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The Rise of Russia’s Gun Nuts

Andrew Burton/Getty Images News

Maria Butina greeted her guests with a gun in her holster and her hands on her hips. A pair of professional shooting earmuffs hung from her neck; a pair of yellow goggles pushed up her dyed-red hair like casually forgotten sunglasses.

“Welcome!” she said and explained to the gathered what they were about to do: shoot stuff. “I hope tonight will be an unforgettable night, and that you’ll come away with a feeling that you held something so powerful, so incredible, in your hands. So enjoy!” She added, “Oh! And there will be adrenaline.”

Butina, who was wearing an outdoors­man’s puffy vest over a striped shirt and jeans, scanned the four middle-aged men standing in front of her, gripping black Russian-made Viking pistols. We were in a shooting gallery in a basement under a shabby, mafia-ridden hotel complex built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. On the way in, as we passed a sweating, balloon-bellied guard who had stripped to the waist, Butina told me the place had once been a KGB shooting range. It was scattered with white metal targets and tires clawed apart by bullets. Everything smelled vaguely of kitty litter.

At the age of 23, Butina is often the youngest person in the room at events like these and usually the only woman. I asked how it felt to be surrounded by all those armed men. “A woman can defend herself if she knows how to use weapons, and that’s all great, but it’s still nice to be protected by a man,” she told me in her tart, matter-of-fact way. “It feels great.”

It must feel especially nice because she is their leader. About a year ago, Butina founded an organization called Right to Bear Arms, in the process almost single-handedly inventing Russia’s gun-rights movement. The guys at the shooting gallery were her dues-paying members, all of whom believe the legal code should be amended to allow Russians to carry concealed handguns.

This is not a popular idea in Russia, where there is no constitutional right to bear arms, in a well-regulated militia or otherwise. Instead, Russians are allowed to own smoothbore hunting rifles, as well as “compliance weapons”—that is, guns that shoot rubber bullets or are powered by gas.

Although she is a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Butina’s vision of gun rights has little to do with the “rights” part of it; the American insistence that a gun is a vessel of liberty seems alien to her. Nor does she see any connection between her movement and the anti-Kremlin protests that gripped Moscow last winter and spring, though hers is one of a new crop of civic groups that have sprung up in the ferment. Her organization, currently 400 members strong, is a soup of communists and nationalists, while Butina herself votes for Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party. But in Russia, the fledgling pro-gun movement is less a political cause than it is a self-help strategy.

After Butina had finished with her introduction, the instructor, Igor Shmelev, demonstrated the drill. It went as follows: Cock your pistol, take two shots at a cardboard target. Scurry to the left, take two shots at a metal target. Duck back through a plywood screen door. Open the door, take two shots, knock down another target, duck back in. Reload. Open the door, take two more shots at a smaller target, lean around the corner, shoot down another one. This seemed less like shooting practice than a rehearsal for an action movie. When her turn came, Butina’s movements were sure and sharp, and when she was done, she turned and flashed a face that was all no-nonsense, tight-lipped happiness.

Unlike most Russians, Butina grew up with guns—she comes from Altai, the rugged, mountainous part of Siberia. For centuries, Siberia was the Russian frontier— home to serfs fleeing their masters, the final destination for both criminals and political exiles. “It is a rare Siberian who can imagine himself without a rifle in the home,” Butina told me.

Butina decamped to Moscow when she was 22. At the time, most Russian gun-related organizations were for sports shooters, and so Butina decided to recruit people who congregated in Web forums to discuss gun rights. At first, they focused on regulations that made target practice prohibitively expensive. But before long, Butina realized that the idea of self-defense was a far more potent recruiting tool.

This summer, the group successfully defended a woman named Tatyana Kudryavtseva who fought off a rapist with a knife and accidentally killed him. She faced 15 years in jail for homicide; Right to Bear Arms got her exonerated. “If she had had a gun, it would have been enough just to show the gun, as American statistics show,” says Butina, who is a fan of statistics in general and American statistics in particular.

