Russian version of this text was published here.
Very few people know that before her arrival in the US, Butina had managed to gain trust with the Russian opposition, participated in the Russian human rights and opposition projects, and none of the activists she kept in touch with could even imagine that she worked for the government or intelligence agencies. Parallel to Butina’s “opposition” activities, she continued to work for Alexander Torshin while he was senator, participated in the organization of the NRA representatives’ visit to Russia (including Paul Erickson) and still had no problems with the FSB.
Only after Maria’s arrest in July 2018, when the entire history of her activities and connections was revealed, the human rights activists realized with horror that they had no idea what this person, whom they considered a soulmate, really did. In the summer, I talked to one of the girls who personally knew Butina during that period – the human rights activist Yulia Guseynova and was struck by how humane and forgiving she was toward Butina. It seems to me that after all the suffering and rethinking of many of her actions, Maria, as never before, would be capable of accepting information that the people whom she betrayed forgave her. And maybe their strong and noble act will stop her from participating in propaganda and other exploits of the Russian authorities after her return home.
Yulia Guseynova, in particular, fully endorsed the text of the letter and also expressed a desire to sign it. We sincerely wish Maria to return home as soon as possible and to successfully begin her new life.
An open letter to Maria Butina
You don’t know me personally, but I, like many journalists, have been closely following your story for a long time. I know that you kept in touch with the dissidents in Russia while you were already working for the government. Believe me, your arrest was a shock to those people. The entire time while you worked with them, they completely trusted you and couldn’t imagine that I quote, you had some sort of a “double bottom”. I have no doubt that you reported about these relationships with your friends who were close to the authorities, just as you told them about your contacts with the Americans; and I can only hope that this didn’t lead to the new reprisals and prison terms for these Russian dissidents.
But I want you to know: these people never gloated, never wished you harm, never condemned you for deceiving them. I personally spoke with a very gracious and courageous girl, Yulia Guseynova, from the Russian Bar Association for Human Rights. Upon learning of your arrest, the only thing she wanted to know was: how truthful were you in your relationship with her, why did you make such a choice, why did you start working for the same people that you were seemingly so critical of? She worried if this choice destroyed you from the inside, and what happened to your soul? Yes, Masha, these same people whose trust you betrayed did not throw stones at you, did not demand “revenge”, did not rejoice at your misfortune. Instead, they genuinely worried about your soul.
And I really want to believe, Masha, that many of them, just like me now, sincerely sympathize with your misfortune. Believe me, I know all about pain, intolerable torture by extreme circumstances, painful uncertainty, tears every day, daily fear of death, panic attacks and that terrible feeling that you did everything you could and the rest is out of your hands. I endured this hell due to the fault of the people whom you worked for, whose interests you promoted, for whom you prepared contacts and with whom you shared information. I know how it feels to lose a homeland and how it feels to lose friends, not because of a quarrel or divergent views, but because some of my friends were killed. Yes, Masha, two of my personal journalist friends were killed in the last three years, and I fully accept that I will never be able to visit their graves.
I saw in the press that in one of your letters to Torshin you wrote that “liberals obviously exaggerate the scale of their hardship” in Russia. No, Masha, on the contrary, many people don’t tell all they have experienced, especially when it comes to prisons and torture in those prisons. In the Crimea or in Donbas, these tortures are especially horrifying, and the FSB is often involved in them – the same FSB that you were so proud to cooperate with.
But that is why, Masha, these people, like no one else, are able to understand the depth of nightmare you are going through right now: every day in captivity, every new intransigence on the part of the prosecution, every thwarted hope that your ordeal is about to end, every day of tortured waiting. Believe me, no one is able to understand a suffering person as deeply and completely as a person who has suffered himself – even if he has always been on the other side of the barricades. And I want you to know: these people whom you have deceived, forgive you, Masha, and with all their heart want your suffering to end as soon as possible, and want your dream of a new life, cleansed of all this dirt, to finally come true.
