In Russian culture, kompromat, short for "compromising material" (Russian: компрометирующий материал, romanized: komprometiruyushchy material), is damaging information about a politician, a businessperson, or other public figure, used to create negative publicity, as well as for blackmail and extortion. Kompromat may be acquired from various security services, or outright forged, and then publicized by use of a public relations official. Widespread use of kompromat has been one of the characteristic features of the politics of Russia and other post-Soviet states.
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The term kompromat is a borrowing of the Russian KGB slang term компромат from the Stalin era, which is short for "compromising material" (Russian: компрометирующий материал, romanized: komprometiruyushchy material). It refers to disparaging information that can be collected, stored, traded, or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, professional, judicial, media, and business. The origins of the term trace back to 1930s secret police jargon.
In the early days, kompromat featured doctored photographs, planted drugs, grainy videos of liaisons with prostitutes hired by the KGB, and a wide range of other primitive entrapment techniques. More contemporary forms of kompromat appear as a form of cybercrime. One aspect of kompromat that stands the test of time is that the compromising information is often sexual in nature.
Kompromat is part of the political culture in Russia, with many members of the business and political elite having collected and stored potentially compromising material on their political opponents. Kompromat does not necessarily target individuals or groups, but rather collects information that could be useful at a later time. Compromising videos are often produced long in advance of when leverage over people is needed.
Opposition research is conducted in the U.S. to find compromising material on political opponents so that such material may be released to weaken those opponents. Some contend that Kompromat differs from opposition research, in that such information is used to exert influence over people rather than to simply win elections. Nevertheless, compromising material uncovered by opposition research need not be used in only legal or ethical ways. It can be used to exert influence over Western leaders just as surely as it can be used to exert influence over Russian leaders. Moreover, whether there is a moral difference between using unlawfully or unethically acquired compromising material to advance one's political interests as opposed to one's monetary interests or other personal interests, is a debatable matter.
In the 1950s, British civil servant John Vassall was a victim of a gay honey trap operation, producing kompromat which could be used against him since homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time. During a 1957 visit to Moscow, American journalist Joseph Alsop also fell victim to a gay honey trap operation conducted by the KGB.
In 1997, Valentin Kovalyov was removed as the Russian Minister of Justice after photographs of him with prostitutes in a sauna controlled by the Solntsevskaya Bratva crime organization were published in a newspaper. In 1999, a video aired with a man resembling Yury Skuratov in bed with two women that later would lead to his dismissal as Prosecutor General of Russia. It was released after he began looking into charges of corruption by President Boris Yeltsin and his associates.
In August 2009, videos allegedly released by the FSB purportedly featured American diplomat Brendan Kyle Hatcher making telephone calls, presumably to a prostitute, then engaging in sexual activity with a woman. The United States Department of State protested that it was a doctored, unproven tape. In April 2010, politician Ilya Yashin and comedian Victor Shenderovich were involved in a sex scandal with a woman claimed to have acted as a Kremlin honey trap to discredit opposition figures. The video was released only two days before the wedding of Shenderovich's daughter.
In cases of kompromat during the early 21st century, Russian operatives have been suspected, or accused of, placing child pornography on the personal computers of individuals they were attempting to discredit. In 2015, the UK's Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would prosecute Vladimir Bukovsky for "prohibited images" found on his computer; however, the case against Bukovshy had been put on hold as investigators are trying to determine whether the pornographic images were planted.
Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it emerged on 10 January 2017, that U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating possibly compromising personal and financial information on President-elect Donald Trump, leading to allegations that he and members of his administration may be vulnerable to manipulation by the Russian government.
At a joint press conference on 16 July 2018 both Trump and Putin were asked point blank whether Russia had kompromat on Trump. Neither answered "no". Putin responded:
Yeah, I did hear these rumours that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr Trump when he was visiting Moscow. Well, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Trump was in Moscow back then, I didn't even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with the utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow... Well, let's take St. Petersburg Economic Forum, for instance, There were over 500 American businessmen, high-ranking, high-level ones. I don't even remember the last names of each and every one of them. Well, do you remember -- do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them? Well, it's difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this. Well, please, just disregard these issues and don't think about this anymore again.
Trump answered "If they had it, it would have been out long ago."
British Labour Party MP Chris Bryant, an ex-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Russia, who claims that the Russian government orchestrated a homophobic campaign to remove him from this position, has claimed that the Russian government has acquired kompromat on high-profile Conservative Party MPs including Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Alan Duncan, and David Davis. Following a 2016 phone call between incoming-U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn allegedly lied to the White House on the extent of those contacts placing him in a position vulnerable to blackmail. According to congressional testimony delivered by former Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, the Department of Justice believed that "General Flynn was compromised," and placed Flynn in “a situation where the national-security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
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Kompromat has become a part of the political culture in Russia. Nearly everyone within Russia’s business and political elite has at one time or another collected and stored potentially compromising material on their political opponents for future use. Kompromat can be real or fabricated, and generally involves drugs, prostitutes, sexual escapades, sleazy business deals, illicit financial schemes, or embezzlement.
- Woolf, Christopher (11 January 2017). "Moscow's long history of gathering 'kompromat'". Minneapolis: Public Radio International. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
“Kompromat,” says David Filipov, “means 'compromising material' that can be used down the road as leverage over somebody. [...] “This was something former KGB officers were telling us here,” adds Filipov, “they’re not necessarily targeting you. You show up and they say, let’s just see what this guy does. So they’ll record you, they’ll do surveillance, see what you’re up to. Some stuff gets in a file and maybe they can use it, maybe they can’t use it.
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- Osborn, Andrew (28 April 2010). "Amateur model known as 'Katya' revealed as Russian honey trap bait". Daily Telegraph. London: Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 11 January 2017.
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- Myre, Greg (11 January 2017). "A Russian Word Americans Need To Know: 'Kompromat'". All Things Considered. Washington D.C. National Public Radio. A Russian Word Americans Need To Know: 'Kompromat'. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
In other recent cases, Russian operatives have been suspected or accused of placing child pornography on the personal computers of individuals they were attempting to discredit. Russian Vladimir Bukovsky, 73, a longtime critic of Soviet and Russian leaders, now lives in Britain, where he faces charges related to child pornography. But the case was delayed while investigators checked to see whether the images on Bukovsky's computer were placed there by an outside party, The New York Times reported last month, citing other similar cases.
- "Vladimir Bukovsky to be prosecuted over indecent images of children". Crown Prosecution Service. 27 April 2015. Retrieved 11 January 2017.
- Nelson, Eliot; Young, Jeffrey (10 January 2017). "Kompromat? More Like KomproMAGA!". The Huffington Post. Oath. Retrieved 11 January 2017.
- "Trump says Russian 'kompromat' claims are fake". Financial Times. London: Nikkei. 11 January 2017. Retrieved 11 January 2017.
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- Wright, Austin (8 May 2017). "Sally Yates: 'We believed that Gen. Flynn was compromised'". Politico. Arlington: Capitol News Company. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
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