This story was published in partnership with the Trace.
The personal blog posts of Maria Butina open a window into the mind of the accused Russian spy, arrested this month as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the Kremlin’s attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election. Several of the posts, which span years and total thousands of words, were translated from Russian by The Trace.
The posts we looked at, portions of Butina’s LiveJournal blog, were published between 2012 and 2015, when Donald Trump was emerging as the Republican frontrunner. Many of the dispatches were written while she was attending successive National Rifle Association annual conventions. Over the course of those years, Butina went from gushing over the group as a “bastion” of America’s armed society to gaining an intimate knowledge of its inner-workings.
Some of her writings amount to mundane reflections on a foreign land, like the peculiarities of bidding at a live gun auction: "be careful when you have the urge to scratch your nose.” She was especially struck by prevalence of food at NRA events and unhealthy American dietary habits—“hamburgers … supplemented with milkshakes.” Butina went on:
Usually, all the business talks and simple socializing take place in the early morning, during breakfast, after which follow brunches (breakfast + lunch = brunch), and after that lunches, followed by dinners. In this way, it is possible to eat all day. Moreover, in America, you can easily distinguish the middle and the upper class from the poor by their excess weight. If you see a very stocky, stout fellow standing before you, it is likely that he is a representative of the not so successful class, in the financial sense. The explanation for this is simple: good food is expensive and preparing it requires time and money, while fast food is cheap. Healthy food may be found everywhere, but hamburgers are more delicious, cheaper and, additionally, more easily accessible. Moreover, these are usually supplemented with milk shakes made with ice cream (smoothies) or a soda. People genuinely breakfast here on Coca-Cola.
Other posts reveal how engrossed Butina became with the NRA leadership and the nuts and bolts of the group’s efforts to nurture a thriving American gun culture.
“I would like to believe that, by studying their experience, we will require less time to achieve their success,” Butina wrote in 2014, while attending that year’s NRA convention in Indianapolis.
Here are four takeaways from Butina’s writings.
Butina was fascinated by how the NRA bends public policy
At the time of Butina’s writings, she was helping to establish a gun lobby in Russia called the Right to Bear Arms. Butina’s posts show that she wanted to model her group after the NRA, particularly when it came to building broad coalitions of gun-rights supporters and shaping public policy.
In one post, Butina lauded how the NRA chose to hold gatherings in different cities and tailored each convention to the flavor of the local community. Such roving, she said, made it “easier for a new group of supporters to reach the location of the event, for those who reside within the immediate radius of the latest meeting point; this makes things more ‘fair,’ so that, just perhaps, the next year, the gun aficionados may also come to your state.”
Butina also expressed a desire to gather clout and influence Russian politics, much like how the NRA flexes its muscles to support or defeat proposed legislation. In a 2012 post, Butina called the NRA a “wonderful organization” whose lobbying prowess was responsible for loosening gun restrictions in the United States, making America “the most highly armed, which makes it also one of the most free, affluent, and at the same time safest societies in the world, despite all the abundance of internal contradictions.”
In contrast, Butina lamented how the “social passivity” of gun owners in Russia had driven the country’s “prohibitionist regulatory mayhem” to “egregious proportions,” creating a situation in which self-defense was “often perceived by the legal system as a crime.” To overcome these issues, Butina said that her country’s gun enthusiasts needed “powerful representation.”
For this purpose, a National Firearms Federation—a Russian analog for the NRA—is now being formed, which would be capable of effectively representing the interests of the armed community, exerting an influence not just on the authorities, but also on social opinion for the purpose of educating people and development of gun culture, the formation of an optimal legislative, cultural, and informational environment in which a law-abiding, armed citizen would become an object of national pride, a pillar of support for crime prevention in our country, a role model, and not a victim of persecution, slander, and suspicion.
She was a fierce defender of her handler, Alexandr Torshin
In 2013, an anti-corruption blogger took Russian Senator Alexandr Torshin to task for cozying up to the NRA, warning that the gun-rights group could be used as a vehicle to push American interests in Moscow. After seeing the post, Butina, who was working with Torshin to develop the Right to Bear Arms, shot back, calling the fears “preposterous.” In her view, the NRA was exactly the kind of organization that Russians needed to embrace if they were to ease their country’s restrictions on gun ownership.
