After Time in U.S. Prisons, Maria Butina Now Sits in Russia’s Parliament


MOSCOW — When Russia’s decrease home of Parliament, or Duma, assembled final month for the primary time following elections in September, one in all its latest members was a reputation extra acquainted in the United States than in her house nation.

Maria V. Butina made headlines throughout America when she was convicted three years in the past of working as an unregistered overseas agent making an attempt to infiltrate influential conservative political circles earlier than and after the 2016 election.

She is now targeted on enjoying a distinguished position in Russia’s political system — by way of authorized means this time, and with the assist of President Vladimir V. Putin’s United Russia social gathering.

Ms. Butina, 33, who returned to Russia in October 2019 after spending 15 months in a number of U.S. penitentiaries, together with 4 months in solitary confinement, now represents the impoverished Kirov area in the Duma.

Her critics have characterised her fast political rise as a thanks from the Kremlin, a declare she rejects.

“It’s not a reward,” Ms. Butina mentioned in an interview at a restaurant in central Moscow close to the place she lives. “I wasn’t a spy. I wasn’t working for the government. I was just a civilian.”

But in December 2018, Ms. Butina pleaded responsible to conspiring, underneath the route of a Russian official, to “establish unofficial lines of communication” with high-level Republicans on behalf of Russia’s authorities from 2015 to 2017.

Prosecutors mentioned she had tried to dealer a gathering between then-candidate Donald J. Trump and Mr. Putin throughout the 2016 presidential marketing campaign, and the decide at her sentencing listening to famous she had been sending political stories to Russia on the identical time Russian intelligence operatives have been making an attempt to sway the election.

Since coming house, Ms. Butina has used her experiences with Washington insiders — and the time she spent in jail — to solid herself as an skilled on each America and penal programs.

That was evident in April when she ambushed Russia’s most well-known political prisoner, the opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny, on a shock go to to the penal colony the place he’s held and which is infamous for harsh therapy.

Granted entry as a part of a civilian monitoring program, Ms. Butina favorably in contrast Mr. Navalny’s circumstances to the U.S. prisons the place she had served time.

In a extensively seen video broadcast by the state-owned Rossiya-24 tv community, she mentioned she was impressed by the ability’s meals and medical providers. Then she confronted Mr. Navalny, who on the time of her go to was one week right into a 24-day starvation strike declared as a result of he had been denied medical therapy for extreme ache in his again and proper leg.

“You can walk normally,” Ms. Butina tells Mr. Navalny, who didn’t consent to be filmed.

Mr. Navalny repeated to her that he was being denied entry to his physician, and walked off.

“I don’t judge Navalny. I said in that video what I saw,” Ms. Butina mentioned in her interview.

Maria Pevchikh, who heads the investigative unit of Mr. Navalny’s group, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, mentioned she believed Ms. Butina’s Duma seat was a present not for her actions in the United States, however for her harassment of Mr. Navalny. He had embarrassed Mr. Putin by exposing the federal government’s plot to kill him, and revealing the luxurious nature of a Black Sea palace believed to be function constructed 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,” Ms. Pevchikh mentioned. “Not many people would agree to do that. And she did.”

In the United States, Ms. Butina’s case was handled just like the plot of a Cold War thriller, and her love life — together with a relationship with a Republican operative, Paul Erickson, whom she met in Russia in 2013 and who would later be convicted of monetary crimes and pardoned by Mr. Trump — was dissected in lurid element on cable information.

In Russia, nonetheless, the pro-government media portrayed her story as a miscarriage of justice. Ms. Butina was seen as a scapegoat for Democrats’ failure to come back to grips with Mr. Trump’s victory. Russia’s Foreign Ministry mentioned it exemplified America’s rampant “Russophobia.”

Over a caviar-laden meal at a restaurant that includes delicacies from her native Siberia, Ms. Butina insisted that she wished to make use of her new standing as a nationwide lawmaker to enhance relations between Washington and Moscow.

“I believed in the friendship between the two nations, and I still do believe in it,” mentioned Ms Butina. “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, particularly on the subject of meddling in the affairs of different nations and race relations.

