That Time the K.G.B. Slipped Me Vodka
For those of us who worked in the old Soviet Union as reporters or diplomats, all the talk of “kompromat” and “dezinformatsiya” that has emerged with the Trump dossier — unverified — has been a blast from what we thought was a distant past.
In the Soviet mind-set, foreigners were a permanent but inescapable danger to be isolated in guarded compounds, monitored with ubiquitous bugs, followed in the streets, restricted in their travels and manipulated through propaganda. To be on the safe side, the K.G.B. presumably compiled compromising materials (kompro-mat) on foreigners so they could be blackmailed or thrown out if necessary.
Like many another foreign correspondent, I was the target of a few such attempts — or at least there were a few I became aware of. One time at the bar of the hotel in Odessa run by Intourist, the agency that handled foreigners’ travels, a young woman jumped suddenly on my neck as flashbulbs went off. In Samarkand a colleague and I were surreptitiously given vodka at an outdoor teahouse and then arrested for drinking it. Another colleague, a strict teetotaler, was slipped a Mickey Finn meant to make him look totally drunk. In each such case, we promptly filed a formal protest and thought little more of it, accepting it as the price of being Western reporters in a paranoid police state.
These tactics at times bore fruit. Diplomats, spies and reporters were occasionally compelled to leave over some sordid revelations. But as in the current case, these were usually unverified — kompromat, after all, ceases being useful once it is made public.
Even so, it had propaganda value, to demonstrate to the Soviet public how dangerous and immoral foreigners are. In fact, Soviet efforts to frighten their own citizens about the evils of the “imperialists” — and therefore to stay away from foreigners — were far more elaborate than anything we expats experienced. Vladimir Vysotsky, the great underground bard of the Soviet era, had a song about a simple Soviet worker who won a trip abroad and is then driven to total panic about the subversive temptations he will encounter in “that Polish Budapest.”
It should not be surprising that some of these tactics have survived or been resurrected. Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, but Vladimir Putin’s regime has similar instincts — like labeling any foreign enterprise a “foreign agent” or denying hard evidence of doping among Russian athletes as an international conspiracy.
In the spy-vs.-spy game, which is not unique to Russia, kompromat no doubt has had its victims — a diplomat blackmailed into spying, a meddlesome journalist forced to leave, a politician discredited. But in the greater game of geopolitics, meddling in another country’s political processes runs the risk of doing far greater damage.
The kompromat and dezinformatsiya of the Soviet era served largely to reveal the regime’s insecurity and weakness. It’s hard to see how it would help the Kremlin today.