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‘Unfortunately this book has a final page’ The strange and rather comical efforts of Russia's chief investigator to dispel plagiarism allegations

Meduza
11:16, 16 august 2017

Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On August 9, 2017, Russian Federal Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin announced the release of his new book on dactylography (the study of fingerprints). His best known work on this subject to date is a 370-page tome titled “Dactylography: Hand Signals,” published more than a decade ago in 2004. After the book hit stores, Bastrykin faced plagiarism allegations that he “significantly borrowed” from the German writer Jürgen Thorwald’s 1964 classic “Das Jahrhundert der Detektive” (Century of the Detective). Bastrykin’s book was nevertheless translated into French, and in 2016 the chief investigator joined Russia’s Writers’ Union. Not long afterwards, in a very short timespan, five academic journals published 11 glowing reviews about “Dactylography,” a book that was now 12 years old. To make matters stranger, the cover of Bastrykin’s new hardback is deliberately stylized to look like Thorwald’s book. Meduza takes a look at what the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee is doing to try to save his reputation as a writer.

A unique book

In the summer and fall of 2016, academic journals published articles by eight major legal scholars reviewing a book by Alexander Bastrykin that came out in 2004. Almost all the authors are university professors. Several of these people are decorated academics and department heads. Five of these eight authors published their reviews of Bastrykin’s book twice in different journals. For example, a laudatory review by Alexander Volynsky, a criminology professor at Moscow Interior Ministry University, appeared with the exact same title in both the Russian Investigator journal and in a publication by the Investigative Committee’s Moscow Academy, whose editorial board is headed by none other than Alexander Bastrykin.

Without exception, the 11 book reviews offer nothing but praise for Bastrykin’s work, celebrating his language, his “scientific depth,” his “vast bibliography,” and his book’s illustrations.

“In these difficult conditions, Professor Alexander Bastrykin’s book, written at a high scientific level in fascinatingly literary language, reflecting the history of the establishment and development of dactylography (one of the most important branches of criminal investigation techniques), contributes to the development of students’ interest in the study of criminology,” writes Elena Rossinskaya, a professor at Kutafin Moscow State Law University.

Gennady Dashkov, a professor at the same university, didn’t just praise the book (“It’s not only well written, but it’s also brilliantly done”); he also affirmed its authority with his own unusual test, arguing that readers could “randomly select” the names of eminent Soviet forensic experts and find them mentioned somewhere in the text.

Bastrykin’s book seems to have had the most profound effect on Moscow Technology University Professor Sergey Samishchenko, who wrote: “Unfortunately, as with any book, this wonderful work has a final page. Completely unexpectedly, as I approached the conclusion, I found myself experiencing two contradictory feelings: sadness that the book was coming to an end, and a feeling of hope that I would again encounter such a surprisingly beautiful and informative narrative as this.”

Huge domestic demand

The authors of the reviews offer different explanations for why they decided to return to Bastrykin’s fingerprint book more than a decade after it was published. Sergey Samishchenko told Meduza that he couldn’t remember why he decided a year ago to review the book. “The question didn’t come up. Then it did. I don’t remember,” he said, recalling vaguely that someone asked him to write a review and he agreed.

In her article, Elena Rossinskaya said she decided to reread Bastrykin’s book when she was preparing to write a chapter on forensic expertology for a textbook on the history of forensics.

Boris Gavrilov, a professor at the Interior Ministry’s Management Academy, told Meduza that his review was inspired by a book presentation at an academic-professional conference in the spring of 2016.

Nadezhda Kruchinina, a professor at Moscow State Law University, says she’s sure that the book by “the famous scholar“ Alexander Bastrykin is interesting “especially now, when there are societal and legal debates related to compulsory fingerprinting in Russia, and discussions about its religious-moral aspects.”

Professor Gennady Dashkov says his review was a response to “enormous domestic demand” connected to the fact that his early academic work related mainly to forensics.

Meduza cannot explain exactly why academic journals agreed to publish 11 reviews of the same book in the span of just a few months, 12 years after the book’s publication. In a post on Vkontakte in October 2016, however, Bastrykin cited these favorable reviews in an attempt to deflect the main criticism of his work on dactylography — that he lifted sections of the book from other writers. “I’ve categorically rejected and reject these accusations as false and unfounded, which is confirmed by the positive responses of leading Russian forensics experts,” Bastrykin wrote.

