Sitting in a Moscow studio as the snow fell outside, relaxed in a blue blazer and maroon T-shirt, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout described his 14 years in a US prison in his first interview since being traded for Brittney Griner, an American basketball player. player who was imprisoned in a Russian prison colony earlier this year after a drug conviction.
“The whole world is, in fact, a game,” he said, describing the lessons he said he had learned from lectures in Eastern philosophy. To put that lesson into practice, Bout says, he began his mornings by “laughing hysterically” in spite of his fate.
Bout, a notorious arms dealer with alleged ties to Russian security services, was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States in late 2010. A federal indictment charged him with conspiracy to kill Americans by selling weapons to Colombian guerrillas.
“There was nothing,” Bout said about those allegations. He was also accused of selling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and oppressive African regimes. The 2005 movie ‘Lord of War’, starring Nicolas Cage, is a glamorous retelling of his infamous exploits.
Bout faced trial in New York City in 2011; convicted on terrorism charges, he would remain in prison until 2029. In his interview after last week’s parole, Bout suggested his federal attorney had tried to seduce him romantically by roughly simulating her appearance with hand gestures.
The interview was broadcast on RT, or Russian Television, and was conducted in Russian by Maria Butina, a Russian spy who was expelled from the United States in 2019 after spending more than a year behind bars.
In the interview, Bout described his time in solitary confinement as particularly harrowing: ‘Yes, there was panic. Yes, it was very difficult,” he told Butina — but he also complained about American prison food and complained about his inability to access garlic or fresh herbs.
Bout’s release was celebrated in Russia, which had requested his extradition ten years ago. Only after Griner’s arrest earlier this year did Bout’s own release become a real possibility – one that became increasingly likely after the American basketball star, whose luggage contained cannabis cartridges, was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia. . While her high profile probably protected Griner to some degree, conditions in Russian prisons and penal colonies were often described as barbaric.
President Biden announced the prisoner exchange that saw both Griner and Bout released last week. Some in the United States have criticized the deal, arguing it could encourage other rogue regimes to imprison Americans in hopes of forcing similar concessions. There were no such doubts in Russia, where Bout was celebrated as the victim of an unjust persecution.
“Hero of our time,” read a description of the RT interview on YouTube. In that interview, Bout was eager to play the part of the national martyr. “Everything that happened to me is now happening to our country,” he said, referring to the international condemnation Russia has experienced since its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
“I am proud that I am Russian and that Putin is our president,” Bout said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I honestly don’t understand why we didn’t do this sooner,” he said of the unprovoked attack on Ukraine. .
Bout also launched a series of culture war attacks not unlike those launched by Biden’s critics on Fox News and elsewhere.
“There’s reverse racism going on in America right now. It’s very hard to be a normal white person who wants a family, who wants kids, who wants to love,” Bout said at one point. He also criticized efforts to organizers and perpetrators of the violent riot at the US Capitol that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“Look at what they did to the participants of the so-called armed uprising on January 6,” he said, effectively mirroring the arguments of hardline conservatives like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who portrayed the rioters as the victims of political attacks.
Bout also launched attacks on transgender rights (“Imagine, in American schools they are now teaching – to first graders, 6 or 7 years old – that there are 72 genders”) and criminal justice reform (“Look at what’s happening.” is happening in San Francisco. Look what is happening in Chicago. Look what is happening in New York.”
Yet he also claimed that he was at peace and harbored no bitterness.
“You have to learn to forgive,” said Bout.