In early January 2017, BuzzFeed published a leaked document that, among other things, claimed Russian authorities have “kompromat” (compromising materials) on President-elect Donald Trump. Whether the kompromat exists, the term has entered the public discourse.
Those who study post-Soviet regimes are not surprised to see this type of report. In fact, kompromat and blackmail are par for the course in Russia and post-Soviet states. Politicians consider political rumors and scandals, commonly discussed in the media, a legitimate strategy to attack opponents.
Kompromat is part of political life
My research on the effect of technology on kompromat looks at how rumors and scandals are ingrained in post-Soviet politics. This happens for two reasons. First, regimes control the mainstream media in Russia and many post-Soviet states. Without free and competitive alternative media sources, questioning a rumor’s validity is virtually impossible.
Second, citizens in authoritarian states are in a constant state of uncertainty about any information. The consistent denial of “the truth” compounds the situation — people consider even the most implausible or illogical rumors as potentially true.
Rumors gain legitimacy with evidence — and that’s where kompromat comes in. The Soviet-era KGB collected kompromat to blackmail politically active citizens. This was a tedious, costly analogue process involving phone tapping, stakeouts, following people, and lots of photography and videotaping.
Entering a private home to install surveillance equipment could be challenging. Hotel rooms, on the other hand, were consistently bugged and monitored.
Now anyone can play this game
But as I document in my 2015 paper, kompromat became democratized in the post-Soviet era — when private individuals got involved in intelligence gathering.
Tens of thousands of former KGB officers were released from their positions with, as researcher Alena Ledeneva describes it, only one skill: informational violence. Many started up private blackmail firms at the service of oligarchs, Russia’s newly rich and powerful business magnates.
As these private kompromat collectors still had ties with the KGB, there was much trading of kompromat between the private and government sectors. And legal changes gave a much wider range of actors the ability to tap phone lines and monitor private activities.
And many post-Soviet leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, were KGB-trained. Like the private blackmail firms, they continue to have access to materials and skilled individuals to carry out this surveillance work.
Technologies changed dramatically — and so did the kompromat
In the 2000s, technological advances — particularly small, cheap, remote, automated, continuous and real-time recording devices — revolutionized the dirty data-collection business. Even less notorious enemies and critics of the state might become targets, given the increased affordability of such technologies.
Installing these new devices still requires entering private residences, but the setup is both easy and quick. This video (starting at 35 seconds and at 1:15) shows how quickly two cameras were installed inside of the apartment of an Azerbaijani investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova.
Ismayilova, a vocal critic of the regime, was filmed having sex in a private residence throughout 2011 and 2012 and then began receiving blackmail notes, warning her to leave or face the leak of embarrassing information. She refused to bend, and her blackmailer discredited her by releasing the sex scenes online over a two-year period.
Hotel rooms offer easy targets
Hotel surveillance remains the norm in post-Soviet states. Potential targets, including foreigners, are placed into specific rooms with surveillance equipment. In Azerbaijan, two journalists who opposed the regime were blackmailed in separate incidents. In each case, sexually explicit hotel room footage was used as blackmail, and the video was later widely distributed.
In 2013, an American citizen, formerly a citizen of Azerbaijan with a history of criticizing the regime, got the same treatment. This person was filmed having sex in a hotel room and was later blackmailed, and the video was distributed online in 2014 after a week of interrogations by the intelligence services.
Technology like Photoshop also allows believable kompromat to be created far more easily than before. In the Soviet era, fabricated kompromat was in the hands of professionals — and was prohibitively expensive for all but the highest-priority blackmailing.
Kompromat is democratized by social media
Social media users create their own daily repositories of information that can be potentially used as blackmail. It could be a “friend” taking a screenshot of a potentially scandalous photo, or self-generated kompromat, including data collected by malware or a website’s monitoring services — there’s plenty of potential material for blackmailers. In Azerbaijan, printouts of private social media messages are distributed as kompromat and used as evidence during interrogations.
A final way kompromat has been democratized reflects the widespread affordability of and access to the Internet. In the 1990s, an individual seeking to discredit a rival could place a compromising news article in the most popular Russian daily newspaper, paying between $8,000 and $30,000 for it. Ledeneva’s book notes a television story to disgrace someone could cost between $20,000 and $100,000.
Media owners were hesitant to publish such material because of fear of libel and lack of source attribution. So blackmailers would first publish the story in an obscure regional newspaper — then the national media outlet would attribute to that account. When the offended party wanted to sue, the small regional newspaper, the “source,” often had conveniently gone out of business.
Comparatively, the Internet is paradise for kompromat distribution, offering reduced concerns about libel. The Internet offers anonymity and makes it difficult to attribute sources. And there’s an easy, fast and cheap way to distribute content to a wide audience.
Is this the golden age of kompromat, then? Anyone can collect it, create it and distribute it in post-Soviet regimes. And it appears that no one is immune — perhaps not even the president of the United States. So while the alleged kompromat on Donald Trump may or may not exist, it is quite likely that any of his activities in Russia — scandalous or not — were recorded.
Katy Pearce is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington and studies technology and inequality in the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter @katypearce.