Who is Maria Butina?
That’s the question at the very core of Spy Affair. Like many recent podcasts, this fresh offering from Wondery fixes on an elusive, shapeshifting central character. Unlike most, here we’re treated to their first-person account of the whole strange, but thoroughly engaging, debacle.
If you weren’t paying attention (or tend not to be interested in stories direct from the dorkery of fringe politics) you may have missed the scandal surrounding Miss Butina. It is a curious tale of a larger-than-life femme fatale who moves to the States from her native Russia to study, and is very soon heavily ingratiated with big wigs among the gun-toting, right-wing political crowd.
As a pro-gun Yankophile reportedly eager to improve relations between the USA and China, maybe Butina innocently gravitated towards lobby groups like the NRA. But ultimately, her friendship with Russian Oligarch, Alexander Torshin, her ongoing relationship with Republican political operative, Paul Erickson, and her (perhaps unlikely) sexual dalliance with outspoken Overstock.com CEO, Patrick Byrne, aroused the suspicion of the FBI, who accused her of working as a foreign agent.
The name of the podcast is probably misleading — it seems as though Butina was never an official state-sponsored “spy” — but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t privy to armfuls of intrigue just trying get to the bottom of who she really is. Low-key host Celia Aniskovich guides listeners through expertly-selected and surprisingly balanced evidence, including revealing (and sometimes very frank!) interviews with the key protagonists and investigators, the contents of text messages and emails, and the dizzying matrix of competing suspicions that make this a “page-turner” of a six-parter.
In the end, it’s Butina herself who steals the show. She is smart, articulate and compelling. She speaks so convincingly that it would be so easy to believe she really was just an innocent student trying to make friends build influence in her new homeland. Aniskovich gracefully leaves us make our own minds up, but in the end it’s hard to shake the feeling that there was at least some amount of deliberate infiltration — if not all-out espionage.
Stories like this can quickly lurch into lunatic conspiracy or become mired in the politics, but Spy Affair carefully avoids those danger zones to deliver something fun, revealing, and even educational.