potemkin journalist, the Matthew Owens hack.

    • marknesop says:

      Yes, what a goof. He had a flash of impartiality there, when he pointed out that Bloomberg got caught taking a chauffered SUV to the subway – but that’s not really a very good comparison. Bloomberg is mayor, albeit of a huge city. Putin is Prime Minister of a huge country. I doubt Bloomberg needs the kind of security on his way to work that Putin needs driving across the country. Exactly the sort of smirking sarcasm that is all the western input some Russians ever see.

  15. Charles Ganske says:

    I seldom comment online anymore, and with good reason.

    But I do feel the need to mention it since Guiseppe (apparently Italian for Josephus) brought up F&F and Russia.


    I would say Russia Blog (and our former contributor Vladimir F. Kuznetsov) were among the first to bring it up in the English-language blogosphere.


    This RBK story from late June/July 2007 about Paulson’s deputy Kimmitt was also an interesting bit that virtually no one saw fit to mention when F&F were being first bailed out in fall 2008. I thought if one put these two together then Paulson’s story about the Russkiy plot against Fannie and Freddie to avenge American support for Saakashvili was suspect, at best. The urgent need for Washington to make good on its ‘virtual’ guarantee to foreigners as a motive for the F&F weekend nationalization was absent from the “Who Killed Fannie and Freddie?” article in Vanity Fair that same autumn.

    Ben Smith of course, not being a blogger, could not say that Paulson was playing the Cold War card in a weak attempt to protect his own reputation. I should add here that I like Ben’s work, but he also had to preface his link to RB by saying we were ‘generally pro-Russian’. I would prefer the term premature ‘reset’-ist, in the sense that we were asking back in early 2007 how the strained political relationship was going to continue indefinitely if Russian petrodollars were flowing into the U.S., while American MREs and bulldozers, if not bullets, were flying on Russian planes into Kabul and Basra.

    In other words, if you want to know what gave us the ‘reset’, follow the money.

    When historians look back on the U.S.-Russia ‘reset’, they will probably ask why, given the extensive financial ties greasing the skids for positive U.S.-China or U.S.-Saudi-UAE relations, why it took so long.

    As for Fannie & Freddie, I maintain these are quasi-government agencies for the following reason. Before the current economic crisis, Russia held part of her reserves in Fannie and Freddie bonds. These were the only bonds from “private” enterprises in Russia’s reserves because by statute of the Central Bank of Russia, only very safe securities could be used. Safe like US, UK and German government bonds (big economies with AAA rating) while even bonds from big enterprises with AAA rating (like Boeing) were not used. This means that the US government gave guarantees about Fannie & Freddie bonds to foreign institutional investors, and in fact when Russia and China sold those bonds the US Treasury bought them for their full price.

    • marknesop says:

      This is a dimension of which I was unaware, and it certainly is interesting. I’ll be much more enlightened once I’ve followed your links, but in the short term I’d like to thank you for such a comprehensive and authoritative comment. I hope you’ll get over whatever is discouraging you from commenting, because you can apparently – as they say – see further into a brick wall than most.

    • Giuseppe Flavio says:

      You’re quite right, “Giuseppe Flavio” is the italianate name for Josephus. Giuseppe is my personal name and translates to Joseph in English.
      In your second link there is a pic with the caption “Martha Stewart (left) and Charles Simonyi (center) at a gala event”. The other woman with red hairs and glasses is Sofia Loren.

  16. Charles Ganske says:

    And one more thing, since I know it’s probably coming from a commenter near you – obviously the crisis hit Russia very hard, and not just the stock market, though commodity and oil prices rebounded quickly. In September 2008 neither myself nor anyone else really knew how hard Russia and China would be hit. The ‘BRICs de-coupling from the U.S.’ thesis was all the rage, though I still don’t buy into it and there are plenty of writers out there claiming that Beijing is sitting on a Japan late 80s-style real estate bubble (Zero Hedge according to Alexa, is now in the top 1,600 U.S. sites, not bad for a pseudo-anonymous Bulgarian ex-broker).

  17. PiterGA says:

    Nevertheless, aircraft Sukhoi excellent fly ….
    The company has more orders from various countries.
    How to explain this? The fact is that what is now called the “engineer” usually consists of a just a skilled worker. If staff are measured not by the formal documents, but by real deeds, the questions about the awards will close by itself. If in America the same relation to diplomas as well as in Russia it means in America hidden socialism.

    • marknesop says:

      Yes, you’re quite right – Sukhoi builds a quality airframe, and while their military projects are elegant and deadly, it woudn’t do to forget their commercial aviation division, which just sold 6 of their Superjet 100’s to the USA. The Moscow Times makes a big deal about it being made mostly of imported parts, but the majority is still Sukhoi and the plane is rated a superior to its Canadian and Brazilian competitors. Nice work, Sukhoi!

  18. Pingback: Shining a Light on Whataboutism | The Kremlin Stooge

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