Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina, the pro-gun activist who pleaded guilty for conspiring to act as an agent of the Kremlin in the US, took an interest in shooting as a child, and from a young age wanted to “influence society,” her parents said in a wide-ranging interview about her upbringing.
The 30-year-old admitted in DC federal court last month to working with an American and a Russian official in an effort to establish unofficial lines of communication between US pols and Moscow.
Butina pursued her connections with influential conservative groups including the National Rifle Association in an effort to push Moscow’s agenda.
In an interview with NBC News, her father, Valery Butin, said she grew up in Barnaul, a far-flung Siberian city more than 2,000 miles from Moscow, and became interested in guns when she was about 10.
“She saw me working with guns and learned about [them] from childhood,” he told the network. “She learned how to shoot, how to assemble and disassemble a gun.”
Like many youngsters in Russia, Butina learned how to assemble and disassemble AK-47 assault rifles as part of a first aid-related class at school — and was always among the fastest at the drill, said her younger sister, Marina.
Butina, who also enjoyed reading Harry Potter books, earned degrees in political science and education from Altai State University, according to her parents.
In 2011, she founded Right to Bear Arms, a Russian pro-gun rights group.
“She wanted to influence society,” Marina told NBC News, without saying how.
Despite the family’s account, one firearms instructor told the Associated Press in July that Butina had no clue how to handle a firearm around that time.
“I said [to Maria Butina], ‘What about shooting?’” Boris Pashchenko recalled. “Maria said, ‘I have never tried it.’ I said, ‘Come to us.’ Our acquaintance started with this. She came here, I gave [her] a gun, a rifle, and she tried to shoot.”
It was unclear why Pashchenko and Butina’s relatives gave different accounts about her knowledge of guns.
Her father said that “at one point she grew so much that there wasn’t enough space for her in this town anymore. And when she had the opportunity to go to the capital, she took it.”
After moving to Moscow, Butina began traveling to the US to attend NRA conventions.
In December 2015, she helped plan a trip by NRA members to Moscow in which she set up a meeting between the Americans and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, NBC News reported, citing court papers.
In court documents, Butina said her efforts to cultivate unofficial lines of communication between US politicians and Moscow began in that year.
She worked with an American official — widely believed to be her 56-year-old boyfriend, GOP operative Paul Erickson — to create a plan for setting up a back channel with Republicans, whom she expected to win the next election, under the direction of Russian official Alexander Torshin.
Erickson has not been charged and the Russian government has vehemently denied that Butina — who moved to the US in 2016 to attend the American University in Washington — has any ties to official government conduct.
Butina’s father said family members speak with her about once a week from prison, where she awaits sentencing for the felony, which carries a potential sentence of up to five years.
He told NBC News that the family can’t explain how the young woman ended up behind bars in the US, saying that he “can only guess” that she didn’t know “all the legal nuances.”