Sitting in a Moscow studio as snow fell outside, looking relaxed in a blue blazer and brown 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 had been detained in a Russian penal colony following a drug conviction earlier this year.
“The whole world, basically, is a game,” he said, describing the lessons he says he learned from reading Eastern philosophy. Putting that lesson into practice, Bout says, he began his mornings “laughing hysterically” in defiance of his fate.
A notorious arms dealer with alleged ties to Russian security services, Bout 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 arms to Colombian guerrillas.
“There was nothing,” Bout said of those accusations. He has also been accused of selling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as to oppressive regimes in Africa. The 2005 film “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage, is a glamorous account of his notorious exploits.
Bout was tried in 2011 in New York; sentenced for terrorism, he was to remain in prison until 2029. In his interview after his early release last week, Bout suggested that his federal defense attorney had tried to seduce him romantically, grossly faking his appearance with hand gestures.
The interview aired on RT, or Russian TV, and was conducted in Russian by Maria Butina, a Russian spy who was deported 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 heartbreaking – “Yes, there was panic. Yes, it was very difficult,” he told Butina – but got away with it. also complained about American prison food, lamenting his inability to access garlic or fresh herbs.
Bout’s release was celebrated in Russia, which had requested his extradition a decade ago. It wasn’t until Griner’s arrest earlier this year that Bout’s own release became a real possibility – one that became increasingly likely after the American basketball star, whose luggage contained cartridges of cannabis, was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. . Although his notoriety probably protected Griner to some degree, conditions in Russian prisons and penal colonies were often described as barbaric.
President Biden announced the prisoner swap that saw Griner and Bout freed last week. Some in the United States have criticized the deal, arguing it could encourage other rogue regimes to capture Americans in hopes of winning similar concessions. Such scruples have been non-existent in Russia, where Bout has been celebrated as the victim of an unjust prosecution.
“Heroes of our time,” read a description of the RT interview posted on YouTube. In this interview, Bout looked forward to playing the role of national martyr. “Everything that happened to me is now happening to our country,” he said, referring to the international condemnation Russia has faced since launching the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
“I’m proud to be Russian and that Putin is our president,” Bout said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Honestly, I don’t understand why we didn’t do it sooner,” he said of the unprovoked attack on Ukraine. .
Bout has also embarked on a series of culture war attacks not dissimilar to those launched by Biden critics on Fox News and elsewhere.
“In America right now, there’s reverse racism. To be a normal white person who wants a family, who wants kids, who wants to love, is very difficult,” Bout said at one point. He also criticized efforts to find and prosecute organizers and perpetrators of the violent riot at the United States Capitol that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“Look what they did to participants in the so-called January 6 armed insurrection,” he said, effectively mirroring the arguments of hardline conservatives like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who described the rioters like the victims. political attacks.
Bout has also launched attacks on transgender rights (“Imagine it, in American schools they now teach – first graders, 6 or 7 year olds – that there are 72 genders”) and gender reform. criminal justice (“Look what’s happening in San Francisco. Look what’s happening in Chicago. Look what’s happening in New York”).
Yet he also claimed he was at peace and harbored no bitterness.
“You have to learn to forgive,” Bout said.