“She is quite a good trophy” for the ruling social gathering, Ms. Pevchikh mentioned. “Just talking nonstop about how bad things in America are.”

Ahead of the latest Duma elections, she revealed a submit about U.S. interference in overseas elections throughout the Cold War on Telegram, the social-media platform. “Their logic is that the U.S. can intervene in the elections of other countries, but Russia cannot,” she wrote.

Ms. Butina, who labored earlier than becoming a member of the Duma for RT, a government-backed tv channel, incessantly feedback on systemic racism in America, as pro-Kremlin figures have finished for many years.

In October 2020, Ms. Butina revealed a memoir, “Prison Diaries,” which discusses how her imprisonment affected her political opinions.

While her time in jail didn’t make her any much less of a gun-rights advocate — she mentioned shedding her lifetime N.R.A. membership significantly stung — it did diminish her affinity for the Republican Party, she mentioned, as she witnessed America’s structural inequality first hand.

Much of the e book explores her experiences with Black inmates, and she or he mentioned her time in jail had damaged down numerous stereotypes she had as soon as held — and confirmed her how racist the views have been of lots of these American influencers she had been near.

Ms. Butina needs to make use of her new Duma platform to assist Russians imprisoned overseas, saying she was wanting to marketing campaign towards solitary confinement and torture. But when she was requested a couple of latest leaked cache of graphic movies that purported to point out torture and rape in Russian prisons, Ms. Butina hesitated to remark, saying they wanted to be verified.

Some of the Russian figures she has publicly supported embrace the convicted arms seller Viktor Bout, often called the “Merchant of Death.”

Ms. Butina, who throughout her time in the United States earned a grasp’s diploma in worldwide relations, with a deal with cybersecurity, from American University in Washington, continues to be extremely lively on social media. That was actually the case in the United States, too, earlier than she attracted the eye of F.B.I. investigators along with her pictures with distinguished Republicans like Donald Trump Jr., Rick Santorum and Scott Walker, in addition to the N.R.A.’s chief, Wayne LaPierre.

Her connection to Russian authorities figures predates each her time in the Duma, and the United States. She arrived in Moscow from her native Siberian metropolis of Barnaul in 2011 and shortly after was employed as particular assistant by a Russian senator, Aleksandr P. Torshin, an influential member of United Russia who later would turn into deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank.

Still, in Russia, she isn’t a widely known character, mentioned Andrei Pertsev, a political journalist with the impartial information outlet Meduza.

“The broad masses do not know her,” he mentioned.

Ms. Butina was now only one amongst many “propagandists” in the 450-member Duma, Mr. Pertsev mentioned, including that in his view her elevation to the physique — her seat was given to her by the governor of the Kirov area — was a method for the federal government to imbue her statements towards America with extra heft.

With her new job, “it is as if the speaker’s status rises, and these things, they sound more weighty,” mentioned Mr. Pertsev, who shares one thing unwelcome in frequent with Ms. Butina.

His media outlet, Meduza, was designated a “foreign agent” by Russian authorities earlier this yr, a cost that echoes the one towards Ms. Butina, who didn’t register her actions with the Justice Department as required by U.S. legislation.

But in Russia, the overseas agent label is primarily wielded towards Russian residents engaged in impartial journalism or human rights work, and it has been more and more utilized to organizations and people whose work displeases the Kremlin.

Don’t compare our law with your law,” Ms. Butina mentioned, including that she discovered the Russian legislation much less onerous in its necessities than the American one.

As a part of her U.S. plea deal, Ms. Butina needed to admit to being a part of an organized effort, backed by Russian officers, to steer highly effective conservatives that Russia must be counted as good friend, not foe.

During her protection, her American attorneys argued in court docket that Ms. Butina’s efforts had been well-intentioned and burdened that she had by no means tried to cover what she known as her “diplomacy project.” Back in Russia, she denies ever having been a part of a broader plot and insists she acted on her personal.

“If I had known that I have to register to build peace between the two nations by my own initiative,” she mentioned, “I would have loved to.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.