Long before she became a fixture at NRA conventions, and years before she allegedly attempted to set up a back channel between the Kremlin and Republican officials, Maria Butina got her foothold in the US in South Dakota.
She was invited to family dinners of buffalo steaks, shot pheasants with local hunters, and established a track record of speaking to American students about gun rights. It would eventually become the blueprint for her outreach efforts to Washington and the NRA, where the FBI says she established connections “based on common views and a system of conservative values.”
Now a growing number of people in this sparsely populated state best known as the home to Mount Rushmore are flabbergasted to find themselves in photos or Facebook friends with an alleged Russian agent. Last month, Butina was arrested and jailed as an unregistered foreign agent for carrying out a years-long campaign to infiltrate US conservative organizations, which prosecutors say was directed by a high-ranking Russian official and funded by a Russian billionaire. She has pleaded not guilty.
“I met a Russian spy 3 years before she was outed,” reads the recently edited caption of an Instagram photo posted in 2015 by Nick Johnson, now an enlisted US Marine, who posed with Butina at a Young Republicans summer camp.
He is part of a growing group — the pilot who took her flying, the restaurant owner who introduced her to the Moscow Mule, the local hunters who counted trophies with her, the congressional candidate who invited her to speak to kids about gun rights — asking the same question: What was Butina doing in South Dakota?
Butina made Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city, her home base in the US for several stays in 2014 and 2015 before moving to Washington on a student visa. It was there that she got her first US cellphone, with a South Dakota area code, and wrote detailed observations of how American institutions worked, from local elections to college campuses. While the FBI has focused on “the groundwork that Butina and the Russian official laid to influence high-level politicians” in 2015, her time in South Dakota was mainly spent with average Americans.
That fits with what former intelligence officers told BuzzFeed News her likely purpose was — to gather information and develop access to influential US figures.
“When she was connecting on a very local level, she was getting information on how our society works and building her backstory,” said Alex Finley, a former CIA operations officer.
In that sense, Butina's time in the US was similar to that of Russians who traveled to several states in 2014 for the Internet Research Agency, a state-sponsored troll farm indicted for trying to meddle in the 2016 election — “she was figuring out how things work, what are the political divisions on the local level, what could you exploit,” Finley said.
Although her subsequent efforts to set up high-level meetings were often clumsy, and not always successful, her time in South Dakota seemed to prove that when it came to the issue of gun rights, Russians had found a valuable access point to US conservatives.
“[Sioux Falls] reminded me of my native Siberia.”
Butina first visited South Dakota in April 2014, accompanied by her US partner and eventual boyfriend, Paul Erickson, a 56-year-old South Dakota Republican political operative and businessman. She’d met him five months earlier in Moscow, where he was part of a group of American gun activists who attended her group's annual meeting. The US delegation was headed by David Keene, a former NRA president whom Erickson had known since 1995.
The first thing she noticed when she got off the plane in Sioux Falls was that it smelled like home — “the frosty air and even the smell of the local flora reminded me of my native Siberia,” she wrote in an article for a Russian magazine in 2016.
The other was the large orange banner — “Welcome Hunters!” — at the airport, which proudly notes it is named for a former governor who served as an NRA president.
It was the perfect entry point in the US for the then–25-year-old gun enthusiast, who in conversations with locals often brought up that she had a lot in common with South Dakota’s culture.
In Washington, she often came off as overly solicitous in her introductions, and her fervent offers to connect made some uncomfortable, people who met her told BuzzFeed News.
In South Dakota’s largest city — which at 150,000 is still a fraction of the size of her native Barnaul in Siberia — the stakes were lower, and people were friendly. Her stories of fighting for citizens’ access to weapons tapped into the fear — and sympathy — of avid Second Amendment supporters in a state where billboards on the highway read “Eat steak. Wear furs. Keep your guns. The American way.”
