BARNAUL, Russia — The parents of Russian operative Maria Butina have revealed that she became interested in guns as a girl and say they can't believe she knowingly worked on behalf of the Kremlin.
Butina, 30, last month pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an undisclosed agent of Russia in the U.S. She also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
The pro-guns rights activist had spent years building connections in American political circles and with influential conservative groups including the National Rifle Association in an effort to push Moscow’s agenda.
But in an interview with NBC News, Butina’s family painted a picture of her childhood in a typical Soviet apartment in Barnaul, a far-flung Siberian city more than 2,000 miles from Moscow.
Butina took an interest in shooting when she was aged around 10, her father Valery Butin said.
“She saw me working with guns and learned about [them] from childhood,” he recalled. “She learned how to shoot, how to assemble and disassemble a gun.”
Butina was an ambitious student who got mostly A's and enjoyed studying English, her family said.
Like many other students in Russia, Butina learned how to assemble and disassemble Kalashnikovs as part of a first aid-related class at school. She was always among the fastest at the exercise, according to her younger sister, Marina.
In addition to shooting, Butina also played volleyball and skied, and enjoyed reading Harry Potter novels and books by Ray Bradbury.
She later attended the local Altai State University where she received degrees in political science and education, her parents said.
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In 2011, she founded a Russian pro-gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms.
“She wanted to influence society,” her sister told NBC News.
“At one point she grew so much that there wasn’t enough space for her in this town anymore," Butina's father added. "And when she had the opportunity to go to the capital, she took it."
However, one firearms instructor reportedly said that Butina had no idea how to use a weapon around the time she set up Right to Bear Arms.
Speaking to the Associated Press in July, Boris Pashchenko recounted a 2011 encounter with Butina.
"I said [to Maria Butina], 'what about shooting?'" he recalled. "Maria said, 'I have never tried it.' I said, 'Come to us. Our acquaintance started with this. She came here, I gave [her] a gun, a rifle, and she tried to shoot."
It was not immediately clear why Pashchenko and Butina’s relatives gave different accounts of her level of familiarity with guns.
After moving to Moscow, Butina began traveling to America for NRA conventions.
In December 2015, Butina helped orchestrate a trip by NRA members to Moscow in which she set up a meeting between the American gun supporters and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, court papers say.
In 2016, she moved to the U.S. to pursue a master's degree at American University in Washington on a student visa.
The charge against Butina was brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In pleading guilty, Butina admitted to working with her Republican operative boyfriend Paul Erickson — identified in court papers as as "U.S. Person 1" — at the behest of a Russian official in order "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics … for the benefit of the Russian Federation."
The Russian fits the description of Alexander Torshin, who recently retired as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. As NBC News has previously reported, Torshin reached out to the Trump campaign seeking a meeting between Putin and Trump. He met Donald Trump Jr. in May 2016 at an NRA dinner.
The Russian government has strenuously denied that Butina has any ties to official government conduct.