The recent wave of kompromat directed at prominent members of the Russian liberal intelligentsia is very much the talk of the town. People seem to interpret this phenomenon in very different ways. Sick of the lack of clarity on this subject, I’ve decided to sit down and try to flesh out the two main POVs: Reaction A and Reaction B. My own views are closer to what I describe as “Reaction B,” though persons of the “A” persuasion are by no means misguided or wrong. This is, ultimately I think, a matter of reasonable people disagreeing reasonably. Of course, it’s entirely possible to agree or disagree, simultaneously, with elements of each camp. If I’m missing a ‘C’ or ‘D,’ by the way, I welcome comments.
Before we enjoy this taxonomist’s delight, though, let’s review the basic facts of what’s happened:
In mid-March, 2010, a video popped up on YouTube, depicting political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin, activist Ilya Yashin, and journalist Mikhail Fishman supposedly offering bribes to Moscow traffic police officers. A couple of weeks later, another video surfaced showing Fishman supposedly snorting cocaine and having sex with an unidentified woman. Most recently, last Thursday, a new video emerged – by far the most explicit and grotesque – in which opposition figures Viktor Shenderovich, Eduard Limonov, and Alexander Belov-Potkin also have sex with an unidentified woman. Shenderovich and Limonov were together with the girl, appearing on screen masturbating alongside one another. At one point in the video clip, Shenderovich appears to be humping the bed mattress.
Yashin, Fishman, and Limonov are unmarried* – indeed, the last of these men is notorious for acts of sexual debauchery (about which he has written extensively for decades). Shenderovich and Potkin, on the other hand, are married with children.
These attacks are proof of the pathetic immaturity of Russia’s civil society. Whether the antics of a group of random amateurs or the attempt of some minor state functionaries to satisfy perceived expectations from the top, this kind of black PR is as useless as it is vile. It’s irrelevant whether or not Surkov or Putin had a hand in this project. Of course nobody at the top would dirty himself by directly ordering something like hidden camera sting operations. The significant thing here is that the Kremlin has fostered an environment in which petty political attacks like these are considered normal. Organizations like Nashi are allowed to picket journalists’ homes, turning public discourse into a circus that is all about the members of the opposition and not at all about its values or issues.
And as comically unjust and unhealthy as these attempts at blackmail are, the only thing more absurd is the nature of the scandals themselves: offering bribes? getting wasted? sleeping around? These “sins” are national pastimes in Russia, and people are more likely to sympathize with or even respect figures like Fishman or Shenderovich for getting stuck paying a bribe or for having sex with a young, pretty girl. Look around on the RuNet and you’ll see that the commentary is filled with sexual jokes that hardly fault the oppositionists for their indiscretions:
When Katya first came for the Jews, I said nothing, because I was not a Jew.
When Katya first came for the liberals, I said nothing, because I was not a liberal.
[enter a few more degrees of separation]
When Katya finally came for me, I said “at last!”
And so on. What all this demonstrates is the perpetrators’ profound misunderstanding of Russian society, and the totally counterintuitive results of their image-tarnishing efforts. Russians are instead talking about the need for police reforms and the mercilessness of state surveillance.
Their great Black PR campaign has backfired.
The primary aim of these scandals has not been to awaken the moral indignity of the Russian people. While those responsible for these videos undoubtedly took great joy in pointing out the ethical double-standards operating in the liberal elite’s private lives, the purpose was not to discredit their moral superiority. As any cynic would be quick to point out, Russians are not overly obsessed with the personal righteousness of individual politicians. The true reason for these scandalous videos has been to discredit these individuals’ seriousness. In this project, publishing video clips of bribery, drug use, promiscuity, and infidelity has all been just half the work. The real follow-through in this 1-2 punch has been the reaction of the targets themselves.
Ilya Yashin, hoping to get out in front of his next kompromat, published the lurid details of his possible encounter with provocateurs Katya Gerasimova and Nastya Chukova. If a video of his three-way indeed exists, it probably hasn’t been released because Yashin already embarrassed himself as well as any video could have. The memorable detail of that story is how he argued with his companions about the appropriateness of sex toys. In the video showing him offering a bribe, it was the revelation that Yashin drives a Lexus that most resounded on the web in the weeks afterwards.
For Shenderovich, the most embarrassing details of the sex tape are not that he had sex with a much younger woman, but that he participated in some kind of perverse, deviant circle jerk with well-known weirdo Eduard Limonov. For the purposes of mocking and belittling a man, one can hardly ask for more than a video of him humping a bed mattress, pinched buttocks flexing to the rhythm of senseless penetration.
Consider the following joke circulating the RuNet:
The people behind these hidden camera stings might be accused of misunderstanding Russian society, but that only makes sense if one assumes that “black PR” serves the same purpose in Russian politics as it might elsewhere, in more moralistic, puritanical cultures. Understood in the right context, these latest examples of hidden cameras and sex tapes demonstrate precisely what contemporary Russian kompromat looks like. And it’s highly effective.
*Correction: Limonov is, in fact, married with children. He’s also admitted to having his penis in far less conventional things than mattresses.