When Russia’s lower house of parliament, or Duma, assembled last month for the first time following elections in September, one of its newest members was a name more familiar in the United States than in her home country.
Maria V. Butina made headlines across America when she was convicted three years ago of operating as an unregistered foreign agent trying to infiltrate influential conservative political circles before and after the 2016 election.
She is now focused on playing a prominent role in Russia’s political system — through legal means this time, and with the support of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Butina, 33, who returned to Russia in October 2019 after spending 15 months in several US penitentiaries, including four months in solitary confinement, now represents the impoverished Kirov region in the Duma.
Her critics have characterised her rapid political rise as a thank you from the Kremlin, a claim she rejects.
“It’s not a reward,” Butina said in an interview at a cafe in central Moscow near where she lives. “I wasn’t a spy. I wasn’t working for the government. I was just a civilian.”
But in December 2018, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring, under the direction of a Russian official, to “establish unofficial lines of communication” with high-level Republicans on behalf of Russia’s government from 2015-17.
Prosecutors said she had tried to broker a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the judge at her sentencing hearing noted she had been sending political reports to Russia at the same time Russian intelligence operatives were trying to sway the election.
Since coming home, Butina has used her experiences with Washington insiders — and the time she spent in prison — to cast herself as an expert on both America and penal systems.
That was evident in April when she ambushed Russia’s most famous political prisoner, the opposition politician Alexei A. Navalny, on a surprise visit to the penal colony where he is held and which is notorious for harsh treatment.
Granted access as part of a civilian monitoring program, Butina favourably compared Navalny’s conditions to the US prisons where she had served time.
In a widely seen video broadcast by the state-owned Rossiya-24 television network, she said she was impressed by the facility’s food and medical services. Then she confronted Navalny, who at the time of her visit was one week into a 24-day hunger strike declared because he had been denied medical treatment for severe pain in his back and right leg.
“You can walk normally,” Butina tells Navalny, who did not consent to be filmed.
Navalny repeated to her that he was being denied access to his doctor, and walked off.
“I don’t judge Navalny. I said in that video what I saw,” Butina said in her interview.
Maria Pevchikh, who heads the investigative unit of Navalny’s organisation, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, said she believed Butina’s Duma seat was a gift not for her activities in the United States, but for her harassment of Navalny. He had embarrassed Putin by exposing the government’s plot to kill him, and revealing the luxurious nature of a Black Sea palace believed to be purpose built for the Russian president.
“If anything, this was a reward for what she did by visiting Navalny in prison, and that TV episode, which was highly embarrassing and disgusting,” Pevchikh said. “Not many people would agree to do that. And she did.”
In the United States, Butina’s case was treated like the plot of a Cold War thriller, and her love life — including 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 Trump — was dissected in lurid detail on cable news.
In Russia, however, the pro-government media portrayed her story as a miscarriage of justice. Butina was seen as a scapegoat for Democrats’ failure to come to grips with Trump’s victory. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it exemplified America’s rampant “Russophobia.”
Over a caviar-laden meal at a restaurant featuring cuisine from her native Siberia, Butina insisted that she wanted to use her new status as a national lawmaker to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.
“I believed in the friendship between the two nations, and I still do believe in it,” Butina said. “We can be friends, we must be.”
Yet in her frequent TV appearances and on social media, she has been outspoken in her criticisms of America, especially when it comes to meddling in the affairs of other countries and race relations.
“She is quite a good trophy” for the ruling party, Pevchikh said. “Just talking nonstop about how bad things in America are.”
Before the recent Duma elections, she published a post about US interference in foreign elections during the Cold War on Telegram, the social-media platform. “Their logic is that the US can intervene in the elections of other countries, but Russia cannot,” she wrote.
Butina, who worked before joining the Duma for RT, a government-backed television channel, frequently comments on systemic racism in America, as pro-Kremlin figures have done for decades.
In October 2020, Butina published a memoir, “Prison Diaries,” which discusses how her imprisonment affected her political views.
While her time in prison did not make her any less of a gun-rights advocate — she said losing her lifetime NRA membership particularly stung — it did diminish her affinity for the Republican Party, she said, as she witnessed America’s structural inequality first hand.
Much of the book explores her experiences with Black inmates, and she said her time in prison had broken down a lot of stereotypes she had once held — and showed her how racist the views were of many of those American influencers she had been close to.
Butina wants to use her new Duma platform to help Russians imprisoned abroad, saying she was eager to campaign against solitary confinement and torture. But when she was asked about a recent leaked cache of graphic videos that purported to show torture and rape in Russian prisons, Butina hesitated to comment, saying they needed to be verified.
Some of the Russian figures she has publicly supported include the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Butina, who during her time in the United States earned a master’s degree in international relations, with a focus on cybersecurity, from American University in Washington, continues to be highly active on social media. That was certainly the case in the United States, too, before she attracted the attention of FBI investigators with her photographs with prominent Republicans like Donald Trump Jr., Rick Santorum and Scott Walker, as well as NRA leader Wayne LaPierre.
Her connection to Russian government figures predates both her time in the Duma, and the United States. She arrived in Moscow from her native Siberian city of Barnaul in 2011 and soon after was hired as special assistant by a Russian senator, Alexander P. Torshin, an influential member of United Russia who later would become deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank.
Still, in Russia, she is not a well-known personality, said Andrei Pertsev, a political journalist with the independent news outlet Meduza.
“The broad masses do not know her,” he said.
Butina was now just one among many “propagandists” in the 450-member Duma, Pertsev said, adding that in his view her elevation to the body — her seat was given to her by the governor of the Kirov region — was a way for the government to imbue her statements against America with more heft.
With her new job, “it is as if the speaker’s status rises, and these things, they sound more weighty,” said Pertsev, who shares something unwelcome in common with Butina.
His media outlet, Meduza, was designated a “foreign agent” by Russian authorities earlier this year, a charge that echoes the one against Butina, who failed to register her activities with the Justice Department as required by US law.
But in Russia, the foreign agent label is primarily wielded against Russian citizens engaged in independent journalism or human rights work, and it has been increasingly applied to organisations and individuals whose work displeases the Kremlin.
“Don’t compare our law with your law,” Butina said, adding that she found the Russian law less onerous in its requirements than the American one.
As part of her US plea deal, Butina had to admit to being part of an organised effort, backed by Russian officials, to persuade powerful conservatives that Russia should be counted as friend, not foe.
During her defense, her American lawyers argued in court that Butina’s efforts had been well-intentioned and stressed that she had never tried to hide what she called her “diplomacy project.” Back in Russia, she denies ever having been part of a broader plot and insists she acted on her own.
“If I had known that I have to register to build peace between the two nations by my own initiative,” she said, “I would have loved to.”