Along the way, she gained a powerful ally in Alexander Torshin, a high-ranking member of United Russia and the first deputy speaker of the Russian senate. Torshin is also a member of the NRA, which he told me he admires because it stands for “stability”—the credo of Putin’s reign.

On July 24, the pair made their case for gun rights before the senate. However, their appearance came only four days after James Holmes mowed down dozens of people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. This fortified the view of many Russian senators, Torshin said, that, if Russians had handguns, they would all shoot each other. “How can you have so little trust for yourself, for your people?” he lamented.

But, in fact, Russians don’t trust each other. Three-quarters of the population feels this way, according to the independent Levada Center. The cause lies in the traumas of the Russian twentieth century: two world wars and a civil war, collectivization and industrialization, and mass political terror. Millions perished because their neighbors, colleagues, and friends betrayed them, creating a visceral mutual suspicion. After the collapse of the Soviet Union came the age of unfettered capitalism. A handful of oligarchs stitched together shady fortunes while millions below them were defrauded.

Over the last decade, this bleak picture has been accentuated by metastatic government corruption and almost daily news of police officers committing crimes. In recent years, Russia has been rocked by news of police officers raping a young woman in custody, sodomizing a man with a champagne bottle, and beating the fingers off a professional pianist. “Violence and potential violence surrounds you, and you can’t escape it,” says Boris Dubin, a sociologist and former head of Levada. “Repression is spilled throughout society and absorbed by every institution, from the family to the government.”

Most Russians deal with this by bundling themselves tightly in conformity and dissimulation—treating strangers with extreme distrust and relying only on thoroughly vetted family and friends. Butina and her allies, however, see guns as genuinely useful social tools, an alternative to living in a state of permanent suspicion.

This view requires a certain unbendable logic. The world, as Butina sees it, is both inherently savage and inhabited by people who behave rationally at all times— especially criminals. “A person may decide not to commit a crime if he thinks he may be shot or may encounter resistance,” Butina said. As proof, she pointed to America’s permissive attitude toward gun ownership. “If we take the number of homicides per one hundred thousand people in the population, according to our police statistics, it’s thirteen homicides in Russia, and 5.2 in the U.S.”

Of course, homicide rates are lower still in countries with stricter gun laws. But Butina doesn’t flinch when challenged on her statistics; she simply summons more statistics. “People online take facts from my blog, turn them upside and scream, ‘Just look at this! In the States, thirty thousand people die from firearms every year! How awful!’” she scoffed. “But so what? Switzerland has the most suicides using a gun, and yet, Switzerland has the least number of total suicides. Moreover, a gun is the most humane weapon for suicide compared to all the other methods that exist.”

Butina’s argument’s may have their flaws, but it’s not unusual to hear them echoed by leading figures in the opposition. “We have a huge homicide rate, most of these murders are unsolved, and many police officers are among the criminals,” says opposition politician Alexey Navalny, who supports gun ownership and whose two rifles were recently seized because of his role in anti-Kremlin protests. “In America, the argument works that there are pro­fessionals to protect us. Here, the police are the main criminals, and they’re armed.”

Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer and an opposition parliamentarian until he was stripped of his mandate after participating in the protests, was once the most vocal opponent of gun rights. But after Dmitry Medvedev’s efforts at police reform failed, he changed his mind. “If our government is not willing and not capable of reforming law enforcement and the judicial system, then the citizen is left face to face with criminals, and they have to defend themselves on their own,” Gudkov says. “And the best way to do this is with handguns.”

The major obstacle for Butina and her group is Putin. Never mind that he himself is an avid outdoorsman. Behind closed doors, Putin seems to have put forth the position that his surrogates are vocalizing: It is too soon, and too dangerous. Gudkov has a different explanation: “He’s afraid of his own people.”

For her part, Butina denies that an armed populace would threaten the Putin regime. “The right to bear arms is given to you by your government and is a nice right to have,” she reasoned, “so taking some kind of anti-government stand ... .” She trailed off to indicate that doing so would be the height of rashness. Plus, she pointed out, “pistols are the absolute worst weapon for toppling a government, let me tell you.”

Julia Ioffe is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Crackpots and Kalashnikovs.”