Let Me Tell You About My Friend Maria Butina — Who Might Be A Russian Spy
In 2015, my friend and I went to Disney World. Three years later, she went on a solo trip to prison.
On Friday, Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent. We've republished this essay, which explores her former friendship with Refinery29 writer Elena Nicolaou.
Gay Talese told me I was getting the story wrong. We were sitting next to each other at a sprawling wooden table at Morso, a Manhattan restaurant so far east I could see the Queensboro Bridge stretching into Queens from the window.
This meeting between me, a recent college graduate, and one of world’s most renowned journalists was organized by the now-indicted conservative political operative Paul Erickson, who worked mostly in the shadows to establish connections between the National Rifle Association (NRA), Republicans, and possibly Russia. My mother had met him at a seminar during their 25th Yale college reunion in 2009. He had made her laugh with a characteristically wildly clever joke; by the end of the day, he’d charmed his way into becoming an honorary member of the family.
After the reunion, Paul would punctuate months of silence with spontaneous (and ostentatious) activities for our family, like dinner at Sardi’s, a trip to Disney World, or a dinner with Gay Talese, whom he’d met during the trials of John Wayne Bobbitt in 1993. (Paul was Bobbitt’s media manager and spearheading his “Love Hurts” campaign; Talese was working on a 10,000-word story about the Bobbitts that would never run.)
This roundabout convergence brings us to that snowy evening in March 2017, when Talese told me I couldn’t see what was right in front of me, which was my friend Maria Butina, then 29. Like always, her long, red hair tumbled past her shoulders. She wore no makeup. Just an expression.
“You’re a reporter, right?” Talese asked. I nodded. I had just started my job as an entertainment writer at Refinery29, a publication he’d never heard of. Gay flicked his head toward Maria. She stared back at him with the intensity of someone who knows they are the subject of another person’s conversation. And no one could stare quite like Maria. In an instant or in an angle, her face could switch from bright wonder to an expression that seemed more hawk than woman.
“There’s your story. Her,” he said. “Why can’t this woman, this beautiful Russian woman, get a date?” He began sketching out his vision for a bombshell magazine article: She’s a Russian woman studying politics in Washington, D.C., months after the presidential election, a time when Russia is accused of interfering in American politics. She’s getting in heated fights with her classmates. She’s too busy defending her honor as a Russian to date.
“Write about the dating struggles of a Russian sexpot in D.C.,” he proclaimed, making eye contact with me for the first time that evening.
As Gay spoke, I watched the expressions of some people at the table freeze in degrees of bemusement and discomfort. My mom smirked. My dad, next to me, squirmed at the mention of sex. And Paul Erickson, sitting next to my mother, barely moved.
We all knew something Gay did not: Maria wasn’t single at all. She was dating Paul Erickson, a man nearly double her age. Paul’s stone face, usually on the cusp of a smile, made that much clear.
The story sitting in front of us, of course, was never why Maria Butina couldn’t get a date. No, I now know the real story was that Maria Butina is an alleged Russian spy — and that she had been my friend while she was purportedly working to influence American politics to be sympathetic to Russian interests at the height of the 2016 presidential election.
That was one of the last nights I saw either of them in person.
I first met Maria Butina at the arrivals terminal of the Orlando airport in 2015. She and Paul were sitting in the front of a large white van, which they’d rented to drive my family to a hotel outside of Disney World. They were wearing matching Mickey and Minnie Mouse hats.
We’d been hearing about Maria since Paul, the forever bachelor, appeared in our backyard in the summer of 2014 moonstruck with tales of a woman who shared his values and interest in guns. Maria was the founder of the Right to Bear Arms, a gun rights group that lobbied to end Russia’s strict restrictions on firearms. Although my family was comprised of four people who teared up when President Barack Obama gave speeches, Paul was so charming we overlooked his work for the NRA as if it were a genetic quirk that couldn’t be helped. His political views emerged in small puffs that dissipated over laughter and more exciting conversation — like this story.
Paul and Maria met in Moscow at a meeting of the Right to Bear Arms in November 2013, then reunited in Israel a few weeks later to be together on New Year’s Eve. It was all very fast and very romantic. In my head, I pictured a Russian starlet with deep red lipstick and a past of which she did not speak.
But that was not who I saw standing outside the van in Orlando. Here was a girl only six years older than me, wearing a princess T-shirt and blue jean cut-off shorts. Her entire personality in that moment boiled down to, “Excited to go to Disney World.” In contrast, Paul, then 53, seemed unbearably old, with his yellow buck teeth poking from his gums at jagged angles, and the last strands of his ridiculous haircut moments away from skipping town. “Come on,” I wanted to say to her. “Let’s Thelma and Louise out of here.” I had red lipstick in my back pocket, I really did.