Torshin, a high-ranking Russian official with deep ties to President Vladimir Putin, is reported to have been Butina’s handler while she went about infiltrating conservative political circles in Washington. Torshin’s and Butina’s contacts with the NRA have come under intense scrutiny as authorities investigate revelations that Russia may have used the gun group to gain access to top Republican politicians and boost Trump’s candidacy for the White House.
Butina saw the NRA as a salve to strained Russia-US relations
Butina apparently had a knack for getting up close to NRA bigwigs. She got a photograph of herself beaming next to Sandy Froman, one of the group’s former presidents, whom she called “a legendary woman.” She also posted a picture of her presenting a Right to Bear Arms plaque—a “memorial gift,” as she called it, replete with an image of a handgun—to Jim Porter, the NRA president at the time. In an album posted on Butina’s VK profile, a Russian social network, Butina appears smiling next to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.
The photographs were taken at the NRA’s 2014 convention in Indianapolis, where Butina was representing the Right to Bear Arms within, as she put it on her blog, “the framework of exchange of experience and international collaboration.”
“Sooner or later, the conflict between our countries will become history, and we will all be able to get along quite successfully,” she wrote. “How quickly this happens depends in part on grassroots diplomacy and the collaboration of the (non-governmental organizations) of our respective countries.”
Accompanying the image of Butina with Porter, the NRA president, she wrote:
Having completed the mission of my professional responsibilities, I presented a memorial gift from the “Right to bear arms” movement to Mr. Porter, the current, 62nd President of the NRA, an organization that has been active since 1871 and which at the present moment counts more than 5 million people as its members. I would like to believe that, by studying their experience, we will require less time to achieve their success (in) the matter of defending and broadening the fundamental and primary, in relationship to all the other, civil rights to own guns.
Later that year, in a post titled “Moscow meeting with a representative of the NRA,” she put out a call for supporters to attend a gathering with Paul Erickson, a member of the NRA with robust conservative political connections. The event was set to take place in September at the Right to Bear Arms headquarters in Moscow. The meeting, she said, was meant to offer a chance for Russians to learn about the activities of the “most influential association of owners of civilian weapons in the world.”
Erickson has not been charged with any crimes. In court documents, authorities have alleged that a person fitting his description was instrumental in opening doors for Butina in the world of conservative Washington politics. At some point, the two of them struck up a romantic relationship. In 2016, Erickson helped her establish a limited liability corporation in his home state of South Dakota. The LLC was ostensibly to help Butina pay for schooling at American University, where she was working toward a master’s degree. Experts have pointed out that such LLCs can be used to surreptitiously funnel money into campaign coffers through groups like the NRA, though public records do not show any campaign finance transactions involving the corporation.
Erickson was one of more than a dozen representatives from various countries who took part in a convention held by the Right to Bear Arms in 2013, Butina wrote, a gathering that taught her how gun enthusiasts around the world faced similar obstacles.
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the exchange of experience between our similar social organizations—the experience of the 2nd Convention of the “Right to bear arms” movement in 2013, in which more than 15 representatives of firearms associations of various nations took part, showed that the problems of the firearms associations and even the rhetoric of the “prohibitionists” is the same everywhere. Within this context, it is very important to know the experience of other nations in the area of lobbying and community organization for the purpose of defending the rights of citizens to own guns and use them in self-defense.
Against the background of the tense international situation, the consolidation of the interests of the community and its citizens in working on their problems, in turning the attention of politicians to the fact that we have far more in common, than the differences that divide us, becomes even more urgent.
Butina was fluent in NRA talking points
Butina credited the “legendary American ‘armed society’” fostered by the NRA as having led to lower homicide rates in the United States than in Russia. Her argument appears drawn straight out of the NRA script, which has long argued that guns are the best defense against criminals, despite a growing body of research discounting that contention.
“Developing the private market for civilian firearms and the right to the latter in Russia is worthwhile not out of any considerations of world trade, but in response to the level of criminality in the country and the need for effective self-defense, as well as for the support and development of shooting sports, which for the time being is, unfortunately, an elitist one due to the unrealistic prices of firearms and ammunition,” Butina wrote.
In one post, Butina lauded the NRA’s outreach to women, writing that “a woman has as greater need to be armed—she is physically weaker and is often left alone with children—so that she makes a convenient target for a criminal."
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