Maria Butina and I, Part I: Meeting Maria | Deep Capture

It is not my intent to reveal anything beyond what I recently said on TV (and likely, even less). Given that much of that is now going through a media blender, I aim merely to organize and state clearly the things I said on television recently, so as to reduce room for misreporting.

          A frequently played video in the news this past year has been a clip from the summer of 2015: a 26 year old Maria Butina standing up in a Las Vegas conference to ask Candidate Donald Trump a question. The conference was FreedomFest, an annual conference for liberals (a.k.a. “classical liberals”, “philosophical liberals,” “libertarians”) that occurs in Las Vegas each summer, when freedom-oriented people descend on Vegas for four days and hear lectures on everything from Alexis de Toqueville to Hayek, from the Magna Carta to Bitcoin to Emigrating to Panama.

          A glance at the schedule of the 2015 FreedomFest will confirm that I was at that conference as well. Wednesday, the opening day, I gave the keynote (“Turtles All the Way Down: How the Crypto-Revolution Solves Intractable Problems on Wall Street”), and participated in a panel Thursday. I left Friday afternoon. Candidate Trump arrived and spoke Saturday, so we never crossed paths.

          After my opening keynote, there was a line of perhaps a couple dozen people waiting to talk, take a photo with me, or even ask for an autograph (yes, it happens, and it is still weird). I noticed a well-dressed, professional, striking redheaded young woman standing off to the side, her position and posture indicating she was not seeking an autograph, but had purposeful business and was waiting for the people asking for photos and autographs to dissipate. She cut quite a figure, not just from her dress and physique, but mostly from her carriage. I assumed she was a reporter.

          When those waiting had dissipated, she approached me and handed me her card. It identified her as “Maria Butina”, the president of a gun rights group in Russia. She spoke of it for perhaps 30 seconds, mentioning it had something to do with General Kalashnikov. The truth is, though, unlike most everyone else in that room that day, I’m not into guns. I am OK with them, I have had some basic classes, but I do not fetishize them. Thus I did not have much interest in hearing about gun rights in Russia, and so after perhaps a minute at the most, I smiled at Maria and thanked her, pocketed her card, and walked away.

          The next day I was on a panel. After the panel, again a line of a dozen or two dozen well-wishers. There was no sign of Maria, but this time when I walked with my assistant down an empty hallway out the back, there she was. She sidled up to me as I walked (my assistant stepped away to give us privacy) and said,  “Dr. Byrne, please allow me to tell you why I am really here. Here is my other card.” She presented me a card identifying her as Special Assistant to the Vice Chairman of the Central Bank of Russia. “I have been sent here to make contact with you.”

Smoothly, with polished grammar beneath her Russian accent, she continued, “Did you know that in certain circles in Russia you are a famous man? We know about you, we know about your relationship with Milton Friedman, we watch your videos on Youtube about leeberalism. I have been sent here to this conference to deliver you a message. Would you afford me 90 minutes to speak with you privately?” She had clearly polished her delivery.

          When traveling on business, I generally get a suite so that I can have business meetings in the suite’s living room, rather than conduct meetings over meals in restaurants (and thus I avoid about 5,000 calories per day). I would generally not extend an invitation to such an unknown quantity, for all the obvious reasons. However, I have taught frequently at the university level (including Stanford and Dartmouth), and have been around lots of talented young men and women: my impression of Maria was that she was extremely professional in dress and manner, comported herself impressively, and came across as a much more serious person than most at 26 could pull off.  I told her of my suite and asked her if she would be comfortable having lunch with me there, watching her closely for her reaction. She thought for only an instant, then accepted professionally, with no hint of coquetry.

I turned to my assistant and told him to book her for lunch the following day in my suite.

          I should clear up a few matters:

Up to this moment I have gone into such detail simply to give a stamp of verisimilitude to what may otherwise be a strange and unconvincing tale. Going forward, however, I will be more brisk.

The next day I had had lunch arranged and delivered. Maria arrived at my suite punctual to the second. Again, her businesslike comportment and maturity stood out for a woman of her age. Again, there was not a hint of coquetry. Upon being seated we began an intense 90 minute conversation, of which I will give a compressed description below.

Maria is from Siberia. Her parents moved there in the Soviet era. She is of Russian heritage, and (if I recall correctly) a tiny fraction Jewish. All Russian six year olds get tested intellectually (and physically?):  there are two schools left over from the Soviet era where the most elite 30 of them (nationwide) are sent. She was selected, and ten years later graduated second in her class of 30. She finished university and a master’s degree in political science, while doing something entrepreneurial on the side regarding the furniture business, which had netted her a good bankroll (in the tens of thousands of dollars, I sensed, or maybe a bit more). She also was training for the amateur Greater Moscow Powerlifting Championship (or something like that), focusing on deadlift and power clean, I think.

