KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The allegations around Russia's role in the U.S. election have brought a Russian word into the American political vocabulary - kompromat. It translates as compromising material, and it is straight from the old Soviet playbook. It's a tool that Russia's spy agencies have used for a long time.
With us now to talk about kompromat is Greg Myre. He's the international editor of npr.org, and he used to work in Moscow. Welcome.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So let's just make it clear here that no one has verified the details in this dossier regarding President-elect Trump, but this case has raised the issue of kompromat. Talk about that.
MYRE: Right. So we're talking about this file that was compiled by a former British intelligence officer. And we're not going into the details because U.S. intelligence community says they can't verify any of this, nor can news organizations. But it has raised the issue of kompromat against, something that was widely used during Soviet days and continues to this day.
And it's gathering compromising material so that you can blackmail somebody. Often diplomats serving in Moscow were big targets. Visiting businessmen were big targets. And often it wasn't where you wanted to necessarily expose the information, but you wanted to keep that person under your control, let them know you had the information and that they needed to cooperate with you. And that was the main purpose of it.
MCEVERS: And a lot of times it was sexual in nature, no?
MYRE: Absolutely. In fact that was probably the most explosive or widely attempted thing during the Soviet days. The KGB might hire a prostitute to lure a diplomat or a foreign businessman into a compromising situation and then tell them they had this and they were going to use it against them if they did not cooperate.
MCEVERS: Russian President Vladimir Putin has been linked to a high-profile case of kompromat back in 1999. Tell us about that.
MYRE: Sure. There was this extraordinary scene on television one night. Yury Skuratov, who was the top Russian prosecutor, appeared naked with two naked women on TV, and it created this huge sensation. And a couple weeks later, Putin, who was the head of the FSB, the security service at the time, said, yes, indeed, that is Yury Skuratov. And Skuratov lost his job, not to mention his dignity.
And this resolved a really big problem for President Boris Yeltsin at the time, who had been trying to get rid of Skuratov because he was allegedly investigating corruption inside the Kremlin. So Putin really elevated his profile in this episode.
MCEVERS: By eliminating a rival presumably. I mean did that help him become, you know, head of Russia later that year?
MYRE: You know, it was always impossible to tell what was going on inside of Boris Yeltsin's head. And I think it would be a stretch to say this is why he became prime minister. But it certainly made Putin a more prominent figure at that time, and it eliminated a serious problem for Yeltsin.
And a few months later, he did become prime minister, and a few months after that, he did replace Yeltsin as president. So it was certainly part of the rise of Vladimir Putin.
MCEVERS: Do other countries do this? I mean is it just Russia?
MYRE: Oh, absolutely other countries do it. But it was - certainly had a huge significance and importance in Russia throughout the Soviet era. One thing I think to think about is you didn't have politics in the Soviet era. So if you wanted to get rid of a political rival, there really wasn't ways to do it at the ballot box.
MYRE: But certainly you could look at the United States and see this throughout the history. For example, when J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI, he certainly collected compromising information on many prominent officials, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
MCEVERS: Right. Greg Myre is the international editor of npr.org. He was based in Moscow from 1996 to 1999. Thanks a lot.
MYRE: My pleasure.
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