Maria Butina american university today, prison documentary instagram

After 15 Months in Federal Prisons in the United States, She Now Sits in Russia's Parliament.

Maria Butina, who was convicted of acting as an unregistered foreign agent prior to and following the 2016 presidential election, maintains that she "was not a spy" and that her Duma seat is "not a reward." Her detractors refer to her as a Kremlin "trophy."

When Russia's lower chamber of Parliament, or Duma, convened for the first time last month following September elections, one of its newest members bore a surname that was more recognized in the United States than in her native country.

Maria V. Butina made national headlines three years ago after being convicted of operating as an unregistered foreign agent and attempting to penetrate key conservative political circles prior to and following the 2016 election.

She is now concentrating her efforts on establishing a major position in Russia's political system — this time legally and with the support of President Vladimir V. Putin's United Russia party.

Ms. Butina, 33, returned to Russia in October 2019 after serving a 15-month sentence in various US prisons, including four months in solitary confinement. She now represents the impoverished Kirov area in the Duma.

Maria Butina american university today, prison documentary instagram
Maria Butina, October, in a Moscow restaurant. She made national headlines three years ago when she was convicted of working as an unregistered foreign agent.

Her detractors have labeled her meteoric political ascension as a gift from the Kremlin, which she denies.

"This is not a prize," Ms. Butina explained during an interview in a cafe in central Moscow near her home. "I was not a saboteur. I was not employed by the government. I was a commoner."

However, in December 2018, Ms. Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring with a Russian official from 2015 to 2017 to "create unofficial lines of contact" with high-ranking Republicans on behalf of Russia's government.

Prosecutors asserted that she attempted to broker a meeting between then-candidate Donald J. Trump and Mr. Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the judge presiding over her sentencing hearing noted that she was sending political reports to Russia at the same time Russian intelligence operatives attempted to sway the election.

Ms. Butina has leveraged her interactions with Washington elites — and her time in prison — to establish herself as an expert on both America and the penitentiary system since returning home.

That was demonstrated in April, when she ambushed Russia's most renowned political prisoner, opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, on a surprise visit to the penal colony where he is being kept, which is infamous for its brutal treatment.

Ms. Butina, who was granted access as part of a civilian monitoring program, compared Mr. Navalny's conditions to those in the United States jails where she had done time.

She expressed her admiration for the facility's meals and medical services in a highly viewed film broadcast by the state-owned Rossiya-24 television network. Then she confronted Mr. Navalny, who was one week into a 24-day hunger strike proclaimed in protest of being denied medical treatment for significant pain in his back and right leg at the time of her visit.

"You can walk normally," Ms. Butina explains to Mr. Navalny, who declined to be recorded.

Mr. Navalny informed her once more that he was being denied access to his physician and then walked away.

"I pass no judgment on Navalny. "I stated what I saw in that video," Ms. Butina stated in her interview.

Maria Pevchikh, head of Mr. Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation's investigative section, stated that she believed Ms. Butina's Duma seat was a reward, not for her activities in the United States, but for her harassment of Mr. Navalny. He had humiliated Mr. Putin by disclosing the government's plot to assassinate him and exposing the opulence of a Black Sea palace thought to have been built specifically for the Russian president.

"If anything, this was a reward for her visit to Navalny in prison and for that incredibly unpleasant and horrible television event," Ms. Pevchikh explained. "There are few people who would agree to that. And indeed, she did."

Since returning home, Ms. Butina has leveraged her interactions with Washington insiders — as well as her time in prison — to establish herself as an authority on both America and the criminal justice system.
Since returning home, Ms. Butina has leveraged her interactions with Washington insiders — as well as her time in prison — to establish herself as an authority on both America and the criminal justice system.

Ms. Butina's case was treated as if it were the plot of a Cold War thriller in the United States, and her personal life — which included a relationship with a Republican operative, Paul Erickson, whom she met in Russia in 2013 and who would later be convicted of financial crimes and pardoned by Mr. Trump — was dissected in lurid detail on cable news.

However, in Russia, pro-government media depicted her story as a miscarriage of justice. Ms. Butina was viewed as a scapegoat for the Democratic Party's inability to accept Mr. Trump's triumph. According to Russia's Foreign Ministry, the incident reflected America's widespread "Russophobia."

