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Gun Play: The Rise And Fall Of Maria Butina's Wannabe Russian NRA

Maria Butina speaking at a rally in support of the legalization of handguns in Moscow in 2013
Maria Butina speaking at a rally in support of the legalization of handguns in Moscow in 2013

Ahead of the December 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia that triggered street protests over alleged fraud, veteran opposition politician Vladimir Milov says he was contacted by a then obscure group asking to speak at an antigovernment rally he was planning.

The group had formed earlier that year under the name Right To Bear Arms and was lobbying for an end to the country's ban on pistols and revolvers.

"It was a mystery, basically, where they came from. But initially, you know, we were not really too suspicious because they were like many different small groups appearing here and there," Milov, a longtime advocate for greater gun rights, told RFE/RL.

The collaboration did not go as planned, according to Milov. He says the Right To Bear Arms representative ignored the requirement that speakers at the rally denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin's government, instead focusing exclusively on the gun issue.

"They said, 'No, no, no, we're not about politics. We're only about gun rights. So essentially our response was: 'What in the hell are you doing with us here?'" Milov said.

In the years that followed, the group's leader, Maria Butina, would proceed to build connections with one of the most powerful political lobbies in the United States -- the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has deep ties to the Republican Party of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Her foray into American politics, however, ultimately led to her arrest in Washington this month on charges of illegally acting as a Russian agent on U.S. soil.

Butina's motives, movements, and connections have become a subject of intense scrutiny and debate, and have resulted in a diplomatic standoff with Moscow.

But her sudden emergence seven years ago -- at the age of 22 -- as a well-connected gun-rights activist also caught many off guard in Russia, where the gun issue has long been on the political fringe.

"No one took her seriously at first," Vyacheslav Vaneyev, the most recent deputy head of Right To Bear Arms, told RFE/RL.

But after she came to Moscow from the Siberian city of Barnaul in 2011, Vaneyev said, Butina "truly did unite almost all [Russian] gun organizations."

'Big Money Is Behind Them'

For more than a decade before Butina founded Right To Bear Arms, Russia's gun-rights activists toiled away in relative obscurity to loosen the country's gun statutes.

"Before [Butina's group] there were two organizations working in this area, but their activities were on a very small scale, and they existed on paltry fees from their members," Andrei Vasilevsky, who headed the now-defunct Russian advocacy group Civilian Weapons Union, told RFE/RL.

Russia's constitution, unlike its U.S. counterpart, does not guarantee people's right to "keep and bear arms," and gun laws in Russia are considerably more restrictive than in the United States.

In Russia, it is legal to own smooth-bore, long-barreled shotguns, as well as self-defense weapons such as stun guns and gas pistols, as long as one has a license. But handguns and assault rifles are banned for the broader public.

Officials have long resisted any significant liberalization of gun laws in Russia, where opinion polls have shown a largely dim view of making firearms more accessible to the public.

"I am deeply convinced that the free flow of firearms will bring a great harm and represents a great danger for us," President Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, said in 2011.

Advocates for liberalized gun laws across the political spectrum, meanwhile, argue that greater access to firearms -- most notably handguns -- are essential for personal safety.

Butina's group quickly made a splash, drawing support from a handful of federal lawmakers and other public figures for its rather quixotic bid to allow Russians to arm themselves with handguns.

"We were the first who sought to bring this issue to the broader public," Muslim Sheikhov, who helped found Right To Bear Arms, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Right To Bear Arms began staging street rallies, organizing roundtables involving officials, and reaching out to a range of political forces.

Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov
Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov

Milov, head of the liberal Democratic Choice Party, said he was struck at first by how "well technically equipped" Butina's group appeared to be and the quality of the merchandise at their rallies.

"There was a clear idea from the beginning that somebody is behind them, big money is behind them," he said.

Butina's associates had long assumed that Right To Bear Arms was being funded mainly thanks largely to member fees and the sale of several furniture stores she owned in her Siberian hometown of Barnaul.

But following Butina's indictment this month, The Washington Post confirmed that Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolayev, who has had dealings with Kremlin-connected tycoons, had supported the group.

Three current or previous senior members of Right To Bear Arms told RFE/RL that they had never heard of Nikolayev's involvement.

"I don't even know who that is," Igor Shmelyov, the last head of Right To Bear Arms, told RFE/RL in a Facebook message this week.

Vasilevsky, the gun-rights activist whose group cited the emergence of Right To Bear Arms as part of the reason his organization closed in 2013, told RFE/RL this week that he had heard as early as 2011 that Nikolayev was interested in financing efforts to liberalize gun laws.

"I know only that he planned to support the promotion of these ideas in some form," Vasilevsky told RFE/RL, adding that he had never been told directly -- or seen concrete evidence -- that Nikolayev funded Right To Bear Arms.

