As a foreign student eager to bring American values to your home, you’d normally be a darling of US media and NGOs. Unless your name is Maria Butina, that is – then your fate is Russia conspiracy theories, media smears and jail.
Your story begins like a movie: A twenty-something from “flyover country,” going to Moscow to advocate for what Americans consider a basic constitutional right, but which has been curtailed for almost a century. Frustrated by the political and social opposition, you move to the US to study – at American University in Washington, DC, can’t get more American than that! – and seek out members and officials of the biggest US advocacy group for your cause.
You post photos of yourself in a cowboy hat at their conventions in the heartland and tell tall tales to your fellow students in an effort to be cool and fit in.
Next thing you know, you’re being arrested as “unregistered foreign agent,” and your American Dream turns into a Deep State nightmare. You are strip-searched and locked away in solitary confinement for weeks and months.
Staring at the wall of your cell between the humiliations and indignities, with only your thoughts for company, you wonder what your “crime” might be. Then it hits you: your well-publicized arrest happened on the eve of the presidential summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, which the entire US media establishment and the Democratic Party denounced as “treason” in advance. Two days earlier, special counsel Robert Mueller had charged 12 “Russian intelligence officers,” and now you are all tangled up in that conspiracy.
Your name is Maria Butina.
Just days after your arrest, Assistant US Attorney Erik M. Kenerson tells reporters your text messages show you offering “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”
No one questions him. ‘Red Sparrow’ had recently opened in theaters, further feeding fantasies about Russian spies manufactured by the CIA and Hollywood. So your life becomes tawdry, Cold War spy erotica. None of it is true, but you can’t defend yourself, and your lawyer has been gagged by a federal judge.
“Sex and schmoozing are common Russian spy tactics. Publicity makes Maria Butina different,” reads a headline in USA Today. Time Magazine says you “lived a double life by using sex and a love of guns to infiltrate American political organizations…in order to advance Moscow’s agenda.” When your lawyer protests, asking what kind of spy posts photos of activism on social media, USA Today sees that as “evidence the Russians have grown bolder in their spy efforts.”
It takes the prosecutors almost two months to sort-of apologize and say they “misunderstood” your texts. The media bury this retraction, if they report it at all.
Consular officials coming to check in on you are appalled at the “borderline torture”conditions of your detention: strip-searches, sleep deprivation, denial of healthcare and hygiene products (you know what that means). Aha! Cry the media, this is proof positive that you are an Agent of Putin Himself – even though consular visits are an elementary right under international law. It doesn’t matter. The Narrative must be preserved.
Most people in federal custody break. It’s only a matter of time. They plead guilty to a lesser charge just to have some hope of ever getting out. So you bend the knee, pleading guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent – and get sentenced to 18 months.
“I came to the US with hope,” you say. Now that hope has turned to ashes, because your name is Maria Butina, you’re Russian, and Russiagate must be fed.
Putin himself describes the verdict as “a travesty of justice,” saying that the US is trying to save face by jailing you because there is no crime they can convict you of. Of course, the media take this as further proof of your guilt.
Even then, you don’t break. Months go by, and your sentence is over. Right on cue, CNN describes you as “the first Russian citizen convicted of crimes relating to the 2016 US election.” Politico says you “admitted to being a secret agent of the Kremlin” who “infiltrated” the NRA. Just more lies on a growing mountain of smears.
You are bundled out of prison and turned over to immigration agents, to be deported. There are no immigrant rights activists, no ACLU, no NGOs protesting this. Of course not. Your name is Maria Butina, you’re a Russian, and the narrative must be fed.
A handful of honest journalists will point out the entire smear campaign was a “total disgrace” and “one of the most egregious political persecutions in recent history,” even calling it“one of Russiagate’s most shameful episodes.”
A congressman from Kentucky sympathizes, says you were “jailed to satiate the rampant Russophobia in the US these days.”
“What’s left of our great republic here should be ashamed of the way this justice was miscarried,” Daniel McAdams of the Ron Paul Institute tells RT.
It’s cold comfort to you now. You board that plane knowing that your parents will be waiting on the other side, and it’s been so long. Far too long. You just want to go home. Barnaul, near the border with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, may even be far enough from the US to leave the haters behind.
“I’m leaving America, and then it will all be over,” you say.
Maybe, as some well-intentioned people have suggested, you can write a book. “Russiagate’s first victim” sounds good as a headline. You come to America to get an education, and get far more than you bargained for – but as you said yourself, “Russians don’t surrender.”
Your name is Maria Butina, and you survived Russiagate. Welcome home.