Christian Caryl writes: In 1999, Russia’s prosecutor general — the rough equivalent of a U.S. attorney general — vowed to investigate corruption allegations involving the family of then-President Boris Yeltsin.
Then a funny thing happened. Russian TV began showing grainy video footage of the prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, cavorting in the nude with two young women. Some observers expressed skepticism that the man in the video was actually Skuratov. But any doubts were put to rest by the head of Russia’s internal security service, who declared that his agency’s experts had confirmed the prosecutor’s identity. The man who made the statement was Vladimir Putin, and his words sealed Skuratov’s political fate. The corruption probe faded away, and a few months later a grateful Yeltsin appointed Putin to the office of prime minister, and later as his own successor.
Blackmail exists everywhere, of course. But nowhere else has it become such a prominent part of political life as in post-Soviet Russia. In the wild 1990s, the gray men of the old KGB sold their talents to the highest bidders, and plenty were willing to bid: newly minted millionaires, would-be politicians, mobsters. Countless private security services competed to see who could produce the dirtiest dirt, and journalists — another feature of a strange new world of turbulent freedom — were happy to publish what they dug up.
Putin learned well. As president he soon cracked down on both the freelance spies and the journalists, but he never forgot his early lessons about the uses of kompromat, from the Russian for “compromising material.” Discrediting an enemy, he realized, can be far more effective than throwing them in jail, so the culture of kompromat has continued to thrive under his rule — though it’s now primarily deployed in the services of the Russian state. [Continue reading…]