Roots of the word are traced to the Soviet secret police
Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 1970. PHOTO: LASKI DIFFUSION/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
A diabolical-sounding Russian word has been making waves recently: “kompromat,” meaning “compromising material,” collected on someone for the purposes of blackmail. Less than two weeks before being sworn in as president, Donald Trump faced reports that the Russian government had “kompromat” on him, allegedly including evidence of sordid dealings with prostitutes and compromising financial ties.
The accusations appeared in a dossier prepared by a British ex-intelligence officer that was posted by BuzzFeed. Mr. Trump and Russian officials have both dismissed the dossier’s claims, which news outlets including The Wall Street Journal couldn’t verify. But the story has brought new attention to a word that has its roots in the cloak-and-dagger machinations of the Soviet era, when real or manufactured dirt might be gathered to disable political foes.
By combining the first two syllables of “komprometiruyushchiy,” meaning “compromising,” with the first syllable of “material,” which is also a Russian word, “kompromat” follows a popular pattern of Russian word formation, especially for terms related to the government and its ideological underpinnings. Examples go back to the Bolshevik Party’s creation of an executive committee in 1917, known as the “Politburo”—short for “Politicheskoye Buro,” or “political bureau.”
In her book “How Russia Really Works,” Alena Ledeneva of University College London writes that “kompromat” is “derived from 1930s secret police jargon.” But it is difficult to know for sure how far back it goes, since such tactics were not talked about publicly until the “thaw” under the reign of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Yoram Gorlizki, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, has recently uncovered archival material showing that the secret police and party officials were using the longer phrase for “compromising materials” in 1953. But Mr. Gorlizki told me that the shorter “kompromat” doesn’t appear in those documents.
To track down early examples of “kompromat” in Russian, I consulted with Donna Farina, an expert in Russian lexicography who teaches at New Jersey City University. She found the word first appearing in the Russian literary magazine Neva in 1962, though she notes that the writer appears to assume readers would already know the word.
A 1968 book, Enrico Altavilla’s “The Art of Spying,” suggests that Soviet-style “kompromat” had been introduced to the Communist secret service of East Germany. In 1983, the word appeared in the English translation of Russian dissident Lev Kopelev’s memoir, “Ease My Sorrows,” in which he recalls learning that a rival had “started gathering a kompromat, a compromising affidavit.”
“Kompromat” didn’t start showing up in English-language news sources until Boris Yeltsin served as Russian president in the 1990s. In April 1993, Reuters reported that Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi had been accused by a Yeltsin ally of “collecting ‘kompromat’ (compromising material) for political ends” to bring Yeltsin down.
The Soviet era may be over, but the word lives on.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."