All entries for Monday 16 January 2017

January 16, 2017

Kompromat: it’s What We Don’t Know, Not What We Know

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The Steele memorandum, with its lurid tales of Donald Trump and “golden showers,” has put kompromat in the news.

Kompromat is the Russian term, a colloquial abbreviation, for “compromising evidence.” When did it arise? Sometimes there's the impression that it is a recent thing – a feature of post-Soviet Russia. Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the KGB, describes kompromat as “a tactic to smear one’s opponents in the media” that “came into use in Russia in the late 1990s.” Likewise, Julia Joffe links kompromat to cases that became frequent in Russia in the 1990s, involving what Russians call “black PR” – the use of real or faked evidence of wrong doing to discredit political opponents in the public arena.

It’s true that, to judge from the Google Ngram viewer, kompromat was completely unknown until the mid-1980s, when Soviet censorship collapsed, and its use became widespread only in the 1990s. (The figure below shows both the abbreviated and unabbreviated forms of kompromat; they show similar patterns. I can't explain the spikes during World War II; they might just be a random consequence of relatively few books entering the Google Books corpus from that time.)

But this pattern also reflects the limitation to published print media. For the first seventy years of its life the term kompromat was used very widely, but only by Soviet government and party officials in the secret documentation that can now be found in archives. In Soviet times, kompromat denoted the security files that documented the political crimes, misdemeanours, and faults of the citizens. In this sense its use goes back almost a century. The Soviet secret police was founded in 1918, and it began storing kompromat as soon as the circumstances of civil war allowed it to turn from killing people to recording their weaknesses.

Here’s an example. You’re following suspect A, let’s say, someone who is suspected of passing information to foreigners. In the street, A greets a stranger, who now becomes suspect B. Someone else will now follow suspect B and identify him. After that, the officer in charge will write a note to KGB records: “Is there kompromat on B?” And the answer will come back, yes or no. If no, too bad. If yes, it might be that B listens to Western radio, or sends letters abroad, or comes from a family that once had property, or is Jewish, or gets drunk and, when drunk, is liable to curse the communist party and its leaders. For any of these is a sign that B might hold a grudge against the political and social order and should therefore be considered potentially disloyal.

Now, suppose there does exist kompromat on B. The question is, what do you do now? In the Soviet practice of kompromat the answer is that you do not, under any circumstances, take it to the media. On the contrary, you file it and store it.

In Soviet times, kompromat had a mass application and a targeted application. The mass application was to grade people in very large numbers. Then, when someone sought promotion at work, or entry to higher education, or a foreign trip, the KGB would check its files for kompromat, and the files would tell it whether to say yes or no. The evidence would never be disclosed. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Soviet citizens understood the importance of not accumulating kompromat, and this influenced their behaviour in ways that were favourable to the stability of the regime.

Kompromat had a more targeted use. Although arguably of less importance in history than its mass application, this is the meaning of kompromat that is of greater interest today.

In cases where an individual person such as B was targeted, the kompromat would be useful, not when it was published to punish or discredit B, but because it was kept secret. And, used in this way, kompromat had the magical quality that it could turn people who might otherwise have been reluctant or recalcitrant into productive material for the regime.

Kompromat in this sense is blackmail, but no money changes hands. You would use the kompromat to persuade B to cooperate in your task, whatever that might be: for example, you might recruit him as an informer. You would apply the pressure slowly, over a long period of time, and during all this time the kompromat would remain secret, and would never be disclosed, but would be a gift that keeps giving.

This principle was applied not only in police matters, but more widely in politics. The party boss must promote one of two subordinates. Which should he choose, the one that is clean, or the one with a flawed past, documented by kompromat? The choice was clear. The untainted subordinate could become a rival; better promote the one the boss could control, the one who was obligated to the boss by his silence. In a low-trust organization, in other words, kompromat is the key that guarantees loyalty.

In these cases, you can see, the moment the targeted kompromat reaches the public, it loses its power to control the target, for that power lies in secrecy. You promise to keep the information secret while B works with you and your organization. You have given B something to lose. Hold the kompromat forever, and forever your collaborator will be obligated to you.

Today’s use of kompromat to cover the publication of discreditable information – real or fake – is, in comparison, a break with its traditional meaning. To hold kompromat is to hope that the target, the person on whom kompromat is held, might one day be useful. The dissemination of kompromat signals that you’ve given up that hope. The target has nothing left to lose, and can no longer be manipulated.

Here’s the bottom line. To read discreditable stories about our leaders is a worry. We should worry about these stories and try to evaluate them carefully, as best we can. But don’t worry about the stories too much. If they’re false, we should discard them, and, if they’re true, at least we know.

And we know, also, that kompromat that is published is spent and has no more value. The kompromat that still has value, that retains its magical power to induce cooperation, is the kompromat that is held back. If you like to lie awake at night and worry pointlessly about who is manipulating our leaders, you should think about the kompromat that we don’t know and will never hear. As I said, it's pointless.

PS Lots more like this in my book of stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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