Understanding the use of Kompromat in Russian Politics: An Excerpt from Alena V. Ledeneva’s “How Russia Really Works”

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“To keep kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep kompromat on friends is a must.”

The word kompromat has no direct equivalent in English. Its literal translation—“compromising material”—refers to discrediting information that can be collected, stored, traded, or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, professional, judicial, media, or business. A recent dictionary of contemporary terminology defines kompromat as an abbreviated term for disparaging documents on a person subject to investigation, suspicion, or blackmail, derived from 1930s secret police jargon. In its contemporary context, the term is strongly associated with kompromat wars—intrigues exercised through the release of often unsubstantiated or unproven information (documents, materials)—which are damaging for all those involved.


The term is strongly associated with kompromat wars—intrigues exercised through the release of often unsubstantiated or unproven information—which are damaging for all those involved.


Hungarian sociologist Akos Szilagyi defines kompromat as the publication (or blackmail with the threat of publication) of information, documents, evidence, and revelations that are related to a genre of denunciation (donos), exposure/unmasking (razoblachenie), slander (kleveta), and allegations that can destroy or neutralize political opponents or business competitors. He notes that kompromat is associated with political indecency, and points to the double meaning of the suffix mat, which is an abbreviation of the Russian word materialy (materials) as well as a Russian word for “swear language.” In English, the essence of kompromat is best grasped by the phrase “blackmail files” that are gathered or fabricated for political or business purposes.

Typology of Kompromat

To understand the logics of this diverse phenomenon, it is helpful to identify four “ideal types” of kompromat. When we look at real-life cases of kompromat used against rivals, it is clear that these four categories are primarily analytical: few cases can be defined as belonging exclusively to a single type, while a serious and sustained attack on a politician tends to make use of all types.

The first type of kompromat consists of revelations about an individual’s political activities, including abuse of office and power, relations with oligarchs, the disclosure of secret information, political incompetence, and political disloyalty.

The second type of kompromat concerns a politician’s disreputable, often illegal, economic activities, which could include any one or a number of the following: misappropriation of budget funds, embezzlement, shady bank deals, improprieties in the privatization process, offshore activity, capital flight, the holding of foreign bank accounts, involvement in illegal financial schemes, cronyism and nepotism, inappropriate or illegal election campaign financing, preferential treatment in business deals or contracts, and, most obvious, the giving and accepting of bribes.


Kompromat displays some of its discrediting potential when published, but its powerful unpublished form is used for bargaining and is most difficult to scrutinize.


The third type of kompromat involves criminal activities, including ties to organized crime, contract killings and violence, spying and tapping, and blackmail.

The fourth type of kompromat consists of revelations about private life, including details of illegitimate income or fees, property and possessions, extravagant spending habits, sexual behavior, sexual orientation, cultural or religious background, beliefs and ideology, health or age, and misdemeanors by family members.

Kompromat as a Bargaining Strategy and as an Instrument for Informal Persuasion

One of the post-Soviet wisdoms, reflecting the high-risk environment, is “To keep kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep kompromat on friends is a must” (Latynina 1999). Kompromat displays some of its discrediting potential when published, but it is its power in unpublished form that is used for bargaining and is most difficult to scrutinize. Unpublished kompromat files serve to threaten or exert pressure on opponents in classic blackmail scenarios where revelation or publication poses such a threat that opponents will alter their behavior in return for the nondisclosure. Kompromat of this kind is difficult to trace, although it often surfaces in print at a later date. Chrystia Freeland quotes one oligarch describing the kompromat-centered nature of political power in Russia by admitting that Yeltsin’s bodyguard and a chief of the Kremlin security force, Aleksander Korzhakov, had a very important function.


kompromat strategies are not based on the actual exposure but on the exploitation of the bargaining power of a threat of exposure.


People feared him and that fear, which is part of the Russian political tradition, in many ways anchored the vertical power structure of the state. Korzhakov collected dirt; he knew who every governor was sleeping with, who was paying him bribes and so forth. May be this was a stupid, pig-headed way to influence the regional authorities, but it worked. If some governor tried to do something against the Kremlin, Korzhakov would just say, “Look, I am just going to throw you in jail and only then will we start worrying about whether it was legal or not.”

Schelling, in his discussion of “the strategy of conflict,” stresses the point that it “is not concerned with the efficient application of force, but with the exploitation of potential force” or “the employment of threats.” Here, there is a common interest as well as conflict among participants, where “the best course of action for each player depends on what the other players do. . . . and on their expectations about each other’s behavior.” Thus, “winning” in the blackmail context, characterized by the impossibility of appeal to a higher authority for enforcement of the law, does not have a strictly competitive meaning. Success can be achieved by bargaining, mutual accommodation, or the avoidance of mutually damaging behavior. At this stage, kompromat strategies are not based on the actual exposure but on the exploitation of the bargaining power of a threat of exposure.

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Understanding the use of Kompromat in Russian Politics: An Excerpt from Alena V. Ledeneva’s “How Russia Really Works”