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The Case of the Holy Fraudster

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Volume 28.2, March / April 2004

The next World Skeptics Congress will be held October 8-10, 2004, in Italy (for more information, see www.cicap.org/congress). For this reason, I am devoting four columns to popular Italian mysteries; the previous one was on a very special liquefying blood. Should you come to the Congress, you could also take advantage of your trip to visit these famous enigmas.

One of Italy’s most famous “enigmas” certainly is Turin’s Holy Shroud. This cloth, that allegedly covered the body of Jesus Christ and retained a mysterious negative image of it, has attracted incredible controversy, especially after carbon 14 dating in 1988 revealed that the cloth had a Medieval origin, in agreement with the date of its first appearance (circa 1350, in Lirey near Troyes, France). Believers in the supernatural nature of the image on the cloth have always maintained that “somehow” the dating had to be wrong.

Their hopes were apparently met when a Russian researcher, Dmitri A. Kouznetsov, revealed he had found proof that an ancient fire had probably modified the carbon content of the cloth, thus altering any subsequent attempt in dating it. Kouznetsov’s claims were enough to have the believers say that his work was further proof of the authenticity of the Shroud.

The Unmaking of a Creationist

Many readers of this magazine may recall Kouznetsov. Born in 1955, he worked as a biologist in Moscow until 1989, when he abruptly ended his career in biology. Since 1983, he has been an active creationist. He was associated with the Institute for Creation Research, located near San Diego, California, the Slavic Gospel Association, and other similar associations. He was connected with American creationists such as Duane Gish and Henry Morris.

In 1989, he published a paper in the International Journal of Neuroscience (IJN) (49, 43-59), where he claimed he had found experimental proof in favor of creationist theses. The paper launched him into an immediate international career as a creationist propagandist. He toured the United States, lecturing about the biological proofs of creationism and published several papers in creationist journals.

In 1994, a Swedish biologist, Professor Dan Larhammar of Uppsala University, examined Kouznetsov’s 1989 paper in the IJN (77, 199-201). Apart from criticizing the contents, he discovered that eight key references in the bibliography referred to nonexistent papers in nonexistent journals. A recent check by Italian researcher Gian Marco Rinaldi revealed that the number of references to nonexistent papers is probably around fifty. Larhammar published his criticism in a note in the same journal (1994) and subsequently summarized it in Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 1995). The whole story of the faked references was also told in 1995 in the Australian journal The Skeptic.

For a while, Kouznetsov was embroiled in the scandal. The creationist associations that had promoted him publicly dissociated themselves from him. Kouznetsov’s career as a creationist ended in 1995.

However, the man was not done-he was in fact starting an entirely new career as a specialist in archaeological chemistry. During the very same months when the creationist scandal erupted, he was able to publish, in important chemical and archaeological journals, no less than nine papers related to the Shroud of Turin.

Friend and colleague Gian Marco Rinaldi has recently conducted the most in-depth investigation on Kouznetsov’s claims ever attempted and has come up with a series of startling discoveries. Right from the start, clear evidence pointing to serious fraud emerged. Though Rinaldi kept Kouznetsov at least partially informed about this inquiry, the Russian researcher has not yet replied to several letters sent to him.

The Making of a Sindonologist

Kouznetsov’s new career as a “sindonologist” was originated by Guy Berthault, a wealthy French creationist known for financing work in various fields of unusual research. Kouznetsov met Berthault for the first time at a creationist conference in England in 1992 and, from then on, in almost all of his papers, Kouznetsov thanks Berthault for his financial support.

Kouznetsov first appeared among sindonologists at a conference in Rome in 1993. Between 1994 and 1996, he published nine papers in qualified chemical or archaeological journals, where, more or less directly, he claimed to have provided experimental proof for the thesis that the composition of carbon isotopes in the linen cellulose can be altered as an effect of various factors, thus explaining the results of the 1988 dating. The obvious consequence, he claimed, was that the Shroud may be much older than established by the laboratories; indeed, it may be 2,000 years old. Until very recently, in sindonological publications (especially in Italy) he has been hailed as sort of saviour for the Shroud of Turin.

In 1997, however, he met with a misadventure in the United States, where he was jailed for bad checks in Connecticut and imprisoned for five months. By accepting a six-month rehabilitation program, he was freed and avoided trial.

After this episode, he returned to Moscow, but began to lose the confidence of his former supporters. The corpus of his publications connected with the Shroud and published in qualified scientific journals amounts to ten papers, all coauthored with his friend Andrey Ivanov. Nine of the papers were produced during several months in 1994. Actually, they are just three papers, cloned to nine by multiple publication. Rinaldi carefully examined each one, every single quotation, reference, publication, and affiliation given in them.

All papers are experimental studies of chemical modifications in the cellulose of linen textiles: a natural modification (alkylation) simply due to aging (groups 1 and 4, as listed in the references), or an induced modification due to ventilation (that is, to microorganisms brought on the textile from the atmosphere) (group 2), or to heating (group 3). The chemical modification of cellulose is the requisite to his thesis that the carbon isotopes composition of the shroud has changed as a consequence of aging, of microbial action, and of heating (due to a fire that nearly burned the shroud in 1532). The thesis sounds unrealistic and the results of his experiments look very odd. Rinaldi’s suspicions of fraud, however, are based on indirect clues, independent of the claimed experimental results.

On the Tracks of a Fraudster

In all of the papers, the author’s affiliation is to “E.A. [or S.A.] Sedov Biopolymer Research Laboratories” in Moscow. According to Kouznetsov himself, this was a private laboratory-of which he was the director-that was active between 1992 and 1998. It appears that no other research papers with this affiliation have ever been published in chemical literature. But things get darker.

