These Are the Russians Picked for Butina’s Trip to Trump Breakfast
(Bloomberg) -- A Moscow real-estate executive. Two former staffers in Vladimir Putin’s administration. A Siberian mayor with dreams of cloning woolly mammoths.
To Maria Butina and her minder back home, these were the right Russians for Donald Trump’s Washington.
Butina, 30, who now admits she worked as an undeclared Kremlin agent, helped arrange for these and five other Russians chosen by a top official to attend the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, which was held just two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, according to U.S. prosecutors.
“People in the list are handpicked” by Butina and the official “and are VERY influential in Russia,” she wrote in a November 2016 email cited by prosecutors. “They are coming to establish a back channel of communication.”
The other Russians, most of whose names haven’t previously been disclosed, are identified in documents reviewed by Bloomberg News.
In addition to attending the annual event, where Trump gave the keynote speech to some 3,500 guests, the delegates went to meetings that Butina helped arrange with politically connected Americans -- the culmination of her now-admitted multiyear effort to forge inroads into the U.S. conservative movement, including the National Rifle Association.
Pleading guilty in a Washington courtroom on Thursday, Butina admitted she’d been doing the Kremlin’s work and agreed to cooperate with U.S. national security prosecutors. Now comes the question of whether she’ll reveal more about her contacts in Moscow -- or whether, like others pulled into the greater investigation of election meddling, she may hold back.
U.S. prosecutors allege that Butina conspired with others who aren’t identified in court filings. Based on descriptions provided, one of them was Paul Erickson, her boyfriend at the time, who helped her make inroads into Republican circles.
Another was Butina’s main contact in Moscow, then-central bank deputy chief Alexander Torshin, who’s been accused by Spain of being a handler for Russian organized crime, which he denies. Torshin said through the central bank’s press service last year that the 2017 prayer breakfast was his 12th.
A month before the gathering in Washington, according to the U.S., the person believed to be Erickson said in an email that the Russian delegation was well curated. In addition to Torshin, he wrote, “the list is populated by key mayors, university presidents and personal advisors to President Putin.”
“Reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be relayed DIRECTLY” to the Russian president and foreign minister, he wrote in an email copying Butina, prosecutors said.
The U.S. hasn’t leveled accusations against any of the other Russian attendees, and it’s unclear how many of them Butina and Erickson considered influential. Starting in 2017, Bloomberg News attempted to contact the delegates, interviewing some. Here they are:
The Kremlin Alums
By the time Trump took office, Andrey Kolyadin and Sergei Shakhov had left their jobs in the Kremlin’s domestic politics section to work as advisers in the private sector, though Kolyadin continued to consult the presidential administration on various policy matters.
“I went to the Prayer Breakfast so I could say I saw Trump, which is good PR for anyone who’s involved in politics,” Kolyadin said in an interview last year. “This wasn’t some fringe gathering. The other side has direct access to leadership and so do we.”
Though he said he didn’t get a private audience with the new president, he did manage to get close to a Cabinet member -- the newly confirmed secretary of state. “I got to shake Rex Tillerson’s hand,” Kolyadin said. “We sat very close to each other and just smiled.” Tillerson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In an interview last year, Shakhov said the Russians felt a natural affinity with U.S. conservatives. “They like us there, they respect us,’’ he said. “They share our views – that a man should be a man and a woman a woman. They’re strongly behind family values.’’
The Woolly Mayor
Aisen Nikolaev was the mayor of the Siberian city of Yakutsk, 280 miles below the Arctic Circle, at the time of the Washington visit.
He gushed over Trump afterward, saying in an Instagram post that the billionaire-turned-politician “is self-confident, jokes well and works the room easily.” He was later picked by Putin to be acting governor of the entire Yakutsk region, eventually winning election.
One of his aims is to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by cloning one of the scores of frozen carcasses that are peppered in the permafrost throughout Yakutsk.
“We will be able to clone mammoths in our lifetimes,” Nikolaev told a Russian tabloid in September. He didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
The Problem Solver
Stanislav Puginsky is part-owner of Egorov, Puginsky, Afanasiev & Partners, one of Russia’s largest law firms. The practice was co-founded by one of Putin’s classmates from his law school days in St. Petersburg.
The firm’s website says Puginsky specializes in “complex dispute resolution, government property management, drafting of laws, government relations, corporate governance, bankruptcy of strategic enterprises and other matters of the highest complexity.”
He declined to comment for this article.
The Education Tycoon
Vadim Lobov heads Synergy University, a for-profit institution based in Moscow known for inviting U.S. business and cultural figures to its conferences.
“We have to create lots of avenues for dialogue,” Lobov said at his headquarters on the outskirts of Moscow, a converted factory decorated with a wall-sized Putin portrait in the pop-art style of Andy Warhol.
Synergy, which has 35,000 students across the country, sells T-shirts online with patriotic slogans such as “Crimea Is Ours” and “The Russian Empire -- Reloaded.”
The PR Guy
Igor Pisarsky is a veteran public-relations executive and a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. The chairman and co-owner of the R.I.M. Porter Novelli PR agency in Moscow worked with Butina on her early gun-rights efforts in Russia.
An architect by education, Pisarsky’s doctoral thesis was titled, “The Use of Public Spaces in Central Moscow,” according to his firm’s website.
He declined to comment on his participation in the event.
The It Girl
Vlasta Guryeva is a Russian-born fashion designer and consultant who was asked to help with translation and logistics for the delegation, according to participants.
She said in her “Girl of the Week” profile in the Russian version of Elle magazine in 2013 that she believes “all thoughts materialize and nothing is impossible.” Elle called her the creative force behind Sophie Goes Round, a lifestyle blog that features a lot of nude photos.
Guryeva lives in New York and goes by the name Vlasta Gary. She posted a photo on Facebook of her invitation to the prayer breakfast last year above the caption, “Make love no [sic] war.”
She didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Mall Builder
Alexander Karpov is a shareholder in GK Regiony, a major developer of shopping centers controlled by Zelimkhan Mutsoev, a multimillionaire member of Russia’s lower house of parliament.
The Instagram photo that Paris Hilton posted of her and Mutsoev’s two sons at at a company event in Moscow in 2013 got 24,236 likes.
Karpov didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Mystery Man
Little is publicly known about Alexander Yerkhov beyond several media reports about a 2013 incident in Moscow in which the bodyguards of a man with the same name and general description were recorded roughing up a motorist who failed to yield to his Bentley.
One member of the delegation called Yerkhov a mercurial character who barely said a word the entire trip. Yerkhov couldn’t be reached for comment.
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