Kompromat Digs up Dirt on Russia's Elite

In a Moscow cafe, the editor in chief of Kompromat lays a stack of his magazines face down on the table, as if he were hiding something slightly dirty. “No, no, I’m not ashamed of my magazine,” says Sergei Sokolov, the 38-year-old editor. “But this isn’t a publication for everybody. We’re trying to reach a certain elite: politicians, legislators, businessmen, journalists....”

Published first on the Internet and now printed monthly, Kompromat (Compromising Material) is an unusual kind of magazine. Each month, the editors pick a bête noire, a politician or a businessman, and pull out all the stops to wreck him: scathing articles, copies of compromising documents, photos showing the target in an unflattering supermarket-tabloid light, red-faced and haggard.

In November and December, during the campaign for legislative elections and the Moscow mayoral race, Kompromat aimed its guns at Yuri Luzhkov, the all-powerful incumbent mayor. The magazine reported that Luzhkov and his wife had put the local real-estate market under their thumb, sending bulldozers at night to demolish buildings that stood in the way of their construction projects. Before that, it was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, boss of the big Yukos oil company, who was the target of several consecutive issues of Kompromat before and after his arrest on Oct. 25.

“We were the first to reveal Khodorkovsky’s [alleged] criminal past,” crows Sergei Sokolov. In May 2003, just before the Russian justice system started pursuing Yukos, Sokolov published an entire issue denouncing Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions, accusing him of having ordered the assassination of a regional governor and the attempted murder of a rival, of having pocketed billions intended for reconstruction in Chechnya, and of having started his business career by sending models to the United States to entice businessmen into bed, setting the targets up for blackmail.

But don’t these exposés prove that Kompromat was used by those in power, who were concerned about the oil magnate’s rapid rise and the shadow he was starting to cast on President Vladimir Putin? “That’s what a lot of people think,” editor Sokolov acknowledges. “It’s no use in my trying to defend myself. All I can do is repeat that our philosophy is very simple: Politicians and big businessmen do everything they can to hide the seamy underside of their work from the people. We unmask them.”

A former journalist at Komsomolskaya Pravda, a national daily newspaper, and later editor in chief of a tabloid program on the TV6 network, the head of Kompromat presents himself as a justice-loving journalist committed to investigations, truth, and freedom of the press. “We don’t report positive news because the people we cover take care of that themselves. We’re like public prosecutors; we seek out the things people try to hide,” explains Sokolov’s deputy, Vadim Belykh, taking the stance of a journalist disgusted by the takeover of most Russian newspapers by the oligarchs. “We’re a little independent team of a dozen journalists,” say the two top editors of Kompromat, which rents three small rooms within the office of the government press agency RIA-Novosti.

The magazine, which appears on slick quality paper, has a print run of just 10,000 and is sold at modest prices varying from 15 to 30 rubles (50 cents to US$1.00). But Kompromat claims it’s able to balance its budget, thanks to revenue from its Web site (

Despite the claims of Sokolov and Belykh, press-freedom activists are far from convinced by these strange heroes of investigative journalism. “These guys discredit press freedom,” complains Ruslan Gorevoi of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which champions free expression in Russia. “Because of publications like this, the government can turn around and say: ‘Just look what it leads to—press freedom!’ Kompromat partakes of the unhealthy leanings of some of the Russian press, along with other more or less similar publications like Stringer and Vslukh.” Stringer’s December issue reported on a comparative study of the brain shapes of Muslim and Indo-European people that concluded “peaceful coexistence between these cultures or religions” was impossible.

“There are times when I get the impression the special intelligence services or the Kremlin are behind Kompromat. But I can’t be certain of that,” notes Oleg Panfilov, director of another institute that advocates the cause of journalists. It’s a suspicion that Belykh, Kompromat’s deputy editor, counters only vaguely: “Naturally, we have our sources inside the special services, but we’ve got lots of others, in the police, the tax enforcement authorities....”

The clearest proof of Kompromat’s independence from the regime would be an issue attacking Putin, whom the Russian press usually pictures in the most radiant terms. “The presidential election in March would be a logical time to do that,” acknowledges Sokolov. “But if I did an issue on Putin, it would be used by people like Boris Berezovsky (an oligarch who has become an open opponent of the Russian president from his London headquarters-in-exile), and I wouldn’t like that,” says Sokolov, going on about Berezovsky’s [alleged] crimes.

“Anyway, for the time being, I don’t have any compromising information about Putin,” concludes the editor in chief of this very unusual investigative magazine.