We talked to an ex-KGB colonel and Putin critic about the Trump-Russia dossier
The salacious allegations about President-elect Donald Trump made in a dossier authored by an ex-British intelligence officer have brought the old Soviet practice of “kompromat” — the gathering of compromising material — to the forefront.
Gennady Gudkov, a former deputy in Russia’s parliament, is known for his vocal criticism of President Putin and his party, United Russia. He’s also a former KGB and FSB colonel. VICE News spoke with Gudkov about kompromat’s long history and its continued use in modern Russia.
What is “kompromat” and how does it work?
Kompromat has existed as long as mankind. It’s a practice of gathering information about somebody that they would never want disclosed. Kompromat is a means of leverage, to the extent that it can make a person commit a crime or do horrible things out of fear of being exposed. In those cases, it amounts to blackmail, which is a crime.
But besides blackmail, there are many other ways one can use kompromat, such as influencing a person’s positions or politics with the help of embarrassing information.
Does the Kremlin gather kompromat, and what do they use it for?
Kompromat has been a favorite occupation of Russian elites throughout the last several centuries. They don’t just gather kompromat; they regularly use it and actively leak it to the media. There is an ongoing war between political parties, with setups, fake news, lies, and rumors. And Kompromat is the king in this war, especially when there is no democracy or transparency.
We live in the kingdom of lies, and the kingdom of kompromat.
Can you think of any recent examples of kompromat being used successfully in Russia?
It has played a constant and major role in recent history – and is mainly used to take down opponents and rivals. For example, the ex-general prosecutor of Russia who was shown on TV having fun with two prostitutes: It nearly went live on Channel 1 [mainstream Russian television].
Let’s also remember the war of kompromat between the teams of Luzhkov and Putin. A lot of kompromat is used in wars between Russia’s security services. All of the arrests of investigators and various generals that we hear about, it is all due to the use of kompromat in the power games between various groups, either pushing people out or eliminating opponents.
Does the government use blackmail in order to counter political opposition in Russia?
Kompromat is used to discredit and isolate the opposition. It is often used as the foundation for a further accrual of false information and lies.
You know how it happens: They take a fact, add speculation, rumors, and fake information on top of it to create an illusion of real news.
“If they could gather kompromat on Trump, they did it. If they could gather kompromat on Clinton, they did it.”
For example, the reports of Navalny stealing the forest, or Gudkov being caught laundering money in Europe, etc. No evidence is necessary. When mass media becomes a means of propaganda, when kompromat is gathered by secret services through surveillance and hacking, and used as a means of propaganda or counter-propaganda, or it’s used for settling the score in political games, its purpose becomes clear.
This is how political housekeeping works in Russia. Politicians who can influence public opinion are regularly compromised — this is the Kremlin’s favorite game. Well, not just for the Kremlin, but all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. All of them enjoy gathering embarrassing information that they keep on the shelves for many years. And this information-gathering is not only reserved for their political opponents, but also for their allies and friends. The thinking goes: Today you are friend, tomorrow you are rival. Today you are a friend, tomorrow you are an enemy – one must have a folder for each. This is the principle of our government – keep kompromat on everyone.
Do you think they gathered kompromat on Trump? Do they really have a file on him?
If they could gather kompromat on Trump, they did it. If they could gather kompromat on Clinton, they did it. If they could gather kompromat on Merkel, they did it. In other words, you need to understand how kompromat works.
I knew one Russian politician who was a womanizer, and when I said to him, ‘Listen, one day they will…’ he said, ‘I don’t care; it will only add to my ratings.’ This was why he was leading an unembarrassed life. He simply did not care that he was under constant surveillance, because he did not think it would discredit him. I suppose people around him did not think so either.
“The victory of Trump is seen as our great success.”
For example, in America Bill Clinton had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and it caused considerable outrage. But if Boris Yeltsin had a similar romance with one of his assistants, it would have only increased his popularity in Russia. For each person and for each situation, kompromat can either be embarrassing or completely neutral. It depends on the situation, on the personality, and on the circumstances.
If they have it, how would the Kremlin use the alleged Trump kompromat?
They’re not going to use it now because the Kremlin is very happy about Trump’s victory. But I think these are illusions, wishful thinking that “Trump is ours.” Trump is not ours. It is clear that first of all Trump is a pro-American politician, and I think he might end up being tougher to deal with than Clinton or Obama. Nevertheless, in Russia there is a lot of euphoria that he won.
The victory of Trump is seen as our great success.
And it is clear that none of materials against Trump — if they exist — will be used. But that does not mean that if the situation changes, if the relations change or some kind of conflict begins, these materials won’t be used – again, if they exist.
As an ex-member of Russia’s secret services, does the dossier look genuine to you?
Fake news often looks more genuine than the truth. It is a difficult one to decipher. All we can do is check this information using different sources. It they confirm it, then it’s probably true. If they don’t, then it’s a well-composed fake.
Because Trump is quite independent in his views, opinions, and actions, some of the report could be true. But it can also be a cleverly shaped provocation aimed to make Trump offer excuses to the whole American nation.
It is hard to say, almost impossible.
What methods of kompromat collection do Russian secret services use?
Secret services obtain new means to collect kompromat every day. Everyone is dependent on their gadgets these days, everyone carries a few radio markers and video cameras that allow services to track their locations, listen to their conversations and even take photos, etc. People don’t see how they could live without all these electronic applications that can be controlled from outside organizations.
The main task of our secret services is control of the internet and IP telephones, and they have been successful in that area. Vkontakte and other [Russian] social networks are under control, and other social media applications like Twitter and Telegram have been put under serious pressure.
Unfortunately, because many Western businessmen prefer income to principles, they submit their codes to the governmental organizations in Russia, including secret services.
If these alleged Trump tapes exist, what organizations participated in the surveillance operation?
Speaking about who could gather information on Trump, the main organization would be the Federal Security Service (FSB). I’m sure the Foreign Intelligence Agency (SVR) was also assigned to watch Trump. I’m sure they also used the former 16th department of the KGB, now a part of Federal Guard Service, whose main task is to gather all kinds of information in Russia and around the world.
It’s important to understand that there is a lot of open-source information in the United States. Trump was not a government official, just a businessman, so there must be a lot information on him all over the media and other open sources in the U.S.
Our secret services can easily gain access to all this data. I’m positive that Russian secret services have a lot of information on him, his family, his business partners, connections, etc. Every secret service, every major country does this sort of work. American secret services, for example, don’t waste a chance to collect data on their friends and enemies, just in case they will need it later.
Given all that, is it possible Russian secret services bugged his hotel room in Moscow?
Back in the day, hotels that received foreigners all had so-called “plus” rooms. That’s agency slang. These rooms were marked with a plus sign on the KGB lists, which meant the room was equipped with stationary surveillance equipment. Rooms like that still exist in some hotels, especially the ones that are frequented by foreign officials, secret carriers, politicians, and public figures. There are less “plus” rooms today, mainly because nowadays you can bring all you need into the room. Back then, one needed to install stationary equipment, drill walls, insert wires, hide equipment under mirrors, windows, and whatnot. Now they can set up everything within minutes.
But “plus” rooms still exist. It’s possible that Trump stayed in a presidential suite that was a “plus” room. It’s exceptionally hard to spot [surveillance] equipment these days; it’s microscopic. Surveillance equipment is so tiny, it’s nearly impossible to protect yourself against it.
This interview was conducted in Russian, and translated into English by Mikhail Galustov. It has been edited and condensed.
Cover: VICE News