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This Is Maria Butina’s Secret Money Man in Moscow

Betsy Woodruff, Allison Quinn
08.09.18 8:00 PM ET

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Federal prosecutors have indicated that Maria Butina, the Russian national accused of infiltrating the NRA and Republican political circles, received funding for her activities from a Moscow billionaire.

Butina told congressional investigators that her gun-rights group received funding from Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev, according to The Washington Post.

And when Butina needed money from the oligarch, she went to a Kremlin-linked public relations power player named Igor Pisarsky for the cash, according to two sources familiar with her activities, speaking to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.

Pisarsky was Butina’s point of contact for the Nikolaev money, according to these sources—the face of the financing. According to one of the sources, he essentially acted like he was distributing grant money.

Nikolaev told The Daily Beast in a statement that his funding went to Butina's organization, not to her personally, and that it did not fund any of her American activities.

"His support for Ms. Butina's organization was strictly limited to domestic activity in Russia," a Nikolaev spokesperson said in a statement. "It lasted just two years and ended in 2014, since which time there has been no contact."

Butina’s ties to Nikolaev and Pisarsky highlight the breadth of her support network; she had friends in a wide variety of high places. In Paul Erickson, she had a longtime Republican insider with close ties to the right’s most powerful groups. In Alexander Torshin, she had a Kremlin ally who was deeply involved in Russia’s banking sector. In Konstantin Nikolaev, she had an oligarch willing to help bankroll her undertakings. And now, in Igor Pisarsky, she had a worldly, sophisticated public relations professional whose firm boasts having worked for a host of Kremlin entities, as well as Vladimir Putin’s political party. Pisarsky’s firm also has worked for two banks whose CEOs have faced U.S. sanctions, according to its website and reports.  

Butina’s attorney declined to comment for this story. Pisarsky also declined to comment.

His friend Svetlana Bolshakova, an orchestra musician and editor of the musical radio broadcaster Orpheus, told The Daily Beast that Pisarsky is currently traveling in South America.

“Igor is far from both politics and politicians. He is all about a good party, a good trip, or a good meal,” Bolshakova said. “Last time I saw him was about a month ago in a crowd of Moscow’s hip elite. I don’t think he ever hangs out with any government people, at least I’ve never seen him around any officials. He is an independent person, a co-owner of two hip restaurants. He adores cooking.”

Pisarsky and Butina are Facebook friends, and she has liked several of his pictures. She also wrote about him on her blog: An entry on March 12, 2015, describes Pisarsky as a “good friend” and says she attended his birthday party.  

Pisarsky appears to be one of the most prominent and influential figures in the Russian public relations industry.

He is chairman of the board of the PR firm R.I.M. Porter Novelli, according to its website, and founded it in 1993. The Russian publication Snob notes that it was one of Russia’s first public affairs companies. Pisarsky is frequently cited in Russian media as an expert on public affairs matters.

Under Pisarsky’s leadership, the firm has represented at least one anti-Kremlin interest: The trade publication O’Dwyers reported in 2014 that the firm helped manage media relations for Ukrainian protesters opposing then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a Paul Manafort client.

But the company’s website also says it has worked for a host of Kremlin clients, including the Russian Ministry of Transportation; the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare; the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defense, Emergencies, and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters; and the Russian postal service. Baltic Weekend reported that the firm has also worked for the Ministry of Industry and Energy.

The website also lists Putin’s United Russia party as a client, work AdWeek mentioned in a 2014 piece. And one of the firm’s employees, Dmitry Konyaev, headed the “agitation and propaganda division” of United Russia in the Moscow area before joining the firm, according to his bio.

The site also says R.I.M. Porter Novelli has represented Skolkovo, an innovation center in Moscow run by a foundation connected to Putin ally Viktor Vekselberg, a sanctioned Russian billionaire linked to longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen. The FBI warned back in 2014 that Skolkovo, which has cooperated with MIT and other American organizations, could be a hotbed for Russian spies looking to worm their way into U.S. companies, as The Boston Globe reported.

A spokesperson for R.I.M. Porter Novelli said the firm had contracts with these entities in previous years.

Pisarsky’s firm has also worked with Russian entities that have found themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions. In February 2017, InvestorIntel reported that Rostec—a state-owned development company—had signed on R.I.M. Porter Novelli. The U.S. Treasury put the company’s CEO, longtime Putin ally Sergei Chemezov, on its list of Specially Designated Nationals in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea. CNBC reported that Rostec itself was sanctioned after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The company also has worked for a subsidiary of the Russian gas giant Gazprom, according to the list of clients on its website. Treasury sanctioned Gazprom’s CEO, Alexei Miller, in 2018 as part of retaliation against Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

And the firm’s website says it has worked for the Bank of Moscow, which was sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union in 2014.

A spokesperson for Porter Novelli, a massive global PR firm, told The Daily Beast that R.I.M. pays a small annual fee to be part of its network.

“R.I.M. in Moscow is not owned by Porter Novelli,” said spokesperson Amy Marriott. “They can use our name and can collaborate with us on cross-market projects. We have never worked with them on anything related to Maria Butina, nor do we have any knowledge of them working with Konstantin Nikolaev.”

Jacob Minevich, partner and CEO of R.I.M., said the firm has not worked with Butina.

“R.I.M. has never worked with Maria Butina,” he said. “We never worked for Konstantin Nikolaev or on projects funded by him. Igor Pisarsky is the founder and chairman of R.I.M. but is not involved in the day-to-day management and projects. We can’t comment on his personal relations beyond those related to the agency.”

Pisarsky has taken a leadership role in the Russian public affairs world. He founded the Silver Archer award, which goes to people who work in public relations, and has sat on its board of supervisors since its 2003 inception, according to the award’s website. The award has been described as a means of warming relations between Russia and the U.S.

Alexander Stadnik, Russia’s trade envoy to the U.S., said at its 2015 award ceremony that the prize could help connect the two countries.

“The relations between the two countries have once again faced a challenge and have been taken to a level which is extremely dangerous for the global economy and international cooperation,” Stadnik said, according to the Russkiy Mir Foundation. “I’m sure that the award has a power not only to expand the contacts between Russia and the U.S., but the Silver Archer’s arrow will also be able to show the vector of rapprochement between the countries.”

One award winner was Sergei Millian, an American citizen born in Belarus who founded the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.

Millian has claimed to work with the Trump Organization on behalf of its Russian clients, according to The Wall Street Journal. He told The Daily Beast that he didn’t personally represent Trump but rather just worked with him on certain projects. Millian also reportedly made statements that were relayed to the author of the controversial Steele dossier alleging ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin (Millian has denied being a source for the dossier).

Pisarsky has also worked with Alfa Capital, a unit of Alfa Bank. Alfa Capital announced on Oct. 1, 2007, that Pisarsky was joining the company to work with its division providing asset management services to wealthy clients.

“[I]n Russia, the number of successful wealthy people who are vitally interested in the comfortable and professional management of their savings is growing,” Pisarsky said at the time.

Pisarsky’s firm also lists Alfa Bank itself as a client. One of the bank’s co-founders, billionaire German Khan, is the father-in-law of Alexander van der Zwaan, who spent several weeks in prison after pleading guilty to lying to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team about work his law firm did alongside Paul Manafort for the Ukrainian government.

—with additional reporting by Anna Nemtsova

This story has been updated with a statement from Konstantin Nikolaev and additional context about Nikolaev.

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