Russia History Modern Scandals Plagiarism Ekaterina (“Tina”) Khmelnitskaya Broken China: Plagiarism at the Hermitage

Broken China: Plagiarism at the Hermitage

On 7 December 2014, the Hermitage Museum grandly celebrated its 250th anniversary. The programme of events included a dazzling light show on Palace Square, the opening of a new wing in the General Staff Building and special exhibitions, including the controversial loan of one of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum in London.

The history of the Hermitage dates from 1764, when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of paintings originally assembled in Berlin for Frederick the Great. The collection included many famous masterpieces, such as Rembrandt’s Danaë (1636) and important canvases by Raphael, Titian, Veronese, Rubens and Van Dyck.

As Catherine needed a place to house her private collection, that same year she commissioned Georg Friedrich von Veldten to build a pavilion to the east of the Winter Palace. The pavilion was later expanded to form the Hermitage complex. The empress wrote in 1788: “The only ones to admire all this are the mice and me.”

Catherine’s heirs added to the imperial collection, which was nationalised in 1917 and opened to the public as the Hermitage Museum. Throughout the twentieth century, besides operating as a museum, the Hermitage became an important centre of academic study, attracting the finest art historians from all over the country.

But all this has changed in recent years. Standards have slipped and the Hermitage has seen the rise of a new generation of curators with a less rigorous approach to academic honesty. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the astonishing case of plagiarism attempted in 2014 by Ekaterina (“Tina”) Khmelnitskaya, curator of porcelain at the Hermitage Museum.

Arnoldsche Art Publishers was founded in Stuttgart in 1987 and is now a major publisher and distributor of books on arts, crafts and design. In 2013, they decided to release an album on Ukrainian-born artist Vladimir Kanevsky, who sculpts unique porcelain flowers at his studio in New York.

The Russian producers of the book decided to commission the text from Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, who presented a CV accompanied by examples of past publications. Like Vladimir Kanevsky, they were impressed by the Hermitage employee’s proud boast that she had received a doctorate from St Petersburg University and had participated in a year-long research grant at Stanford University.

Arnoldsche planned to publish the book in English and required the text in February 2015. A translator was found in January 2014, but there were unexpected delays with the text. Although promised in late May or early June, persistent editorial work with the author meant that Khmelnitskaya’s text was only sent for translation in late October 2014.

A month later, while verifying spellings and checking information on the internet, the translator discovered, quite by chance, an almost identical text online. This text was written by Dr Natalia Sipovskaya, who is a leading expert on Russian porcelain currently employed by the Ministry of Culture as director of the State Institute for Art Studies in Moscow.

The reader is invited to compare a number of random passages selected from the work of Natalia Sipovskaya and from the six chapters of the book “written” by Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya. Pressing on this link will take you to a page containing examples of the texts of the two authors.

In a further twist, Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya had claimed to have specially interviewed Vladimir Kanevsky for the book. But other texts were found online, which demonstrated that the words attributed to Kanevsky had not, in fact, been uttered by the artist. They had simply been lifted by Khmelnitskaya from the writings of another porcelain expert.

This expert is Alexandra Troschinskaya, who is head curator of the Museum of Decorative, Applied and Industrial Art at the Stroganov Academy of Art and Industry in Moscow. The words from Khmelnitskaya’s alleged interview with Vladimir Kanevsky in 2014 had actually been posted online by Troschinskaya in January 2012. Click on this link for a comparison.

When challenged over these findings, Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya claimed that the similarity in the texts was explained by the fact that the original sentences had been written by her as early as 2001 – and had then been simply “updated with new information” by Sipovskaya and Troschinskaya. She added that recycling texts from author to author was established practice in Russian academic circles – while admitting that such practice “might seem strange to outsiders”.

Natalia Sipovskaya completely refuted these claims, stating that she categorically refused to allow her “formulations” to be published under someone else’s name. She called the whole episode “an extremely unpleasant story” and “simply beyond the pale.” Alexandra Troschinskaya was not available for comment.

Plagiarism is not normally classified as a criminal or a civil offence, although it is considered a serious ethical misdemeanour, particularly in academia and the museum environment. In some countries, an offender can be subject to criminal prosecutions for fraud if the act of plagiarism was committed in the pursuit of financial gain. One such country is the Federal Republic of Germany.

Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya’s text was commissioned for publication in Germany. Article 106 of the Law on Copyright and Related Rights states: “Anyone who without the consent of the rightholder reproduces, distributes or communicates to the public a work or an adaptation or transformation of a work in manners other than those permitted by law shall be liable to imprisonment of not more than three years or a fine.”

In Germany, no one is safe from prosecution for plagiarism – not even the minister of defence, who was forced to resign in March 2011 after his thesis was discovered to contain texts by other authors without citation. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was stripped of his doctorate in law by the University of Bayreuth and criminal charges were pressed for the fraudulent acquisition of a doctoral degree (they were dropped after he agreed to donate €20,000 to charity).

So what would the former German princess, who corresponded with Voltaire and founded the Hermitage 250 years ago, have to say about this sordid tale? As an enlightened monarch, Catherine the Great was a great writer, who left an enormous literary heritage of translations, fables, stories, comedies, articles, essays and the librettos to six operas.

Ironically, historians today believe that many of Catherine’s compositions and letters were also written by other people. They point to the great differences in style and spelling in the empress’s works, suggesting that Nikolai Novikov was the real author of  her literary works, while many of her letters were actually penned by Count Andrei Shuvalov.

So what does this have to say about Russia and plagiarism? Does this confirm the claim made by a modern employee of the Hermitage Museum – that it is normal practice to recycle entire pages written by other authors, without reference or acknowledgement? And, if so, what is the museum celebrating in December 2014? Two and a half centuries of the Hermitage collection? Or 250 years of Russian plagiarism?

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