Russian operative Butina 'wanted to influence society,' sister says

BARNAUL, Russia — The parents of Russian operative Maria Butina have revealed that she became interested in guns as a girl and say they can't believe she knowingly worked on behalf of the Kremlin.

Butina, 30, last month pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an undisclosed agent of Russia in the U.S. She also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

The pro-guns rights activist had spent years building connections in American political circles and with influential conservative groups including the National Rifle Association in an effort to push Moscow's agenda.

But in an interview with NBC News, Butina's family painted a picture of her childhood in a typical Soviet apartment in Barnaul, a far-flung Siberian city more than 2,000 miles from Moscow.

Butina took an interest in shooting when she was aged around 10, her father Valery Butin said.

"She saw me working with guns and learned about [them] from childhood," he recalled. "She learned how to shoot, how to assemble and disassemble a gun."

Butina was an ambitious student who got mostly A's and enjoyed studying English, her family said.

Like many other students in Russia, Butina learned how to assemble and disassemble Kalashnikovs as part of a first aid-related class at school. She was always among the fastest at the exercise, according to her younger sister, Marina.

In addition to shooting, Butina also played volleyball and skied, and enjoyed reading Harry Potter novels and books by Ray Bradbury.

She later attended the local Altai State University where she received degrees in political science and education, her parents said.

In 2011, she founded a Russian pro-gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms.

"She wanted to influence society," her sister told NBC News.

"At one point she grew so much that there wasn't enough space for her in this town anymore," Butina's father added. "And when she had the opportunity to go to the capital, she took it."

However, one firearms instructor reportedly said that Butina had no idea how to use a weapon around the time she set up Right to Bear Arms.

Speaking to the Associated Press in July, Boris Pashchenko recounted a 2011 encounter with Butina.

"I said [to Maria Butina], 'what about shooting?'" he 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 not immediately clear why Pashchenko and Butina's relatives gave different accounts of her level of familiarity with guns.

After moving to Moscow, Butina began traveling to America for NRA conventions.

In December 2015, Butina helped orchestrate a trip by NRA members to Moscow in which she set up a meeting between the American gun supporters and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, court papers say.

In 2016, she moved to the U.S. to pursue a master's degree at American University in Washington on a student visa.

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Maria Butina appears in a police booking photograph released by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. August 18, 2018. Alexandria Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION HAS BEEN PROVIDED SEPARATELY
This courtroom sketch depicts Maria Butina, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist suspected of being a covert Russian agent, listening to Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson as he speaks to Judge Deborah Robinson, left, during a hearing in federal court in Washington, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Prosecutors say Butina was likely in contact with Kremlin operatives while living in the United States. And prosecutors also are accusing her of using sex and deception to forge influential connections. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)
Mariia Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization, speaks on October 8, 2013 during a press conference in Moscow. - A 29-year-old Russian woman has been arrested for conspiring to influence US politics by cultivating ties with political groups including the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun rights lobby. Mariia Butina, whose name is sometimes spelled Maria, was arrested in Washington on July 15, 2018 and appeared in court on July 16, the Justice Department said. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this April 21, 2013 file photo, Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia. Prosecutors say they have “resolved” a case against Butina accused of being a secret agent for the Russian government, a sign that she likely has taken a plea deal. The information was included in a court filing Monday. (AP Photo/File)
Accused Russian agent Maria Butina is shown sitting at a table with a suspected Russian Intel Operative in a restaurant, according to court documents, in a FBI surveillance photo provided July 18, 2018. FBI/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. PICTURE OBSCURED AT SOURCE.
A note by accused Russian agent Maria Butina, according to court documents, is shown in this photo provided July 18, 2018. U.S. Government Exhibit/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. PICTURE REDACTED AT SOURCE.
US Marshals check their truck as they wait outside the US District Courthouse in Washington, DC on July 18, 2018. - Maria Butina was scheduled to appear at the court on July 18, 2018, to face charges that she sought to 'infiltrate' the US government. According to a federal indictment, Butina's very public activities masked the work of a 'covert Russian agent' with a plan to spearhead Moscow's influence in President Trump's Republican Party. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A US Marshals van leaves the garage of the Federal Courthouse in Washington, DC on July 18, 2018. - Maria Butina was scheduled to appear at the court on July 18, 2018, to face charges that she sought to 'infiltrate' the US government. According to a federal indictment, Butina's very public activities masked the work of a 'covert Russian agent' with a plan to spearhead Moscow's influence in President Trump's Republican Party. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Maria Butina, Russian gun rights activist linked to NRA, charged as Kremlin agent. https://t.co/xMMeLvI2UT https://t.co/u3PnALiqx3
Mariia Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization, speaks on October 8, 2013 during a press conference in Moscow. - A 29-year-old Russian woman has been arrested for conspiring to influence US politics by cultivating ties with political groups including the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun rights lobby. Mariia Butina, whose name is sometimes spelled Maria, was arrested in Washington on July 15, 2018 and appeared in court on July 16, the Justice Department said. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Per sources: accused Russian agent Maria Butina was arrested on Sunday because law enforcement feared she was about… https://t.co/0ApzTGcE0z
Russian national Maria Butina has been indicted on two charges, including acting as a foreign agent… https://t.co/Opgf80Mem8
ALEXANDRIA, VA: In this undated handout photo provided by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office, Russian national Maria Butina is seen in a booking photo in Alexandria, Virginia. Butina is awaiting trial on spying charges. (Photo by Alexandria Sheriff's Office via Getty Images)
This courtroom sketch depicts Maria Butina, in orange suit, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist suspected of being a covert Russian agent, listening to her attorney Robert Driscoll, standing, as he speaks to Judge Deborah Robinson, left, during a hearing in federal court in Washington, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson, bottom left, and co-defense attorney's Alfred Carry, second from right, and Dansel Plunkett, listen. Prosecutors say Butina was likely in contact with Kremlin operatives while living in the United States. And prosecutors also are accusing her of using sex and deception to forge influential connections. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)
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The charge against Butina was brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In pleading guilty, Butina admitted to working with her Republican operative boyfriend Paul Erickson — identified in court papers as as "U.S. Person 1" — at the behest of a Russian official in order "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics … for the benefit of the Russian Federation."

Erickson has not been charged.

The Russian fits the description of Alexander Torshin, who recently retired as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. As NBC News has previously reported, Torshin reached out to the Trump campaign seeking a meeting between Putin and Trump. He met Donald Trump Jr. in May 2016 at an NRA dinner.

The Russian government has strenuously denied that Butina has any ties to official government conduct.

Butina was arrested in July 2018, just hours after President Donald Trump and met Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin privately at a summit in Helsinki, Finland.

The felony Butina pleaded guilty to carries a potential prison term of up to five years. As she's not a U.S. citizen, Butina faces deportation after serving her sentence.

Butina's father said family members speak with her about once a week from prison, where she awaits sentencing.

Most of his daughter's belongings are already back in Russia, with the most recent batch arriving about a month and half ago, he added.

But Butina's father can't explain how she ended up behind bars in the U.S, saying that he "can only guess" that she didn't know "all the legal nuances."

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