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“Russian spy” Maria Butina, who joined the ranks of the Russian parliament last month, had an untraditional rise. In 2018, she pled guilty to conspiracy to act as a foreign agent after the FBI presented a case around her involvement in using the NRA to create illegal back channels between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
Although the FBI’s affidavit fails to prove Butina’s formal employment by the Russian Federation, the document does paint a clear picture of an ambitious young woman motivated by power. The evidence shows how Butina sought to influence foreign policy due to her own idealism and desire to insinuate herself into elite networks. Butina wasn’t hired by the Kremlin to perform an influence campaign; she volunteered.
In America, we celebrate the grand legends around “rags to riches” and “strong women” who rise against all challenges to pursue their dreams. A simple look into Butina’s history reveals this familiar story. Her past can be traced back to her humble beginnings in Siberia. Butina was born in Barnaul, a small provincial city 2,260 miles from Moscow.
Butina was introduced to guns at an early age, when she would join her father on hunting trips in the nearby Altai mountains. Shooting bears and wolves gave Butina her first taste of having the power of life and death in her hands. In 2011, Butina founded the gun rights organization, “Right to Bear Arms,” and soon after partnered with the NRA. She was later indicted for manipulating her relationships with the NRA to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
Before her imprisonment in 2019, Butina was successful in intimately integrating herself in elite political networks within both the Kremlin and the Republican party. She was mentored by Aleksandr Torshin, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia, and became involved in a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, a former US presidential campaign adviser.
Networking and influence tend to operate from a common point of interest. In Butina’s case, this area of interest was gun rights.
The ambiguous nature of Butina’s crime of “influencing” sets a dangerous precedent for any foreign nationals who are networking in the USA. The issue becomes more complicated in today’s society where “influencing” on social media is considered to be a viable career. The influencer marketing industry is expected to be worth up to $15 billion in the United States by 2022.
Butina claimed that she was sentenced “for simply being Russian,” suggesting that she was a scapegoat in the 2016 Russian election interference investigations. Realizing that her future in American politics had come to an end, Butina engaged in media opportunities during her incarceration to share pro-Russian rhetoric and speak negatively about U.S. national matters. In her interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes, Butina insisted that the U.S. has a “racism against Russians,” and her only motive was to network with Americans in order to improve her home country. It wasn’t American media audiences whom she was trying to influence here, but Vladimir Putin, who was now watching Butina and determining her fate upon her return to Russia.
Since her return home in 2019, Butina has made dozens of media appearances, performed as a host on Russia’s state TV network, RT, and published a memoir, Prison Diary, about her American incarceration. Butina self-identifies as a prison activist, and used her new platform to interview Putin’s main opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, after Navalny complained that he was being abused in his penal colony. In the RT report, Butina, the self-proclaimed human-rights activist, can be seen looking around the prison quarters and then barking at Navalny, “are you out of your mind? This is better than a hotel in the Altai region. I grew up there.” Navalny is never shown on camera, only his voice can be heard.
Butina, 33 years old, has been successful in leveraging media channels to spread the Kremlin’s political narratives about American hypocrisy when it comes to feminism and human rights. She frequently references her personal examples of being imprisoned for acting upon her ambitions, and then subjugated to two months in solitary confinement as a part of her punishment.
Butina’s critics claim that her new position in the Russian Parliament was a gift from the Kremlin for her efforts. Butina responded to these claims in an interview with The New York Times, and said “it’s not a reward. I wasn’t a spy. I wasn’t working for the government. I was just a civilian.”
Butina’s Instagram shows her rapid transition from a gun-loving Siberian to an elite influencer moving between her new roles as a TV presenter, published author, and political activist. Not a far departure from her media savvy American counterparts like AOC, Butina presents herself as moving between photo-ops, her signature long red hair flowing over stylish monochromatic outfits.
In her new Duma position, Butina represents the Kirov region east of Moscow. Butina no longer needs to navigate back channels. She is now 1,000 miles closer to Moscow than she was when she was growing up. Her own rags-to-riches story is nearly complete.