I’m really sorry that your sentence turned out to be harsher than you could have hoped for, but even though time passes very slowly, it tends to fly unexpectedly quickly. Soon you will return to Russia (a country to which I myself and many of my friends may never be able to return). And there you may be faced with another harsh moral choice: an opportunity to become a media personality, another cog in the propaganda system, especially since you really have a genuinely bad experience in the US you could share (believe me, I also have it, although not on such a scale).
But I really hope that you will resist this temptation and stay true to the desire to start your life over, the desire that was born within you during this time and that you mentioned in court. Even if you think that you have become a victim of unjustified cruelty, understand that evil cannot be defeated by participating in another evil, especially on a larger scale. This will only deepen the abyss of complicity, incinerate your soul, and, most importantly, will not give you genuine relief. Even my choice, Masha, which at the time seemed morally irreproachable to me, and still seems to be the only correct one in the situation in which I made it, did not leave me unscathed. I wanted to protect the innocent: the victims of the war in the morally unambiguous situation of the confrontation between the victim and the aggressor. But the war morally cripples both the aggressor and the victim equally, and we, unfortunately, cannot change this eternal law. However, participating in the war on the side of those who don’t have truth on their side cripples the soul much more.
I by no means want to read you sermons, I just want to share an experience that may be important to you now: the experience of suffering. Suffering is sometimes a very tricky thing. At some point it can give you catharsis, true soul renewal, genuine repentance, it can help you see the world in the way you have never seen before, it can teach you to feel and sympathize in a completely new way. But it can also happen that time passes, the nightmare ends, and pain gradually replaces the purification and wisdom that you had attained. This pain seems unbearable, there is a feeling that it’s impossible to live with, that you can never start a new life because you cannot forget and forgive the experience.
Believe me, I experienced it. I faced slander and real betrayal – ugly, treacherous betrayal, committed by people whom I believed and whom I helped a lot. I also know how disgusting and cruel this world can be. The only difference is that you still did what you did, and I had to suffer through no fault of my own. And I also know the destructive power of this pain: the inability to forgive and forget. But believe me, Masha, if you begin to build your life under the onslaught of this pain, giving in to your feeling of revenge – this won’t bring you relief. One of the most common illusions is that it will be easier once you exact your revenge. It’s a lie. It will not be easier. The truth is that this secondary pain can alter, transform and help you to become a truly different person: wiser, more sensitive and more able to distinguish between good and evil. I was able to resist succumbing to this pain in spite of everything, and I believe that you can too. Despite all the adversity, you have remained a strong person.
Masha, both of us are Russian girls from the provinces, we both achieved quite a lot in life, both ended up in a foreign country, both were naive and idealistic; moreover, we are almost the same age, and, therefore, I think we are somewhat similar. I sincerely want to believe that you believed in what you did, that your plans reflected not only your ambitions but also your love for Russia – as you understood it. I believe that you didn’t wish evil to America, you just did what you thought was right. And I want to believe that deep down you are a good person, and after how much you have suffered, you must have become even better. However, love for the country is never reciprocated, so the best where we can direct our efforts are toward living, suffering people. I hope that in time you will understand it too.
I read that you have found faith while in prison. I’m also an Orthodox Christian, and therefore I believe that even being on the opposite sides in this confrontation, we can understand each other. Someday, the Russian-Ukrainian and undeclared “second Cold” wars will end, and the divisions will begin to take place on a different basis: between those who have suffered and those who have not, between those who sincerely believed in what they were doing and those who used them, between those who have found the strength to forgive, and those who have not yet been able to do so. And maybe there, in this new world, we can meet in person someday.
I really want to believe that when you return home you will be able to preserve those bits of virtue that you felt in captivity and not get involved in a new vicious circle of lies and complicity in evil. And we, the very “Russian liberals”, sincerely wish you peaceful return home, a new life, and new joys. Yes, we will never be the same, but maybe this is our only chance to become different. We believe that you will never repeat the same mistakes again and will not succumb to either flattering persuasion and “tempting offers” or your own grievances. We believe in you, Masha. Do not betray our trust for the second time!
Kseniya Kirillova and Yulia Guseynova