How state-sponsored blackmail works in Russia

Julia Ioffe writes: In January 1999, Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov was summoned to the Kremlin by then-President Boris Yeltsin’s chief of staff, who showed him a videotape of “a man who looked like” Skuratov frolicking in bed with two prostitutes. Then he asked Skuratov to resign, even though the prosecutor was in the middle of investigating Yeltsin’s administration for taking bribes from a Swiss firm trying to secure lucrative contracts for Kremlin renovations. It was a grainy tape and Skuratov would later say it was fake, but he submitted his resignation nonetheless.

What happened next was one of the most decisive battles in determining who would replace Yeltsin when his second presidential term expired in 2000. Skuratov’s resignation had to be confirmed by the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament — back when it had not yet become a Kremlin rubber stamp. The Federation Council balked and asked Skuratov to testify, but the day before he appeared on the floor, RTR TV ran the tape on its evening news, calling the segment “Three in a Bed.” When the Federation Council continued to resist the Kremlin, and Skuratov tried to go back to work as if nothing happened, the tape was played on TV again, this time on the program of the notorious media hit man Sergei Dorenko. Allowing children to see the tape, Dorenko said, would make it harder for parents to raise them patriotically; this was, after all, the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, “not Mick Jagger, who can run around the beach with a naked behind.”

The tape is rumored to have been delivered personally to the head of RTR by “a man who looked like the head of the FSB,” who at the time was none other than Vladimir Putin.

Soon afterward, on April 7, 1999, Putin went on TV himself to claim the tape authentic — that the “man who looked like” Skuratov was indeed Skuratov — and called not only for Skuratov’s resignation, but for a more robust criminal investigation.

All this is noteworthy not only because this was one of Putin’s key steps toward the presidential throne, but because this dark and convoluted chapter of contemporary Russian history is also, however amazingly, now relevant reading for understanding contemporary American history. Now that Buzzfeed has released a dossier compiled by a private intelligence company, with unverified allegations that the FSB has a video of Donald Trump with prostitutes in the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013, America has entered uniquely Russian territory. (I should add that I, like many other journalists, was approached over the summer with the story of the prostitutes and could not verify it.)

In any case, welcome to the world of kompromat, America. [Continue reading…]

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