On her first visit, touring the state after attending the annual NRA convention in Indianapolis, she hit the main sights, from Mount Rushmore (“I thought the work was more ancient”) to bison (“looks terrifying, right?”)
Half a year later, she was back again, going pheasant hunting with a local outdoor group.
Photos of her posted by Missouri River Outdoors that November refer to her as “our guest hunter, Maria, from Moscow, Russia,” with Erickson never far from her side — rare glimpses of the duo together.
“When we got there, we were told a Russian model was going to join the hunting group,” Kevin Connelly, who lives in Elk Point and was part of the group that day, told BuzzFeed News. In the company of men, Butina often brought up that she had been featured in Russian GQ, posing with guns.
“It was perfect for her mission.”
In the words of local blogger Cory Allen Heidelberger, “Boy, there’s gotta be a promo for South Dakota tourism in here somewhere.”
Heidelberger, who runs the liberal Dakota Free Press, has been crowdsourcing photos to find Butina’s hunting companions and not been surprised to get comments like “no way, that’s my boss!”
“South Dakota doesn’t make the news much, so now there’s so much intrigue because it really does intersect with almost every one of our lives,” he said. “People thought, ‘Here’s a girl who grew up shooting, she’s like my sister,’ and that’s all you needed to get a foot in the door."
While the later years of Butina’s work have been in the headlines, described by the FBI as a “calculated, patient” influence operation that left a trail of $300,000 in financial transactions, Erickson’s neighbors have been dissecting the time she spent in South Dakota.
“It’s so freaking crazy and surreal, I feel like there are now almost zero degrees of separation between myself and the most fascinating yet frightening true story of my lifetime,” said Nicole Allen, who said seeing news coverage of an alleged Russian agent living in her complex was “wild af” and that neighbors have been joking about the common areas being bugged. “It’s a rural, gun-loving state so I believe that’s why it was perfect for her mission.”
It was to that Sioux Falls apartment that Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, says she was planning to move with Erickson when she was arrested last month. He told BuzzFeed News the recent American University graduate was planning on starting a business there.
“Maria Butina was incredible”
Erickson used his local connections to give Butina a platform that would build a reputation in US gun activist circles.
Her local speaking engagements over the course of a few months in 2015 show how she used these low-key events, which were carefully documented on social media and written up on her blog, to establish herself.
“Maria Butina was incredible,” the organizer of a weeklong summer camp for teenage Republicans tweeted in July 2015, with a photo that shows Butina speaking, with Erickson standing behind her holding a map. “The kids *loved* her stories of working for freedom in Russia.”
Now that organizer, Dusty Johnson, is the Republican candidate for South Dakota’s lone US House seat and has found himself having to explain to critics how an alleged Russian agent ended up speaking to kids at his event.
“Expecting that people at a summer camp would sniff out a Russian spy as part of a 25-minute speech about freedom is probably expecting more than any rational person could,” he told the Argus Leader newspaper.
Johnson’s defense — that he had looked up Butina online before inviting her, and had been reassured because she had previously spoken at local schools and universities — shows that Butina and Erickson’s strategy of establishing a track record had been successful. Johnson didn't respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Earlier that year, in April 2015, Butina had spoken at the University of South Dakota, Erickson’s alma mater in his hometown of Vermillion.
A flyer for the event featured a professional headshot of Butina and a biography that portrayed her as the face of Russia’s gun rights movement. She hit all the now-familiar points, according to an outline of her speech posted on her website, telling students that South Dakota reminded her of Siberia, praising US gun laws, and ending with a Bible verse. In a Russian-language blog, she recounted that they had asked good questions and she had not found the stereotype of “dumb” American college students to be true, describing them as “not dumber and not smarter than our guys.”
A USD spokesperson told BuzzFeed News Butina was invited “as an international guest lecturer upon the recommendation of Paul Erickson,” who is listed as a “life executive member” of the W.O. Farber Center for Civic Leadership, a USD program.