As a child of the rubble of the Soviet Union, she had grown up witnessing corruption and lawlessness, and thus had gravitated to liberalism . She had studied in university and was intellectually broad: as one would expect, she can talk about Dostoevsky and Chekhov (we discussed Notes from Underground and its relation to the Left, and “The Sneeze”, which I had seen in London in my student days), but also Orwell, Nabokov, and Twain. Yet her real focus in university, she said, had been liberalism. She knew our history, from the English and Dutch to US history and our Constitution, much better than most Americans I’ve ever met. Phrases like   “Jeffersonian democracy” drop from her mouth with comfort, and others like “Lockean reasoning” do not throw her off. She can talk about Milton Friedman and Friederich Hayek, and knows the difference between a Monetarist and the Austrian School of Economics.

Maria had been noticed by some powerful players in Moscow. “There are 50 oligarchs who run Russia, but there are seven who really run Russia. I am close, very close, to four of them.”

She also mentioned that her gun rights group had been formed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. “Believe it or not, General Kalishnikov was a liberal, too!” And he had chosen a 23 year old woman to be its leader. “Do you know who General Kalashnikov is to Russians? Do you know what this means in our culture? That this 93 year old General named me, a 23 year old woman, to lead this?” I assured her that I knew of the near-mythical status General Kalashnikov has to Russians (they view his 1947 invention, the AK-47, as “the gun that freed the world”). I told her I also understood the significance of his having named her the leader of the organization he founded. We chuckled at the coincidence: a 93 year old Mikhail Kalashnikov had picked a woman to lead his organization, and she was meeting the guy that 94 year old Milton Friedman had picked to chair his.

I told Maria two things. First, that I have gotten the sense from Russians I have met over the years that they think Americans do not know what they went through in World War II. I told her this was a misconception, and we know the Naziis killed 20-30 million citizens of the Soviet Union, and that to Russians it was an event such as the Holocaust was to Jewry. She seemed touched. (The truth is, we Americans could be a bit more conscious of that fact, but in general I think we are aware of it more than Russians understands.)

The second thing I shared with Maria was my theory of Russian history. The Ottomans had taken Constantinople, and the Sultan had put the Orthodox Church under the jizya. After some decades, the Ukrainian Bishop had made a deal with the Sultan to pay X years worth of jizya (I think X = 30 to 40) in return for being allowed to break away. Thus was born the Russian Orthodox Church, which, in its isolation, developed a unique version of Christianity. It maintained the standard Judeo-Christian narrative that humanity was once high, then there was the Fall, but by doing certain things we get to return to being high again. In the Russian version, however, salvation for mankind is something that occurs not individually, but collectively; most importantly, it is specifically through the capacity of the Russian people to bear immiseration and suffering that the future salvation of all humanity is purchased. That is central to Russian Orthodoxy. The liberal in me says, “If I were a Russian tyrant, that would be a handy theology to have my Church teaching everyone.” I recall Maria getting a bit misty-eyed at my theory, as though it struck a chord, and then we had quite a conversation about it.

I do not wish to flaunt it, but since its relevant I will share this: I have degrees from Dartmouth (BA, Philosophy and Asian Studies) and Beijing Teacher’s University. At Stanford I started a Master’s in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic), won a Marshall Fellowship, went to Cambridge, did a Master’s in Philosophy there (Ethics), then returned to Stanford as a Teaching Fellow and finished a PhD in Philosophy (with much study of the intellectual origins of the US Constitution). Much sound and fury signifying nothing: it happened because I had cancer three times in the years after college, and I spent my twenties being treated in hospitals and convalescing in universities. However, it means I have been around a lot of intellectuals.  Maria Butina is an intellectual.

Maria already knew of my membership on the Council on Foreign Relations, a NY-based foreign policy think tank (and no, it is not the den of Backroom Boys of popular culture). That was interesting: the membership list of CFR is not secret, but it takes some work to find. She asked my thoughts on US- Russia relations. I told her the truth: General Jack Vessey was a great influence on me and my beliefs. General Vessey, a hawk’s hawk, was Reagan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and was reappointed to the role (quite rare). He is the only man in US history to have gone from Private to Chairman of Joint Chiefs (having earned a battlefield commission at Anzio). Yet he was a general in the mold of George C. Marshall, a humanist who understood the cost of war and sought above all to prevent it. General Vessey passed away a few years ago, and wished read at his funeral a passage from a US News article from the period when he was being considered for reappointment to a second term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: it predicted he would not be reappointed because he was considered too cautious about committing US troops to foreign battles (or words to that effect). He wanted that read at his eulogy because he wanted to be remembered as the general who was too cautious about committing US troops to foreign battles.

General Vessey used to counsel me such things as, Any world where the US and Russia get along is better than any world where we are at war. Also, that the secret to world peace was first getting things right between the USA, Russia, and China, then using that as the scaffolding from which to hang the rest of the international order. In response to this I remember asking him, “There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. Shouldn’t they have a seat at the table?” He thought for a moment and said, “Yep, but there’s nowhere to send the invitation.”

