How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria Butina? (with Celia Aniskovich)

Furniture saleswoman? Red sparrow? FSB operative? Gun nut? Siberian Disney princess? The host of the "Spy Affair" podcast asks: "Who IS Maria Butina?"

WHEN THE documentary filmmaker Celia Aniskovich watched the media coverage of Maria Butina in 2018, she realized that, while the case was making international headlines, the figure at the center of it remained a mystery. Who is this woman, anyway? she wondered.

To get to the bottom of it, Aniskovich spoke with Butina’s lawyer, her lover, her contacts at the NRA, the American friends who rode the rides with her at Disney World, and others, and spent hours interviewing Maria herself. Spy Affair, the remarkable six-episode podcast, is the result of that dogged investigation.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the “Who is Maria?” question proved difficult, if not impossible, to answer.

In the media—and I consider myself part of that designation—Maria Butina is portrayed as a red sparrow, a honeypot, a Russian spy who bedded ugly Republican dudes as part of an influence campaign (or worse). We think this because, first, she was convicted of a crime, and, second, we’ve all seen the photographs of her with various conservative movers and shakers: Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Jr., Wayne LaPierre, and so on.

But that is deceptive. Photos with politicians prove nothing. The honeypot reputation mostly comes from her trial, when the allegation that she used sex to infiltrate the NRA was suggested by prosecutors—and then retracted, when the judge called it out as over the line. All we know about her love life, really, is that she had a long-term relationship with Republican operative and convicted fraudster Paul Erickson, and that she cheated on him a few times to get with Patrick Byrne, then the CEO of

Butina and Erickson took great pains to demonstrate the legitimacy of their romance. Here is a clip of the unlikely couple doing a Disney duet, to prove their love is true:

That Butina decided to upgrade from this dork to Byrne, who is both a self-made multimillionaire and kind of hunky, may well be more about Patrick seducing Maria than the other way around. Or maybe all three of them are lying. With this deceitful crew, who knows?

While we are quick to call Butina a spy—I’ve done so myself plenty of times—the fact is, she was not convicted of espionage, but rather conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of Russia during her time in the United States. Even so, she was doing stuff that spies do. She was simultaneously taking classes at American University and infiltrating the NRA and the Republican Party in an influence operation managed by longtime Putin ally and alleged Russian mob boss Alexander Torshin, so she was hardly some innocent. As the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, in its section on Butina in Volume 5, “the nature and extent of Butina’s contacts and certain communications are indicative of work for the Russian intelligence services and inconsistent with her claims to the Committee about her activities and intentions in the United States.”

Torshin was not the only high-level Russian whom Butina had close ties to, per Volume 5. There was also Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian oligarch with reported ties to both Putin and Russian security services, part owner of the Russian private rail transport company N-trans, and board member of American Ethane, a Houston-based company chaired by another Russian, Mikhail Yuriev, a former Deputy Chairman of the Russian Parliament. There was Igor Zaytsev, the shadowy owner of a chain of jewelry stores outside of Moscow (which may well be cover). And there was Dmitry Rogozin, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and former Russian ambassador to NATO; Rogozin was sanctioned by the United States after the invasion of Crimea. (There are likely others, too, whom Butina knew well; this section of Volume 5 is heavily redacted). These are not gentlemen a twentysomething Siberian furniture saleswoman typically hobnobs with.

Unlike Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, and most of the American traitors complicit in seditious activities, Butina actually served time in prison. Because she is a Russian national, and thus subject to the whims of Vladimir Putin, it is fair to wonder how much freewill she even has. She’s been an absolute troll since her repatriation—as during her RT-sponsored visit to taunt imprisoned political dissident Alexei Navalny. Was that the real Maria Butina? Was it the carefree girl riding Space Mountain at Disney? The beauty to Paul Erickson’s beast? The gun nut? The Senate Intelligence Committee added this detail in a footnote, which is as good a summary as any: “Butina’s testimony was frequently incomplete and misleading.”

In our discussion, Celia Aniskovich told me she believes Butina is motivated by a desire for fame at any cost—which certainly tracks. The American media landscape, lord knows, is littered with pretty young sellouts who will say or do anything to get in front of a camera. If this is the case, Maria got her wish—in a decidedly O. Henry sort of way.

As to the “Who is Maria Butina?” question, the best answer I’ve found was supplied by the half-starved Navalny from his prison cell. To her face, he called her “a parasite and a servant of thieves.”

Ouch! The truth hurts.


E17: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria Butina? (with “Spy Affair” host Celia Aniskovich)

Description: “Spy Affair” is a six-episode podcast that asks the question: Who is Maria Butina? And then Maria Butina, Patrick Byrne, Peter Strzok, Bill Driscoll, and others help us figure that out. Greg Olear talks to documentary filmmaker Celia Aniskovich about her remarkable podcast. Plus: an exciting new employment opportunity at the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

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Photo credit: Collage from Maria Butina’s Instagram page.