Even when the issue was far removed from guns, Butina did not turn down any opportunity to speak in front of an audience. That same summer, she spoke to high school students at an “Academy of Finance” workshop in Sioux Falls about women and entrepreneurship, describing her experience running furniture stores in her hometown. The teacher later posted a thank-you note saying it was “priceless to have a leader like Maria Butina and Paul Erickson in our classroom to role model” for the students.
“There was no political discussion whatsoever” at her event, Sioux Falls School District spokesperson Ben Schumacher told BuzzFeed News.
He confirmed that it was arranged by Erickson, who at the time was a volunteer with the Junior Achievement of South Dakota program.
“They’re well aware that Ms. Butina’s boyfriend lived in South Dakota.”
Despite him playing a major role in setting up all of these events, Butina does not seem to mention Erickson once in her more than 4,000 blog entries, as well as thousands more posts and photos on Facebook, Instagram, VK, and Twitter. It appears to be a glaring omission for the live-in “boyfriend” her lawyer said she was moving to South Dakota for after a years-long relationship.
She only mentions him in her gun group’s promotion for an event in Moscow where he was speaking in September 2014, describing him as a “life member” of the NRA, a gun collector, a Christian, and airplane aficionado who had served as a political consultant in six presidential campaigns. The NRA did not respond to BuzzFeed News' repeated requests for comment.
According to the FBI affidavit, Butina’s relationship with Erickson was a cover that she “appears to treat…as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” Later on, she “expressed disdain” about having to live with him, prosecutors allege.
Erickson’s Sioux Falls apartment, where Butina lived on her visits in 2014 and 2015, lies in a quiet complex centered around an American flag, silent except for the wind chimes on neighbors’ balconies and the muted roar of a nearby highway. Families of deer circle behind a patch of trees by the bike path she used for morning runs and yoga. The listed address for Erickson’s business, Compass Care, is right across the street, in the same complex as the local office for US Sen. John Thune. Last month, it looked abandoned, with boxes of files sitting on the floor of the darkened front office.
It must have been a stark contrast to Butina’s life in Moscow, which, according to friends in Russia and photographs, was often a whirlwind of television appearances, interviews, speeches, and dinners at which she was the center of attention as the face of her organization.
“She is not a private person; she’s a public person,” her lawyer argued in court last month. “She was famous in Russia before she came to the US.”
Living in the Sioux Falls complex with Erickson, neighbors told BuzzFeed News, she was friendly but mainly kept to herself. Often spotted in running clothes, and once with her leg in a cast, she did not appear to make any personal friends and spent a lot of her time online, blogging about her workouts and healthy recipes on her personal account.
However, a number of Butina’s online posts were long, detailed observations about how things worked in the US that showed an unusual interest for a twentysomething who was visiting a rural state. She wrote about local school board elections in Sioux Falls, detailing the process of how IDs and tablets were used to vote and saying she was “fortunate to observe how local self-government is realized here.”
Her posts for and about her gun rights organization — which experts doubt was a legitimate grassroots organization, but rather a cover for her activities — increasingly incorporated US-centered and NRA talking points.
She often wrote about US crime and gun ownership statistics. She spoke and wrote about the mass shootings at Sandy Hook and Fort Hood, and shared US news stories about non-gun violence, for example, a 2014 story about about 24 people injured at a high school stabbing in Pittsburgh.
Although she almost always posted in Russian, the memes she shared were often in English, so the Americans she met and friended on social media were able to comment on them. They often featured graphic images to make their point — bloody knives, terrified women cowering from an aggressor, a victim shot in the head, and glamour shots of herself with weapons.
Her posts also became more political.
“According to supporters of the US Democratic Party, Russians can not be trusted with weapons,” she says in one of her blog's headlines in 2014. She often referenced NRA posts critical of President Barack Obama’s policies. The following year, when Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy, she shared a post titled “Hillary Equates Gun Owners With Terrorists, Says They Are 'Prone to Violence,'" and later posted the NRA’s anti-Clinton ad.
