Spy Affair, a gripping new series from Wondery, features a range of characters you’d expect to find in a shiny Hollywood thriller – a guy that has a lot of action but little subtlety. There is a flame-haired Russian woman who is interested in the politics of the US president. an American millionaire who is having an affair with her; a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin; the FBI suspecting a bad game. It’s a story of sex, lies, and guns. If this were fiction, it could all be found a little silly.
But Spy Affair is a documentary series about Maria Butina, a former PhD student and pro gun activist – she founded the Right to Bear Arms advocacy group in Russia – who claims she is on a public relations mission to promote the friendship between Russia and Washington to promote. In 2015, Butina attended a Trump campaign event at FreedomFest in Las Vegas where she asked the future president a question about American relations with Russia. Trump replied that he “would get along very well with Putin”.
She began an affair with Patrick Byrne, an e-commerce pioneer, while dating Republican activist Paul Erickson. Byrne says he grew suspicious of Butina’s intentions during the course of their relationship and began reporting their activities to the FBI. In 2018, Butina was arrested and charged with acting as a secret foreign agent. She allegedly planned to build back-channel ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign through conservative institutions such as the National Rifle Association. She pleaded guilty to the charges but now maintains her innocence.
The six-part series was written and presented by Celia Aniskovich, a documentary filmmaker who previously worked on Netflix’s Fear City: New York versus the Mafia and How to Fix a Drug Scandal. It also comes from the network that Dr. Death, since turned into a TV series, and has given The Shrink Next Door, a superior podcast on true crime in a wildly overcrowded genre.
As in these series, there are no corpses in Spy Affair. There is also no obvious danger as many listeners will know how the story ends. The tension lies in the motivations of the protagonists as Aniskovich tries to find out who knew what, whether key figures ignored Butina’s activities and whether she is actually not a master manipulator, but a farmer in a much larger political game.
Aniskovich’s tone alternates between curiosity and disbelief, although her screaming delivery takes a bit of getting used to. Her biggest coup here is securing interviews with Byrne and Butina – the latter conversations were conducted in Virginia prison and via video calls to Moscow after Butina’s release in 2019. At some point Aniskovich asks Butina who she really is. Her answer is reasonably opaque: “I am still the same person regardless of what happened. I just got a little stronger. “