Chares Maynes, Voice of America
Amid the political maelstrom surrounding the leaked, and wholly unverified, accusations of the Kremlin's possession of compromising information on U.S. President Elect Donald Trump, a new Russian word entered the global lexicon, "kompromat."
"The Kremlin has no kompromat on the president-elect of the United States, Donald Trump," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in denying the allegations as "pulp fiction."
"The Kremlin," insisted Peskov, "does not engage in the collection of compromising materials."
While the veracity of Peskov's rejection of the Trump-related allegations remains anyone's guess, his professed innocence of gathering damaging information immediately sent fact-check meters into the red.
"Peskov's lying, to put it mildly," said Gennady Gudkov, a former member of the Russian Duma and one-time officer in Russia's Federal Security Services in an interview with VOA.
"The Kremlin gathers all sorts of compromising material against its political enemies as a matter of government policy.There is regular surveillance, hacking of electronic emails, monitoring and wiretapping. And all of this material eventually finds its way to mass media for propaganda purposes," said Gudkov.
To be sure all governments collect intelligence, including damaging information on rivals, real or imagined.
But "kompromat" is an entrenched Russian practice that flourished in the Soviet Union.
In the USSR, the KGB security/intelligence agency often used the technique as a means to blackmail foreign diplomats into providing information or spying. Sex, compromising photographs, and so-called "honey traps" with operatives were often used, they still are.
Yet in post-Soviet Russia, kompromat expanded domestically. It became the preferred tool to settle business scores and destroy political opponents. It also entered the vernacular.
"The first time I ever heard of kompromat was in the 1990s," said Russian humorist and journalist Viktor Shenderovich." The word appeared along with the free press and, of course, journalists who were for sale."
The idea of kompromat as mainstream enterprise in post-Soviet Russia stands at the heart of a fictional Shenderovich 2002 short story, "Black and Grey PR." In it, Shenderovich imagines a representative from a firm called Reputation that offers kompromat to clients a la carte.
"Full moral destruction of your opponent. Fabrication of a dark past complete with witnesses and documents," are among services Reputation provides.
"We can even make it so that it's the main news all day long," said the representative." Only it'll cost you double."
Shenderovich's rendering was funny. It also wasn't far from the truth.
In fact, just a few years earlier in 1999, Russians turned on their nightly news broadcast to see grainy surveillance footage of what appeared to be Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov cavorting in a sauna with prostitutes.
True or not, the timing of the footage was suspect. Skuratov was at the time the driving force behind an investigation into corruption in the administration of then President Boris Yeltsin.
Skuratov, to this day, denies he was the man in the video. But then head of Russia's of Federal Security Services, Vladimir Putin, vouched publicly for the authenticity of the tape.
Skuratov soon was fired over the scandal and the investigation shelved.
Putin's efficient handling of the scandal was not lost on Yeltsin. Within a few months, Yeltsin promoted the former KGB officer to prime minister. Soon thereafter Yeltsin resigned and Putin assumed the presidency.
But Gudkov points to the Skuratov affair as a watershed moment, a sign kompromat adapted for the media age.
"Of course they collected compromising sexual material on people in the USSR, but it wasn't so blatant," he said." This was broadcast to 90 million people."
One need only look at Russia's 2016 parliamentary elections to see the tactic remains alive and well in Putin's Russia.
With the Kremlin promising newly open and competitive elections to a restless electorate, kompromat once again was employed to great effect.
This time, it was the Kremlin-friendly NTV channel that summoned a unique exclusive: footage of Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's one-time prime minister turned leader of the opposition PARNAS party, having an affair with a party loyalist.
A scandal of public interest? Perhaps, but the footage was taken from Kasyanov's own bedroom. Few doubt Russian secret services were responsible.
The sex scandal easily divided an already struggling opposition.With a compromised Kasyanov heading the ticket, PARNAS failed miserably as pro-Kremlin parties triumphed.
Other Kremlin opponents have faced similar pitfalls.
Several opposition journalists, including Shenderovich, were implicated in honey trap operations videotaped with a Kremlin-hired prostitute. Opposition politicians regularly find their emails, phone calls, and surveillance video of private meetings leaked to state media.
Russian kompromat has clearly moved out of the bedroom into more dangerous terrain.
Shenderovich told VOA that he and other journalists were threatened repeatedly after state media launched smear campaigns against them over criticism of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
"I changed apartments regularly," said Shenderovich." I even tried not to walk my dog in the same place every day."
He also points to the 2015 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the streets of central Moscow as evidence of the violence lurking beneath state driven smear tactics. Proof that kompromat can kill.
Shenderovich argues that "Kompromat" has come to symbolize Putin's Russia, much like "Sputnik defined Soviet Space Age optimism and "Perestroika," Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's democratic reforms in the USSR.
"And now what is our gift to the world? The word 'kompromat," said Shenderovich.