On plagiarism

Plagiarism, in academia and outside it, has been rampant in Ukraine for a long time, but not everybody seems to realize that this situation is unacceptable. Several particularly loud scandals involving plagiarism revealed that there are many who are ready to defend those who plagiarize. If the deeds of the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian Vogue, who plagiarized a column written by a Russian journalist for Harper Bazaar, were at least condemned by public opinion, the notorious case of Dmytro Drozdovskyi and his doctoral dissertation, 60% not his own material with no credit given, found a number of ardent supporters. Some of my friends justify him. The more I read these justifications, the clearer it becomes that here we are dealing not only with superficial things. This is not about honesty or dishonesty of one particular person. This is not even about the imperfect “system” – this is about core beliefs that are formed, to a large extent, by our common Soviet past, and this past now is part of our present moment.

It is a problem that this past has not been sufficiently reflected upon, and now we don’t always know what the manifestations are. And the manifestations are not necessarily conspicuous. Nobody writes Lenin’s name on a banner and goes to a march. We have flipped through the page, but we have not read what was written there. Soviet life is not just canned fish or some other shortages, but cognitive patterns and basic myths that we still have ingrained in us. They will not die out by themselves, without us bringing them to awareness. It has been written already about the psychology of theft; theft in the Soviet Union was not really a “crime,” in terms of how citizens themselves saw it: without theft, one would not survive. But I don’t feel like plagiarism can be only explained by that; there are other aspects that I want to look at.

I will start from the end: a lion’s share of commentaries in which people defended those who were caught plagiarizing was a certain type of misplaced compassion: “So he did. Mistake, what’s the big deal, just tell him about this quietly, no reason to make such a big deal out of it”. Sometimes the comments are even more dramatic: “Don’t push him towards a breakdown”. In the meantime, the person himself will be complaining online about the “mob” that is there to “get him”. We have an interesting set of discourses here. First of all, it’s the sense of a clan, belonging to an “inner” circle – an important structure in the Soviet times. Here we can recall anything, from nepotism to Orwell and the Soviet Army with its vicious circles of officers who abused the soldiers but were never caught or prosecuted. The existence of such “inner circles” is the opposition to democracy and to justice.

As for the discourse of the “breakdown,” this is even more complex. I understood the meaning of the word “determined” only when I came to the USA to study. In the Soviet world, the notion meant nothing, and the only thing the word referenced was its very self or the myths of the “unbreakable Soviet person”. We were brought up reading myths about the early Soviet hero Pavka Korchagin, the protagonist of the novel by Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel Was Tempered, and the WWII soldier Alexandr Matrosov, who blocked the Nazi machine-gun with his body, as examples of determination and strength, but if we look at the narratives themselves, we can see a different picture. We see Pavka Korchagin who had no winter clothing or shoes, had a kitchen towel around his neck instead of a scarf, in one shoe, is working at the construction of a railway.

Of course, all he achieves is he falls very ill. All we were shown as “determination” turns out to be lack of professionalism, as well as examples of oversight and sadism. The same logic can be applied to the story with Matrosov: what kind of an army blocks machine-guns with alive humans? A Soviet person was a person of extremes, building railways with no shoes on, blocking weapons with bodies; but this person had no middle, no core, no balance. And yet, it is the core that holds you up. Instead, Soviets cultivated magical thinking and cargo cult: maybe something will come out of nothing, and why not? Can’t I conquer the skies with my wings made of wood?

Self-pity was one of the favorite sentiments. Nobody was so good at it as the Soviets. I read some of the posts of our Union of Writers members, and I am amazed at how much self-pity there is. They always complain: either they were not awarded a prize; or somebody they dislike was awarded the prize. At times I almost feel embarrassed for them: they are adults, and yet they get upset in a very childish way. A similar tone is present in the writings of the person who plagiarized and got caught: in their lamentations, they ask – couldn’t it have happened to anyone? The correct answer is no. It could never have happened to an adult who has a sense of dignity and self-worth. Yet Soviet life could not tolerate this. A Soviet person had to be kept in the state of eternal infantilism. Infantile people are easier to manage.

The favorite argument of the defenders of those who plagiarize was as follows: “Everybody does it. The whole system is corrupt, so why do we just talk about this one man?”. But this is a logical fallacy characteristic of the Soviet discourses that aimed at ensuring a mechanism for self-justification (“everybody informs about one’s neighbors”). Who is this “everybody”, though? There is nothing concrete in such proclamations. Merab Mamardashvili, a philosopher, used to say that devil plays us when we compromise the precision of our definitions. One important thing to note is that such discourses are very typical during any societal crises, and at times simply around the election periods.

Immediately before the elections of Donald Trump such moods were very common in society. “All candidates are equally awful”. As a result, now in the States, we have the president who cannot really lead the country, and who is more devoted to Putin and Manafort than to his own people. The mantra “all of them are corrupt”, however, was cited by young people as well, as if the society got an injection of indifference and cynicism. This is a great tactics for self-appeasing and for zombification; it is as if somebody said, relax, you are not in control of anything, all your actions are useless and will remain useless.

Core beliefs have a propensity to get absorbed very quickly, and in most cases, the process if not something one is aware of. One didn’t even have to have lived in the actual Soviet Union to absorb them. One may not have read about Pavka Korchagin, and yet still somehow ended up with this set of “magical heroism”. And these discourses form a person who cannot generate real determination; who would rather plagiarize than work independently; and who is somehow still expecting respect from the society, in accordance to the rules of a cargo cult. Crime and punishment approach here will not give any long-term results. It can only be intermediary. Crime (plagiarism) must be punished, but the approach itself does not offer any new beliefs. Only inner growth will ensure this. Ethics is not born out of fear.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat, as they say.

Oksana Lutsyshyna

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