It’s possible that the Investigative Committee chief asked Russia’s leading forensics specialists to publish reviews of his book, so he would have a way to respond to critics. Corroborating this theory are posts from February 2017 published on the Web portal Proza.ru by an account managed in Alexander Bastrykin’s name. The author wrote directly that he was “forced to turn to Russia’s leading forensics specialists for an objective assessment of my work.” Spokespeople for Russia’s Investigative Committee did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the Proza.ru account and whether Bastrykin or anyone tied to him has connections to the account, but we have reason to believe it’s real.

The plagiarism allegations

The first person to accuse Bastrykin of plagiarizing parts of his 2004 fingerprints book was Vladimir Chisnikov, a top researcher in the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. The Taurida National V.I. Vernadsky University published Chisnikov’s devastating review in 2007. Citing several factual errors and inaccuracies, Chisnikov highlighted multiple paragraphs from Bastrykin’s book that are verbatim or near-verbatim recreations of passages from Jürgen Thorwald’s 1964 classic “Das Jahrhundert der Detektive” (Century of the Detective). In 2013, the volunteer community Dissernet dismantled Bastrykin’s book in detail, showing that he lifted large sections (sometimes even whole pages) from Thorwald and several other writers.

It’s also noteworthy that none of the recent reviews of “Dactylography” even hint at the plagiarism allegations against the book, though Bastrykin has called the articles a response to Chisnikov and Dissernet.

Professor Sergey Samishchenko told Meduza that there’s nothing surprising about the overlap between Bastrykin’s book and other publications. “When you’re describing history, things have to be repeated because you’re using the same words to describe the same facts,” he explained, adding that he didn’t review “Dactylography” for potential plagiarism.

Clearly irritated by Meduza’s questioning, Professor Boris Gavrilov also said he didn’t check Bastrykin’s book for possible plagiarism, and stated that he doesn’t intend to, either. “The people doing this analysis don’t understand what plagiarism is. I work on these problems, and I know it well. Dissernet thinks everything we do is plagiarism,” the legal expert said, declining to specify what exactly he considers to be plagiarism.

In his bibliography, Bastrykin cites Jürgen Thorwald’s “Das Jahrhundert der Detektive,” along with many other sources. “But that’s no excuse,” says Vladimir Chisnikov, the Ukrainian scholar who savaged Bastrykin’s book in 2007. Chisnikov told Meduza there would be no issue if the excerpts from Thorwald’s book had been placed between quotation marks and cited in a footnote. “He’s a scholar for goodness’ sakes! A doctor of science! This is someone who knows how the academic community does citations.”

The new book

On August 9, 2017, Bastrykin announced the release of his new book, “The History of Forensics: Dactylography.” But the announcement jumped the gun ever so slightly: his publisher, “Prospekt,” later clarified that the book hasn’t actually come out yet, though it is expected to hit major bookstores soon. Meduza also learned that “The History of Forensics” is a commercial order, meaning that it’s being printed using the client’s own money. Just 200 copies will make up the first edition, and it will get a larger second-edition release, only if the first copies actually sell.

Meduza was unable to obtain a copy of Bastrykin’s new book. Judging by the abstract (“a book for a wide range of readers about the history of dactylography with practical examples”), the concept differs little from his earlier work, “Hand Signals.” That said, it’s unlikely that this new book is just a reprint of Bastrykin’s first book: the new one, for instance, is almost four times shorter — totalling just 96 pages. It is worth noting, however, that the new book’s working title (“Hand Signals: Dactylography”) was comically similar to Bastrykin’s 2004 book.

Given the past plagiarism accusations, the cover art for “The History of Forensics” is also somewhat surprising: it’s deeply reminiscent of Jürgen Thorwald’s “Das Jahrhundert der Detektive” — the same book Bastrykin allegedly stole from. “Prospekt” publishes a Russian translation of Thorwald’s book, too.

“We’ve probably been publishing this book for 10 years already,” a spokesperson for “Prospekt” told Meduza. “We simply created a similar cover [for ‘The History of Forensics’] because ‘Das Jahrhundert der Detektive’ sells pretty well.” The same source also confirmed that Bastrykin intentionally modeled his new book on Thorwald’s work.

Russian text by Alexander Borzenko and Denis Dmitriyev, translation by Kevin Rothrock