What I know now: Maria’s feet were in concrete. She wasn’t going anywhere. But don’t feel bad — she put them there. After knowing Paul for some years, Maria moved to America in 2016 on a student visa. While she was studying at American University, she was also cavorting with politicians in meetings brokered by Paul. As with the day we met them, it appeared their daily activities comprised of a whirlwind of buzzwords like Republican party, National Prayer Breakfast, and gun rights, but we had no way of knowing specifics. Until the torrent of recent coverage, both Maria and Paul were virtually scrubbed from the internet (back in 2009, I’d scoured the internet for what Paul did for a living and found nothing but some mentions in South Dakota clips — turns out he didn’t put “conman” on his LinkedIn).
Before Orlando, Paul told us Maria’s biography in disjointed snippets. Snippets that, when sewn together, never smoothed to a cohesive timeline. Maria was raised in Siberia. Paul told us that when he visited her family in Russia, he used the outdoor sauna and her parents smacked him with wooden sticks, a Russian tradition. She only saw her parents once a year, a fact which saddened her greatly. She started a furniture-store chain in her early 20s. At some point, she became the president of the Russian equivalent of the NRA, which explained the glamour shots of her holding machine guns. She was close to Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian banker with ties to President Vladimir Putin, and longtime NRA donor. Currently, Torshin is at the center of an FBI investigation into whether Russian money funneled into the NRA went onto the Trump campaign.
Actually, together, she and Paul knew a lot of people. That’s what they seemed to do, most of the time. Fly from person to person. After our dinner with Gay Talese in 2017, for example, they were in a rush to get back to D.C. to “help” with President Donald Trump's transition.
For the next four days in Orlando in 2015, they were putting down their political agendas, and we were putting down our suburban lives, for a week of no-politics Disney World activities. They pretended we weren’t liberals, we tuned out Paul’s comments on "family values.” In exchange, we had fun. We swam with dolphins. When Maria chipped her tooth and missed a day at the park — an excuse that now seems suspect — my sister charmed the Magic Kingdom ticket-takers with our travails and shuttled us to the front of every line. After riding Space Mountain, Maria turned to me and said solemnly, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
It was fun. After scampering through five Orlando parks with Maria, my sister and I were undeniably bonded to our new Russian friend. She was kind, and eager, and stared at me solemnly when I spoke. I found it improbable that she, this woman who was only a few years older than me yet lived a much bigger life, would take me, a college student, so seriously when I spoke. Naturally, I couldn’t stop speaking to her.
“Thank you, Elena, for your ‘big sister’ demeanor that Maria so identified with — she saw in you several of the things that she tries to do with her own younger sister (and learned several things that she never imagined),” Paul wrote in an email after the trip. When I think of her, I cloak her with the forgiving fondness of someone I once loved.
The next time I saw Maria was at my graduation party in June 2016. She and Paul didn’t RSVP. They drove from D.C. to my house in New Jersey and surprised us by strutting into the backyard wearing togas, a nod to my family’s Greek background. Their sudden appearance two hours into the party elicited audible shrieks of glee. Paul and Maria were known for these kind of stunts: They brought “arrrrr-rated” pirate costumes along for their Disney cruise, according to Paul’s email, and serenaded each other with songs from Beauty and the Beast.
At the party, Maria sat on a chaise lounge in the shade and provided free entertainment. Maria’s credentials as a psychic were mysterious but rendered believable by her unwavering, serious tone — just like her entire biography. “The powers of a white witch skip a generation,” she said, before taking my palm into hers. “My grandmother taught me.”
She stared at my palm and paused with the anticipation of an awards show presenter. “You are definitely a cheater,” she pronounced, eventually. “One hundred percent a cheater. You will definitely cheat on your husband.” I was 22, and by then had gone to countless palm readers down the Jersey shore and in small storefronts in suburban towns. None had unrolled fortunes with such matter-of-factness. She proceeded to unspool similarly merciless fortunes to the rest of my friends brave enough to face her firing squad. She told one girl she wouldn’t get married, but would have one child, “at best.” Another, that she would forever fight with her parents.
Nearby, Paul charmed a table of my friends with stories of celebrities he’d met while working the Oscars. None of them were verifiable; all of them were fascinating. Briefly, the conversation turned to the media spectacle that was the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Paul dismissed any talk of competition with a flick of his hand. “Trump’s going to win,” he said, confidently. I rolled my eyes. He sounded like a conspiracy theorist.
Or, he sounded like someone who knew what he was talking about. After all, what was it, exactly, that had been keeping him so purposeful ever since we’d met him? Paul wasn’t plugged into conventional worries. He had a big life, without the trappings of a desk job or a 401k to fill. He supposedly had money in the Bakken oil fields and elder-care homes (now revealed to be part of his long-running fraud). He had stories.
