On Red Sparrows

“There is a colossal institute of co-opted Soviet girls,” an ex-KGB man told a room full of U.S. senators. “There were many, many co-opted Soviet girls with different appearance, different talents.”

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that day in 1970 was a KGB defector named Yuri Krotkov, testifying under the alias of George Karlin.

Krotkov, a Soviet screenwriter, playwright and radio correspondent who defected in 1963, called these women “swallows” because like the birds, they are “gentle” and “soft.”

Testimony of George Karlin

Krotkov said he “recommended” — procured, one might say — “swallows” for the KGB. “The swallows are clever girls,” Krotkov continued, “they want all sorts of jobs with foreigners, they dream about them, even if it is risky, because they hope, they would marry them, maybe they would go abroad.”

One of his swallows became a mistress to Sukarno, the president of Indonesia. Another was used to seduce Maurice Dejean the French ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1955 to 1964.

The goal, Krotkov said, was to use these “swallows” to get these foreigners to do something for the KGB.

Today, these sorts of women are better known as “sparrows,” after the best-selling 2013 book Red Sparrow by former CIA officer Jason Matthews (highly recommended, and the way) and film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The closest thing we have to a real-life “swallow” or a “sparrow” these days is Maria Butina, the redheaded Russian graduate student who went to prison for acting as a clandestine Russian foreign agent. According to the Justice Department, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, Alexander Torshin.

Prosecutors initially accused Butina of offering sex in exchange for a job. That allegation was soon withdrawn, with prosecutors saying they had misread a text.

During her time in the United States, Butina did have affairs well-connected older men, such as Paul Erickson, who was well connected in Republican circles. With help from Erickson, Butina infiltrated the National Rifle Association, met with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA annual meeting, and came very close to a meeting with President Trump. You can read more about that here.

Another man who had a romantic affair with Butina was Patrick Byrne, then the chief executive of Overtstock.com. You can read what Byrne told me about his relationship with Butina and the FBI here.

Maria Butina and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.

A few months ago, I met with Byrne at a hotel in downtown San Diego and he told me a story that, I think, reveals a lot about Maria Butina.

Byrne wrote part of the story last month on his blog, Deep Capture, but his account leaves out what I view as the most revealing part.

In the spring 2018, Byrne was visiting Washington, D.C. when he got a message from Butina. She somehow knew that he was in town and asked to come by his hotel room. Butina had received a master’s degree in international relations from American University and she wanted to show him her diploma. She arrived and after a while pulled out her cellphone and showed him a picture of her transcript.

“…. Then she swiped the screen. I was staring at a subpoena she had received from the Senate Intelligence Committee a few weeks earlier. She told me about being questioned by Senate Intel, about how the forces of the [U.S. government] were closing in on her.”

Missing from that account is something Butina told Byrne in that hotel room. According to Byrne, Butina told him that the Senate Intelligence Committee had spent “about a third of their time” asking about him, Patrick Byrne. “They have a stack of every message, every text, every email we every wrote,” Byrne said Butina told him.

It was the last time Byrne saw Butina. A few weeks later she was arrested on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent. Butina pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She was released last month and returned home to Russia where she was welcomed as a hero.

There’s a good reason why Byrne left out the part about the Senate Intelligence Committee asking about him: It wasn’t true.

I checked with Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll. Butina’s Senate testimony isn’t public but he had a copy and he reviewed it at my request. “No reference to Patrick after a pretty close skim,” he emailed me.

I relayed this to Byrne:

According to Byrne, he told her to go home to Russia. She told him she couldn’t. If she did, she would serve 15 years in prison. As Butina’s heroic welcoming in Moscow shows, this, too, was a lie. He told her to the FBI. She said that, as a Russian, she couldn’t.

Some will no doubt say that perhaps Byrne was lying. I don’t think so. When he told me this story, he seemed to believe it. Even so, he encouraged me to go check this account with Driscoll. That’s not something a liar would do.

I think Butina told Byrne a well-crafted lie. Since her testimony was sealed, she knew whatever she told Byrne about would be impossible to verify. Also, it’s no secret that Byrne saw himself at the center of various intrigues. Thus, it was a lie that he would be likely to accept without much fuss.

The question is why. Why would Butina lie to Byrne? Why was she using him and what for? Had someone told her to make this approach Byrne? Did she hope to provoke a reaction? Did she know that Byrne was talking to the FBI?

I wrote Butina several letters in prison to see if she was willing to talk about this. She never responded. As often happens with intelligence-related matters, we are left with more questions than answers.

But it’s a revealing glimpse into the world of woman who was much more than a foreign grad student. A “sparrow” or a “swallow” was a beautiful seductress. Maria Butina was using her brains as well as her body.

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