What to Do When the Russian Government Wants to Blackmail You

Russian officials have a long history of using compromising material, or kompromat, as a weapon against political opponents.

Screens show live footage from polling stations in Moscow during Russia's 2012 elections.
Screens show live footage from polling stations in Moscow during Russia's 2012 elections. (Mikhail Voskresenskiy / Reuters)

MOSCOW—From Jeff Bezos’s allegations of extortion and blackmail by the National Enquirer, a publication with links to President Donald Trump, to Trump’s relations with the Kremlin, one particular word has gained prominence, and it’s not even an English one.

Opponents of the government here in Moscow are well versed in the risk of their foibles and vices—from hidden-camera footage of them in bed with lovers to secretly recorded conversations—being used as compromising material, a practice better known by the Russian portmanteau kompromat.

Kompromat is a weapon often aimed at public critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But what do they do when they find it being used against them?

Here’s what some have tried.

Go on the Offense

In August 2008, Ilya Yashin, then a 25-year-old leader of the opposition youth group Yabloko, met with two young women and later went on a couple of dates with one of them. At one point, his date brought Yashin back to a Moscow apartment where the other woman was waiting. Yashin had sex with the two women, but when they offered him cocaine and showed off several sex toys, Yashin, sensing something was amiss, declined their offer and left.

Nearly two years later, Yashin saw a video posted online in which Mikhail Fishman, then the editor of Newsweek’s Russian-language edition, was captured snorting cocaine in the presence of a naked woman—the same woman whom Yashin had gone on the date with.

“I made a decision,” Yashin told me, “to publish a detailed account of everything that happened in that apartment” before those behind what he was certain was a smear campaign had a chance to discredit him. “The only way we can defend ourselves from dirty tricks is to go public,” he continued, “to beat the attackers.”

The strategy appears to have worked: No images or video from that night more than a decade ago have so far been published. Today, Yashin leads Solidarnost, a Russian liberal democratic movement. A frequent critic of corruption among political elites, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s repression of civil society, he successfully ran in local elections last year, and now heads a district council in Moscow.

Wait for the Storm to Pass

Not everyone feels comfortable publishing intimate personal stories, which can potentially destroy careers and relationships. Fishman chose not to comment on his own experience and the video that sought to discredit him, and still does not want to discuss the episode (including when I contacted him about it recently).

But the efforts to silence him failed, too. Years after the footage emerged, Fishman, who is now a television anchor on the independent channel TV Rain, is still popular and respected, and continues to give sharp, thoughtful, and well-reported analyses of the Kremlin’s policies.

He recently spoke out over the killing last year of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic. The group was making a documentary about the activities of a private security firm that allegedly has ties to the Russian government. Fishman, a guest on the radio show at Echo of Moscow, criticized a powerful ally of Putin’s who has been reportedly linked to the murders, and pledged not to leave them unsolved.

The playwright and satirist Victor Shenderovich—famed for his 1990s television show Puppets, in which the nation’s leaders were lampooned—had a similar experience. In 2014, after he had compared that year’s Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi to Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Games in Berlin, a state-controlled outlet aired a compromising nude video of him. Shenderovich blames the authorities for the video’s broadcast, arguing in a recent interview with me that “the Kremlin gave an order to destroy me.” It was not even the first time he had been the object of such tactics: Several years prior, an edited video was published by several Russian-language websites, purporting to show Shenderovich in bed with the opposition activist Eduard Limonov and another woman.

But Shenderovich survived both incidents. His marriage stayed intact, and his books and live events remain popular. In March, the 60-year-old started a tour of Moscow, Arkhangelsk, and St. Petersburg, where thousands of fans are expected to turn out for his satirical performances. His biggest frustration is that he cannot seek punishment for those behind the shaming attempts. “Unlike in a civilized state,” he told me, “we cannot take the abusers to court, because Russia has no independent courts.”

Give In

Though many activists and opposition leaders have defied threats of blackmail and proactively spoken against them, kompromat has yielded plenty of successes, at least from the Russian government’s point of view. Many here have been cowed into submission, and others have quietly stopped speaking out, fearing revelations that they do not want made public.

One of the highest-profile examples, which sheds a light on Putin’s own willingness to engage in it, dates back to 1999. At the time, Putin—who was then the director of the successor organization to the KGB—played a leading role in forcing the resignation of Russia’s Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, who had been investigating large-scale corruption at the Kremlin.

When footage was broadcast of Skuratov in a sauna with prostitutes, Putin told journalists that the man in the video was the prosecutor general. Skuratov stepped down soon after. The case not only demonstrated Putin’s loyalty to his predecessor as president, Boris Yeltsin, but also offered an early indication of the ruthless methods that the future president would use to secure power.