But which of his stories were true? Did he really spend his summers in college fighting Communists abroad? Did he really fly Green Day out for his niece’s birthday party in South Dakota? Who did he know? Who was he? Before, those questions were like pestering flies that I flicked away so I could pay attention to the glitz of it all.
Now that his stories of NRA meetings and the Russian government were converging oddly with current events, I snapped to attention. Namely, what were the “meetings” he was constantly referencing, in-between his bursts of booming laughter and fast-paced spouts of celebrity gossip? Why did they interrupt our dinner at Orlando’s Bahama Breeze to briefly meet with that Russian couple? Later, when photographic evidence of Maria meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and other GOP and NRA officials emerged, I wasn’t surprised. I was relieved. I was right.
With every new article about Maria that comes out, I get texts from people who were at the party. “Is that the lady who read my palm and said I’d fight with my parents until I died?” my friend asked. I responded with an affirmative in all-caps. Their glum fortunes pale next to the thrill of having been palm-to-palm with something big.
In May of 2017, Paul and Maria once again drove to my New Jersey home, this time for my sister’s graduation party. Same routine, different president — Paul had been right, after all. The pieces were coming together for us, now. Suddenly, all of Paul’s off-hand remarks about Russia and the president seemed less like good guesses and more like insider knowledge. My friends and I whispered about what Paul and Maria knew, and deliberately took pictures with Maria’s brimmed hat and Paul’s pink shirt in the background so that one day, we could say we were there.
After my sister’s graduation party, I became consumed with following news that most people hadn’t caught up to yet. I set notifications for Paul Erickson and Maria Butina. During long walks with my ex-boyfriend, who had spoken to Paul about oil futures at the party, I catalogued all the new information I’d gathered from Twitter sleuths and extremely early reports in The Daily Beast. He thought I was exaggerating, as he always did.
But something was coming. The buzzwords on the news were the same words that Maria and Paul had shadily been floating around for years. Eventually, someone with access to information would add up what I never could. Someone would situate the nuggets of information Paul and Maria had been dropping cryptically around us for years into a big picture, one that involved the United States and Russia, the GOP and billionaires, power and nefariousness. My own homespun crazy wall could only lead to one conclusion: Something was up.
Not long after my boyfriend and I broke up, Maria Butina was charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent. I didn’t even have to text him a petty and victorious, “I told you so.” The front-page story about Maria Butina’s alleged subtle campaign to influence the far-right in the New York Times did it for me.
Amid the swirl of coverage about Maria and Paul that began in fall of last year, I return to that tense dinner with Gay Talese as the grounding moment. That night, we sat at a table raised inches off the ground, as if we were actors in a play.
Gay forced me to admit there was a story on my hands, though not the one he had in mind. That evening, I understood definitively that Maria and Paul were plugged into something wide-reaching, powerful, and scary. They were of the string-pulling class, whose actions would have reverberating effects on the rest of our lives. They embodied the shadow connections that tied the Christian right to the Russians, which potentially culminated to the election of Trump. They knew things I didn’t.
Back then, I knew the story of Paul Erickson and Maria Butina would end interestingly, though I couldn’t predict how. Two years later, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I may never know what they were actually up to. Is Maria a spy who seduced Paul? Is she a scapegoat? Is Paul (who denies all the accusations) the architect of some decades-long political scheme, or is just a skillful swindler, fooling me into reading my life as a fascinating story instead of a long dupe? How many lives did he unravel with his money-laundering scheme? And, as many pundits are already wondering, will any of these revelations topple Trump?
The mass of questions is tangled, thorny, and probably juicier than anything Paul Erickson could’ve come up with in one of his tales.
Last week, Paul was indicted for running a 22-year-long fraudulent financial scheme, which affected my family directly. In December, Maria pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and agreed to cooperate with the Feds, which means she may be testifying against Paul. Maria is adamant she’s not a spy — and a recent article in the New Republic convincingly points out the flimsiness of the FBI’s case against her. “If I’m a spy,” Maria told journalist James Bamford, “I’m the worst spy you could imagine.” Or, she could be the best, depending on how you view it.
On our last night in Orlando, Paul raised a glass to us. “There are many people in my life,” he said, eyes crinkling like you’d imagine Santa Claus’ would, “But only a few of them, true friends. You are among them.” For my mother, those kinds of words were emotional super-glue, bonding her to Paul’s side of things until the bitter end. So it’s taken her, she who still has the handwritten note from Paul framed in the basement, the longest to catch up to the cold light of the truth. She’ll be sending that letter to the FBI for evidence any day now. When she said she wished she'd been born in a different year, and attended a different reunion, I understood.
There will be no answers, probably, for those of us whose influence in the world extends only to our height off the ground. What I know is this: Maria Butina and I went to Disney World, once, and we had fun. She said a vertical line in my left palm meant I would be a writer. She invited me to Moscow as a friend, and I almost went.