When news broke this week that U.S. intelligence agencies had briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on a two-page report summarizing unsubstantiated claims that Russia had collected damaging material about Trump, the CNN story had immediate reverberations throughout the U.S. government and media. It also likely introduced a new word into many American observers’ vocabularies: kompromat.
“No, the Kremlin does not have ‘kompromat’ on Trump,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told CNN, dismissing the claims as an “attempt to harm our bilateral relationship.”
But what exactly is kompromat?
The word is essentially a Russian term for dirt that can be gathered to discredit a person, especially the kind of dirt that someone’s boss or wife would not be happy to know. Often, that information is sexual in nature. Kompromat is a portmanteau of the words for “compromising” and “material,” as well as a double entendre relying on the fact that “mat” is not only an abbreviation for the word materialy, meaning materials, but also a Russian word for profanity, according to How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business. The book—which contains a helpful chart of four main types of kompromat: political, economic, criminal and private—traces the term’s origins to 1930s secret-police jargon.
Though it may have been introduced before World War II, kompromat continued to play a role in world affairs during the Cold War. William Luers, the former ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and for Inter-American Affairs, tells TIME that he assumed that he was being watched at all of the time when he was a foreign service officer in Russia in the 1960s. “What they would do, I’m sure, is listen to my wife and me to find out if there we had any problems financially, was I given to promiscuity, and just listen to our apartment and wherever I was,” he says. As he points out, the goal of anyone doing such listening wouldn’t necessarily be to find out any state secrets, but rather to find out whether a person had “vulnerabilities” that could be exploited. (This worked both ways: While the word kompromat may be Russian, Luers points out that intelligence agencies elsewhere have used similar techniques.)
Diplomats heard stories of their comrades encountering traps to generate kompromat when none was naturally available, Luers recalls. For example, he says that he knew of diplomats traveling in the USSR who, having presumably been given drugs to knock them out, were approached by people who had pictures of them in bed with women the night before—experiences of which they had no recollection. In some cases, these agents reported the incident and the pictures were withdrawn, if they were lucky, Luers says.
One famous victim of kompromat is believed to be Felix Bloch, an American diplomat in Vienna, who was involved in TIME called “the most serious State Department espionage scandal since the Alger Hiss affair.”
Bloch, who was never prosecuted but was fired in 1990, was suspected of giving information to the Soviets. The diplomat’s sexual activities may have been the window that opened him up to involvement in the scandal, argues Frederick P. Hitz, a former inspector general of the CIA and 30-year veteran of the agency, in The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, by creating a “vulnerability” that could have been “exploited for espionage purposes.”
And, though espionage of that sort may be popularly associated with the Cold War era, experts say that the fall of the Soviet Union in fact led to a boom in the use of kompromat.
The use of the term flourished in the 1990s “when press became freer and people started to unload all sorts of information through the press,” says Simon Saradzhyan, a former editor at the The Moscow Times and the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “The legal system was still developing, so you could sue for libel, but you couldn’t count on obtaining any compensation or fine that would deter the distributor of information from further transgressions.”
The opening up that happened after the fall of the Soviet Union also meant that older material could be turned into kompromat too. “Most of the communist, socialist countries had a lot of information about people, and they could use that information to blackmail them if they wanted to,” says Olga Oliker, senior Adviser and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “After the Soviet Union collapses, that info is around in various archives, but there are people who are looking to make a buck and might be interested in selling it or blackmailing people for the money.”
One person associated with that period’s political use of compromising material about opponents is Vladimir Putin himself, as TIME reported last year in a cover story about Russia:
Putin’s history of using influence operations against opponents begins, appropriately enough, with himself. As he was rising quickly through the Kremlin ranks in 1999, one of his main opponents, Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, was caught on tape having sex with two women in a hotel room in what Skuratov later claimed was a Putin-run espionage operation traditionally known as a “honey trap.” Putin, who had risen from a Soviet-era KGB operative to head the country’s intelligence services, denied he was behind it but said on TV that his agents had confirmed that the man in the grainy video was Skuratov. Putin went on to win the presidency the next year. Skuratov, who ran against him, got less than 1% of the popular vote.
As Russia settled into its post-Soviet world, eventually the kompromat boom of the 1990s came to an end, says Saradzhyan. “As the media system became more and more controlled by the state again, and as the court started to function more effectively when it came to considering libel cases,” he says. “I saw a decrease in the use of kompromat.”
However, recent changes in technology may be countering those forces, as kompromat has gotten easier to collect and distribute.
“It’s not that we didn’t have the need [to conduct surveillance] before, but we didn’t have the means to do it all,” Alexei Filatov, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian state security organization FSB, told TIME in 2012.
As TIME put it in that same feature, surveillance has never stopped being a way of life in Russia, “like heavy snow and heavier traffic.”