Out of nowhere, a shocking video appeared on a Russian TV news program late one evening in March 1999. A surveillance tape showed a naked, middle-aged man who resembled Russia's top prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, cavorting with two unclothed young women. Neither was his wife.
The ensuing scandal included a press conference by the head of Russia's FSB security service at the time, Vladimir Putin, who made clear it was Skuratov in the video.
Skuratov soon lost his job, not to mention his dignity.
President Boris Yeltsin was apparently impressed with Putin's handling of this episode. Yeltsin wanted to get rid of Skuratov, who was believed to be looking into Kremlin corruption. Several months after the video surfaced, Yeltsin named Putin to be prime minister, and a few months after that, Putin took over as president.
The Skuratov case is a leading example of what Russians call kompromat, or compromising material used to discredit rivals in politics or business or just settle personal scores.
From the Soviet playbook
Kompromat is straight from the old Soviet playbook and has often involved photographs and videos — real or fake. Russians often use it for internal battles, though it is also deployed to blackmail foreign diplomats serving in Russia. A diplomat lured into an affair might be willing to quietly cooperate with the Russia government rather than having a career and marriage upended.
Now there are unverified claims that Russia may have compromising material on President-elect Donald Trump. NPR and other news organizations have reported on the existence of the allegations since the story broke Tuesday evening. NPR has not reported the details since they are unproven.
Trump denied the reports in a news conference Wednesday. The Kremlin also issued a denial, with Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov stating flatly: "The Kremlin does not collect compromising materials."
While claims and counterclaims are still flying, what's clear is that Russian kompromat does continue to thrive in the post-Soviet era, aided by the march of cyber technology.
Kompromat is considered part of the larger Russian espionage arsenal that also includes disinformation, fake news and computer hacking. U.S. intelligence agencies have blamed the Russians for hacking into Democratic Party emails to harm Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. Russia has denied this.
A long history
Russia even has a website, kompromat.ru, where anyone can pay the site to post embarrassing stories. Many are about alleged corruption and have already been published elsewhere but have not received much attention.
The businessman who created the website, Sergey Gorshkov, said he came up with the idea from the Skuratov sex scandal back in 1999. He said his operation was purely business, not politics.
In some cases, the site has provided the Russian government a convenient outlet when it wanted to leak material that would undermine a critic. However, the site also published allegations against figures in the Kremlin and the Russian government, angering many powerful officials.
The Russian government, meanwhile, is still deeply involved in kompromat, according to analysts.
Last year, a sex tape of opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov was broadcast on state-controlled television. Kasyanov once served as prime minister to President Putin before turning against him. The tape came out five months before parliamentary elections, a disclosure seen as harming Kasyanov and his party in the polls.
In other recent cases, Russian operatives have been suspected or accused of placing child pornography on the personal computers of individuals they were attempting to discredit.
Russian Vladimir Bukovsky, 73, a longtime critic of Soviet and Russian leaders, now lives in Britain, where he faces charges related to child pornography. But the case was delayed while investigators checked to see whether the images on Bukovsky's computer were placed there by an outside party, The New York Times reported last month, citing other similar cases.
"The whole affair is Kafkaesque," Bukovsky told the newspaper. "You not only have to prove you are not guilty but that you are innocent."
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOCAL NATIVES SONG, "WARNING SIGN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.