Kouznetsov’s last paper (4) is a report of an experimental study on four ancient samples, of various ages, of burial linen of Irish provenance. Kouznetsov claims that the four samples were donated to him by a private foundation and by two private individuals in Ireland, and mentions two Irish consultants. For three pieces of the burial linen, he mentions the names of historical people who were buried in the tombs.

With the collaboration of a number of people in Ireland (among them archaeologists and local historians), Rinaldi has collected strong evidence that Kouznetsov has never been supplied with any of the samples. The Irish donors and consultants do not exist, and the sites and tombs have not been excavated or do not exist anymore. Since the paper is a report of experiments on just those four samples, then if the samples do not exist, it becomes clear that Kouznetsov has never done any experiments and has fabricated the whole report out of his own imagination.

In an independent inquiry, the officers of the Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin, whom Rinaldi had alerted, reached the same conclusions: Kouznetsov could not possibly have obtained the samples of ancient Irish textiles.

In the acknowledgements to his paper, Kouznetsov thanks eleven people from eight American universities. At least six of these universities have never had the claimed persons on their staff. Two of the universities have not yet answered, but in both cases their Web sites list all the names of their staff and the names listed by Kouznetsov are not present.

One key reference is to a paper from the Proceedings of the Georgian Academy of Science. From Tbilisi, Rinaldi was informed that the paper does not exist in any of their publications and that the names of the three authors are not known.

Prompted by the results of the Irish investigation, Rinaldi turned his attention to a group of papers (1) where Kouznetsov reports about similar experiments on the chemistry of cellulose in fifteen samples of ancient textiles of various ages. Fourteen samples, so he claimed, had been supplied by six museums in Russia (two in Moscow and one in Vladimir), the Ukraine (Simpheropol and Ternopil), and Uzbekistan (Samarkand). He gives the name (not the street address) and the city for each museum, and, moreover, he mentions the names of the directors or curators whom he thanks in the acknowledgements for having supplied the samples.

Rinaldi has obtained evidence that these museums do not exist. As to the two museums in Moscow, things aren't clear, since in the city there are hundreds of museums, and it seems that nobody has the complete list. Correspondents from Russia cannot confirm the existence of those particular museums. Kouznetsov’s experiments, as he describes them, are not done on single samples but are comparisons among several samples of different ages, and lacking the samples from four of the museums, he could not have done the experiments. In Moscow, an archeologist in correspondence with Rinaldi asked Kouznetsov about his faked claims, but he was unable to answer.

Two other papers (2) are reports of comparisons between experiments performed in two different geographical locations, Moscow and Krasnodar. Kouznetsov and two coauthors worked in Moscow; two other coauthors worked concurrently in Krasnodar. These latter two coauthors are indicated as affiliated to a "Krasnodar Center for Environmental Studies, University of Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar-2,” but the complete address (with street name) is not given.

Rinaldi suspected that this Krasnodar Center and its two authors did not exist. He lacked contacts in southern Russia, and for this part of the inquiry much help was given by Odile Eisenstein of the University of Montpellier, France. She was the editor-in-chief of the New Journal of Chemistry at the time of publication of one of the papers (2a). From the information she collected and from further investigative work it appears that the “Krasnodar Center for Environmental Studies” does not exist.

The groups of papers labeled (2) and (3, except for 3a) contain results of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) measurements on carbon isotopes. Kouznetsov claims that the AMS work was done in Protvino (near Moscow). Rinaldi’s investigative work on these was very long and difficult, but in the end it appears that even the laboratory quoted by Kouznetsov is fictitious. The AMS work, for example, is credited to a Ivan Shevardin and a Sergey Bakhroushin, neither of whom seems to be a familiar name among the international AMS community. Furthermore, it appears that AMS measurements were not available in Russia in 1994 (and still weren't in 2001).

Conclusions

Rinaldi painstakingly conducted a fascinating investigation which takes more than forty pages in Scienza & Paranormale (43, May/June 2002), the magazine of CICAP, the Italian skeptics. It is impossible here to give all the details of this incredible episode, but from what we have seen already it appears that the famous experiments that seemed to “save” the Shroud were a complete fabrication. Kouznetsov was repeatedly invited to defend himself, but so far he has refused to do so. Meanwhile, the sindonologists are quietly removing any reference to his work from their Web sites and papers. Does this mean that they now accept the 1988 carbon dating?

Notes

Below is an email written to Barry Karr, Executive Director of CSI, regarding this article.

Dear Mr. Karr,

Below is a link to an article entitled “Notes on a Strange World— The Case of the Holy Fraudster.” I was alerted to this article through “Google Alerts.” Our organization is mentioned in connection with the subject of the article, a Russian researcher named Dmitri Kouznetsov, specifically that he is “associated” with Slavic Gospel Association.

This man has never worked for our organization, and was never “associated” with him in any formal way. After checking our records and with those who were in leadership at the time, the only possible link is that he might have been interviewed long ago on one of our Russian-language radio programs dealing with creation, just as a news media agency would interview someone for a story. That, and that alone, is the extent of our involvement with him.

I would appreciate some sort of correction or clarification.

Thanks in advance for your help and cooperation.

Sincerely,

Joel Griffith
Slavic Gospel Association

References

(1) Group of “aging” papers:

(2) Group of “ventilation” papers:

(3) Group of “heating” papers:

(4) Studies in Conservation (London), 45, 2000, 117-26

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at www.massimopolidoro.com.