Ms. Butina insisted during a caviar-laden meal at a restaurant serving Siberian cuisine that she wanted to utilize her new position as a national legislator to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.

"I believed in the two nations' friendship and continue to believe in it," Ms Butina stated. "We can and must be friends."

Nonetheless, in her regular television appearances and on social media, she has been open in her views of America, particularly when it comes to foreign involvement and race relations.

"She is quite a good trophy," Ms. Pevchikh said of Ms. Pevchikh. "I'm constantly ranting about how horrible things are in America."

Prior to the last Duma elections, she wrote a post on Telegram regarding the US interfering in international elections during the Cold War. "Their argument is that the US is permitted to intervene in other nations' elections, but Russia is not," she added.

Ms. Butina, who worked for RT, a government-backed television channel, before to joining the Duma, routinely makes comments about systemic racism in America, as pro-Kremlin people have done for decades.

Ms. Butina wrote a memoir, "Prison Diaries," in October 2020, in which she recounts how her imprisonment influenced her political ideas.

While her time in prison did not decrease her commitment to gun rights — she said losing her lifelong N.R.A. membership was particularly painful — it did diminish her sympathy for the Republican Party, she said, after witnessing firsthand America's fundamental inequalities.

Much of the book is devoted to her interactions with Black inmates, and she stated that her time in prison helped her overcome many of the misconceptions she had previously held — and revealed how discriminatory the attitudes of many of the American figures she had known were.

Ms. Butina expressed a desire to utilize her new Duma platform to assist Russians imprisoned overseas, stating that she was ready to fight solitary imprisonment and torture. However, when questioned about a recent release of violent recordings purporting to show torture and rape in Russian jails, Ms. Butina declined to comment, stating that the images needed to be confirmed.

Among the public persons she has defended in Russia is convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death."

Ms. Butina, who received a master's degree in international relations with a concentration in cybersecurity from American University in Washington during her time in the United States, remains quite active on social media. That was certainly the case in the United States, prior to her images with key Republicans such as Donald Trump Jr., Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker, as well as the N.R.A.'s chief, Wayne LaPierre, attracting the attention of F.B.I. investigators.

Her relationship with senior Russian government officials predates both her stint in the Duma and her time in the United States. She moved to Moscow in 2011 from her native Siberian city of Barnaul and was quickly hired as a special assistant by a Russian senator, Aleksandr P. Torshin, a prominent member of United Russia who eventually became deputy governor of Russia's Central Bank.

Ms. Butina wrote a memoir, "Prison Diaries," in October 2020, in which she chronicled her four months in solitary confinement.
Ms. Butina wrote a memoir, "Prison Diaries," in October 2020, in which she chronicled her four months in solitary confinement.

Nonetheless, she remains a relatively unknown figure in Russia, according to Andrei Pertsev, a political journalist with the independent news outlet Meduza.

"The vast majority of people are unaware of her," he stated.

Ms. Butina was now just one of several "propagandists" in the 450-member Duma, Mr. Pertsev said, adding that her elevation to the body — she was appointed by the governor of the Kirov region — was a means for the government to give her anti-America views more weight.

Mr. Pertsev, who has something in common with Ms. Butina, said that with her new post, "it's as if the speaker's prestige increases, and these things become more serious."

His media site, Meduza, was declared a "foreign agent" early this year by Russian authorities, a charge that parallels the one leveled against Ms. Butina, who failed to register her activities with the Justice Department as required by US law.

However, in Russia, the term "foreign agent" is generally applied to Russian nationals engaging in independent journalism or human rights work, and it has increasingly been applied to organizations and individuals whose activity is deemed unpopular with the Kremlin.

"Do not compare our law to your law," Ms. Butina stated, adding that she regarded the Russian law's requirements to be less onerous than the American one.

As part of her plea agreement with the United States, Ms. Butina admitted to being a part of a coordinated operation, sponsored by Russian officials, to convince strong conservatives that Russia should be considered a friend, not an adversary.

Ms. Butina's American lawyers said in court that her efforts had been well-intentioned and that she had never attempted to conceal what she referred to as her "diplomacy project." Back in Russia, she maintains that she was never a part of a larger conspiracy and that she acted independently.

"Had I realized that I would be required to register in order to promote peace between the two nations on my own initiative," she said, “I would have loved to.”