Russian tycoon Konstantin Nikolayev (file photo)
Russian tycoon Konstantin Nikolayev (file photo)

A spokesperson for Nikolayev said in a statement that the businessman "has had no contact with Ms. Butina or her organization since 2014."

"He briefly provided some funding to the organization from 2012 to 2014 specifically to support their efforts in Russia to raise public awareness around certain domestic issues," the statement said.

The Guardian reported on July 26 that Nikolayev's wife is an accomplished sport shooter and has business ties to the gun industry in Russia.

'Things Started To Decline'

Whatever the sources of financing for Right To Bear Arms, gun-rights activists became optimistic about the prospects of reforms to gun laws after her ties to Aleksandr Torshin, a Russian senator at the time the group was founded, emerged.

"At that point people became very enthusiastic," Vaneyev told RFE/RL.

Torshin, who in July 2012 announced a plan to introduce legislation that would broaden access to handguns, matches the description of the Russian official who U.S. prosecutors allege was directing Butina's efforts in the United States to influence U.S. policy on Russia.

"There was talk that, yes, they might be ready to allow pistols and revolvers," Vaneyev said.

By mid-2014, according to Butina, Right To Bear Arms had "several thousand members" in around 70 Russian regions.

A screenshot of a VKontakte post by Maria Butina that contained a photograph of her next to former Russian Senator Aleksandr Torshin in Washington. (file photo)
A screenshot of a VKontakte post by Maria Butina that contained a photograph of her next to former Russian Senator Aleksandr Torshin in Washington. (file photo)

Torshin's planned legislation, however, never went anywhere, and a bill by the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party that would allow certain types of handguns was shot down in a first reading by Russia's lower house of parliament in 2013.

While Right To Bear Arms continued to push its agenda in the ensuing years, it began to recede from public view after Butina stepped down as its head in January 2015 to pursue graduate studies, including at American University in Washington.

"The Right To Bear Arms movement tried to become an analogue to the NRA in America, but the number of members and the level of political activity was not at all the same," Sheikhov said.

He called Butina the "battery that ignited everyone" and that "things started to decline" after she left.

"Maybe it could have been otherwise if Maria had been more active," Sheikhov said, adding that other prominent gun-rights activists lacked Butina's charisma and popularity.

'Society Is Not Ready For This'

Vaneyev said that while the group has moved away from staging street rallies, it still advocates reforms to Russia's gun laws. In recent years, however, he says "authorities have stopped discussing this issue with civil society."

Senior Russian officials appear to be maintaining their resistance to relaxing gun laws.

"We are opponents of the spread of guns. Our society is not ready for this, neither economically nor psychologically," Viktor Zolotov, a longtime Putin confidant who serves as the head of Russia's National Guard, which is responsible for registering and licensing firearms, said in October.

Sergei Melikov, first deputy head of the National Guard, said in March 2017 that there are more than 4.5 million registered gun owners -- or around 6.5 percent of the population -- in Russia who altogether have around 7.3 million firearms.

"The general perception is that Russians should never be allowed to own guns because they will simply shoot each other," said Milov, the opposition politician who has called for legalizing handguns.

Milov says he increasingly believes Right To Bear Arms was initially created to infiltrate Russian opposition groups and, later, the NRA.

"I don't think that these people ever had any illusion that the gun issue could be promoted to the top of Russian politics," he said.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who backs legalizing handguns, offered support for Butina's 2014 bid to join the Public Chamber, a government consultative body. Ilya Ponomaryov, who was the lone Russian lawmaker to vote against Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, spoke at the Right To Bear Arms' annual conference in 2013.

A photo from Maria Butina's Facebook account
A photo from Maria Butina's Facebook account

Vaneyev called the suggestion that the group was a Kremlin project "complete stupidity."

A court liquidated Right To Bear Arms in March due to bureaucratic carelessness after Butina's departure, Vaneyev said. The group failed to file several years of accounting paperwork to authorities, he said, adding that he is working on restoring the group's legal status.

"If we were a Kremlin project, they certainly wouldn't have closed us," Vaneyev said, adding that the group reached out to a range of different political parties and movements. "We would have a certain amount of financing."

Kristina Potupchik, a prominent former pro-Kremlin youth activist, also recently dismissed suggestions that Butina was backed by the government, citing allegedly leaked 2014 text messages appearing to show a Kremlin official discussing plans to generate negative press about Butina.

Vaneyev and others in Russia's gun-rights community have called the charges against Butina, who has pleaded not guilty, absurd.

Right To Bear Arms currently has more than 40,000 subscribers to its account on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte, though its official website is no longer active.

The web address that previously featured Butina's personal website now advertises pornography.

Asked about the current level of optimism in the gun-rights community about potential reforms compared to seven years ago, when Right To Bear Arms was founded, Vaneyev said: "There's considerably less."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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