Interestingly, in January of 2015 General Vessey had me as his guest at  CSIS in Washington, DC, to watch Kissinger and Shultz (two other vintage hawks) on stage exploring the Ukraine crisis. The two Cold Warriors felt (as did Vessey) that what we had done in the Ukraine in 2014 was a provocative act, insisting that we should not be starting World War III over the Ukraine, instead arguing for a Swiss-like outcome. Most troubling to all was the taped Nuland-Pyatt telephone calls (BBC story here). With “Fuck the EU” nonchalance they nearly triggered World War III, with about as much thought as I would put into a choice of vacation destination.

After perhaps 45 minutes of such getting to know each other, Maria pushed her plate aside, dropped her voice, and said (again, in abbreviated form):

I would like to tell you why I am here. Russia is a wonderful country, it is a wonderful land. But it has a harsh history. For 400 years so many Russians have been killed or fled. There is a generation of Russians who want to change this. We are liberals. There are liberals among the oligarchs and the power structure. We know that the way of Russia’s past has to evolve, that war is not the way forward. We dream of a Russia that has rejoined the Western, liberal tradition.

There are maybe 100-150 across the government and oligarchs.

We are not disloyal to Putin: he is our president.  We are not talking about anything inappropriate. But Putin will not be president forever. We wish to talk about what a post-Putin age might look like someday.

There is a club for liberals we have formed. It is a gun rights group. Yes we like guns, but the group is really a group for the liberals among the power structure of Russia. It was formed by Michail Kalashnikov, because he was a liberal.

I know this will sound ridiculous to you, Dr. Byrne, but there are those who wish me to be president someday. I am being groomed for it. By our constitution one cannot run until age 35. I think I will be 40. Many of the oligarchs know me personally, and understand what I want to do for Russia with my life. We want to make Russia a place that people do not want to leave.

Switching gears, she said, “We watch your videos on liberalism. We have some of them dubbed in Russian. We talk about them in our club.” She named one I gave at the world’s first global conference on Bitcoin, in Amsterdam, 2014. I had been invited to give the talk that opened the conference: the result (“500 years of Liberalism, From Amsterdam to Bitcoin”) was well-known and  discussed in freedom-oriented circles around that time. She knew of talks I give on the history of liberalism (such as “Why We Fight”: this version is from 2.5 years ago but I’ve been giving versions of it for years).

“I have been sent to invite you to come to Moscow and speak at the Central Bank on the subject of Bitcoin and Liberalism, and how you think blockchain can change the world. Then I would like to take you for three days to the Altai Mountains. There is a resort there that will be shut down. There will be 40-45 people there from across the Russian power structure. Government people, oligarchs and their people. We wish to speak with you about blockchain, Milton Friedman, the Austrian School…. And a future for US and Russia that is a path besides war.”

I asked her, “What about the FSB? They may not be crazy about me given some things I have said and written in the past.”

She told me that they would know all about me before I arrived. I would likely be pulled aside in the Moscow Airport. She told me just to be honest and straightforward. There was no need to lie. We were not doing anything inappropriate. They would be aware of my itinerary, and likely even have someone at the Altai Mountain resort. We were not trying to hide anything.

She said she understood that I could not accept her invitation at that moment. The idea had been socialized on their end, and they had sent her to find me at this conference and deliver this invitation. They wanted to know if and when I could commit to a date to come to Russia, speak at the Central Bank, and go to the Altai Mountains. Before the cold came would be best.

I told her to convey to those who had extended the invitation that I was honored, and that I would think about it.

Precisely at 90 minutes Maria gathered her personal effects, stood, and I saw her to the door. She declared that we would continue to communicate “under the guise of having romantic relationship” to make arrangements for our next meeting, where we would plan out such a trip, if I were interested.

As I closed the door and she walked away, I decided some things:

At this point, in deference to federal authorities, I am going to be vague about the nature and method of subsequent interactions. None of that is germane to these matters, other than I can assure you the following took place.

By that evening a detailed description of my interaction with Maria was in Washington, DC.  I asked to hear back on three things:

  1. May I introduce Maria to senior thinkers I know in the foreign policy establishment? I thought she would be interesting for someone to spend an afternoon getting to know (perhaps even General Vessey, who was still alive at the time, or other senior figures who are perfectly capable of taking a meeting like that). Perhaps her dreams of being a back channel for peace might ring a bell with someone.
  2. Is it OK if I travel to Russia on her invitation?
  3. Should I cut her out of my life as being a security risk?

I waited to hear back from the administrative office that handles clearance matters such as this. It had been five years since I had even had any contact with the office, when I had had to send an updated list of foreign travels.

Later, it was confirmed to me that my news was received and shared across certain circles that evening, Friday, July 10, 2015. That is when the Maria/Russian investigation started (at the latest), not July 2016. That is the cover-up.

When I heard back from someone, it was not from an administrative office that oversees clearances.  Instead, communication was re-opened with the Men In Black. It had been a long, long time. Since my mitzvah days with Wall Street….

To be continued