She also wrote about wanting to get her pilot’s license while she was in South Dakota. In November 2015, she took a discovery flight with Legacy Aviation, a flight school 10 minutes from Erickson’s apartment. She posted several photos taken in the air and posed with her pilot log announcing her “flying classes had started today.”
The co-owner of the school, Mark Isackson, told BuzzFeed News that he had seen Butina in the news and was surprised to recognize one of his flight instructors in half a dozen photos with the alleged Russian spy three years earlier. “Oh…that’s Kurt, all right. That’s Kurt,” he said when a BuzzFeed News reporter showed him the pictures posted by Butina.
Kurt Andersen said he had “no recollection of this short introductory flight whatsoever.”
Butina never registered for formal flying lessons with the school, Isackson said. As a Russian citizen, she would have had to register through the TSA’s Alien Flight Student program, a post-9/11 screening process that requires noncitizens to undergo a "security threat assessment" before being cleared to attend flight school.
“My guess is there were many Butinas out there.”
In the background of all her activities in South Dakota is the presence of Erickson, usually the person taking her photo with the Americans she met. He is rarely pictured with Butina except for a few photos posted by other groups — the Right to Bear Arms convention, the outdoor group’s collection of photos from the pheasant hunt, a USD alumni event in Washington.
Erickson has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but prosecutors said in court filings that he was "instrumental in aiding her covert influence operation, despite knowing its connections to the Russian official." His efforts included helping in efforts to organize a meeting at the May 2016 NRA convention between then-candidate Trump and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia's central bank and a former Russian senator who was allegedly Butina’s handler in Russia.
Friends and former colleagues who spoke to BuzzFeed News described Erickson as a longtime bachelor, a “wild character,” a “bumbling bullshitter,” a “mystery wrapped in an enigma,” and “a sharp political guy” with a colorful past, known for hyping his connections and driving a bright red 1990s Mustang with the license plate RTWING.
In the small world of South Dakota politics, most people had run across him at some point, they said. His career spanned a bizarre range of work, including being a top staffer in Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, coproducing the anti-communist action movie Red Scorpion with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and lobbying for an African dictator.
In his memoir, Abramoff described Erickson as a “tall, thin raconteur” who “successfully hypnotized most of Washington's official media” when he worked with the College Republicans.
“No one was better to parachute into a crisis than Erickson,” he wrote.
Others describe him as a cash-strapped “con man” who according to South Dakota public records has at least seven court judgments totaling $421,212 against him and his companies since 2003, a fraud with an overblown sense of importance who, like Butina, was a compulsive networker. He kept connections from his time at the University of Virginia and Yale — for example, South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, who was recently surprised to discover he had hosted the alleged Russian agent for Thanksgiving.
“He’s a connector; he’s one of those guys that knows a lot of people, or pretends to, and puts himself in the middle of everything,” a friend of Erickson’s who worked in the same circles told BuzzFeed News. “We’d sit around and wonder what Paul is doing; does he really know the people he claims to know? Does he really own homes in Manhattan Beach and LA? You just don’t know.”
In his messages to Butina, revealed in court filings, he similarly bragged about the lists of influential people he could introduce her to, assuring her, “If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America…NO ONE could build a better list.”
While details of the years-long relationship among Butina, Erickson and Torshin continue to emerge, former intelligence officials and Russia analysts say theirs was just one of what was likely a large number of similar efforts.
John Sipher, a former member of the CIA clandestine service, said Russians “may well have dispatched a number of folks in different ways” to see what stuck.
Finley, the former CIA operations officer, agreed, saying Butina’s actions can’t be seen as “some giant master plan” but rather a part of Russians' countless low-cost, low-risk operations.
“When they sent her over, they didn’t know she’d infiltrate the NRA and meet high-level people, but as opportunities arose they’d take them. They were casting as wide a net as they could,” she said. “My guess is there were many Butinas out there.” ●