The Question: What is ‘kompromat’?

BuzzFeed’s Trump dossier, with its allegations of Moscow hotel antics, depends on the Russian tactic of gathering compromising material to use in blackmail

Kompromat: Donald Trump at a Miss Universe party in Moscow in 2013. What he might have done in a hotel room there is nobody’s business except, perhaps, his wife’s. Photograph: Stoyan Vassev/Reuters

Kompromat: Donald Trump at a Miss Universe party in Moscow in 2013. What he might have done in a hotel room there is nobody’s business except, perhaps, his wife’s. Photograph: Stoyan Vassev/Reuters

 

What Donald Trump did or did not get up to in a Moscow hotel room in 2013 should be nobody’s business except, perhaps, his wife’s. But the explosive dossier published by BuzzFeed this week claims that the US president-elect was filmed in a surveillance operation by the FSB, Russia’s intelligence agency, and that what the tapes show is being used to control and blackmail him. In this scenario Trump’s alleged hotel-room antics become of concern to everyone. 

Although the dossier’s most serious details relate to alleged collusion between members of Trump’s extended campaign team and Russian intelligence officials, the lurid hotel allegations are a textbook case of kompromat, as the Russians call the collection of compromising material. 

It has a long history in the spy game, and it’s hardly a Russian invention: J Edgar Hoover’s FBI perfected the dark arts of compromise and blackmail, and MI6 has long had a flair for honeytraps. 

But Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has used kompromat ruthlessly. It’s worth bearing in mind that since he edged out Boris Yeltsin, at the turn of the century, the old Soviet intelligence apparatus effectively runs Russia without the hindrance of a communist politburo to restrain it. 

The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, a Russian native, has detailed Putin’s use of the tactic, including during his rise to power in 1999, when tape appearing to show the prosecutor general at the time, Yuri Skuratov, with two prostitutes was aired on Russian television in an effort to force him from office. He had been investigating the Yeltsin administration for corruption. 

Since then Putin has used kompromat as a matter of course. Members of the Russian opposition, journalists and foreign diplomats have all been stung; in 2009 video of a US diplomat with a sex worker appeared online. 

Whatever the truth of the unverifiable Trump dossier, the scenario it describes is very much in keeping with the FSB’s tactics. And, perhaps most damagingly for Trump, most people feel that the account is very much in keeping with his behaviour as well.

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