MAGA world tried to create its own social-media platform once. A place for Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, QAnon shamans, and All Lives Matterers to roam free and express themselves without moderation. It was called Parler (“to speak” in French, a language an estimated zero percent of its users knew) and was founded by an unlikely couple named Alina Mukhutdinova and John Matze. Both remained relatively anonymous until recently, when the whole thing fell apart.

It started in May of 2016, when the twentysomething Alina Mukhutdinova left her hometown in Kazan, Russia, for a two-week road trip in the U.S. No one knows why she decided to go or the stops she took along the way. What is known is that Alina was a tech fan and liked to attend conferences such as C.E.S., the Consumer Technology Association’s annual Las Vegas trade show widely considered to be the most influential tech event in the world. This may explain how she ended up in Vegas, crossing paths with software engineer and future husband John Matze.

John was a geek. He had studied computer science at the University of Denver and held different tech jobs since, working as an iOS developer and software engineer in San Diego, Las Vegas, and Seattle. At one point during a three-month stint at Amazon Web Services, he wrote on his since-deleted Web site that he was “exhausted with the lack of transparency in big tech, ideological suppression and privacy abuse.” Then, in 2016, John decided to strike out on his own.

When John Met Alina

On May 15, six months prior to the 2016 presidential election, everything fell into place. John met Alina, a tall, gorgeous tourist discovering the American heartland for the first time. She was enthusiastic about him and his ideas. And she had a proud heritage.

A Russian patriot who loved her country to the core, Alina followed the Kremlin, as well as the official @Pravitelstvo_RF government account, on Twitter. She posted often about her longing for the motherland and how she missed Kazan Federal University, where both she and Vladimir Lenin had gone to school. You needn’t wonder what she’d think of Alexei Navalny.

Championing free speech for all Americans, even the Russian ones.

John was swept off his feet, and Alina stayed. At one point in their relationship, the couple visited an outdoor shooting range in the Nevada desert. Alina grabbed an M16 and a Kalashnikov, one in each hand—a symbol of American and Russian weapons of war coexisting in peace under the Second Amendment. She proudly posed for a picture, wearing a T-shirt that said, TRUST ME I’M A RUSSIAN SPY. The post was shared on Instagram with the caption “Don’t mess with me.”

It showed a level of irony Alina must have had, suggesting she knew people gossiped about her, and felt comfortable enough to laugh about it. Her alt-right libertarian views, obscure family background, and swift engagement to Matze—they set a wedding date within just a few months of meeting each other—had become the talk of their corner.

Alina grabbed an M16 and a Kalashnikov, one in each hand—a symbol of American and Russian weapons of war coexisting in peace under the Second Amendment.

The shirt she wore that day at the shooting range is now iconic, variations of it sold on Amazon and Shopify. People are dressing up as Alina Mukhutdinova for Halloween. And the Russian spy rumors never really went away.

Moving forward to December 12, 2017. Kazan, Tatarstan (technically in western Russia but far enough from Moscow to have to take a plane between the two). The big day.

From Russia, with love: Alina and John married in 2017 in Kazan. They started Parler a year later.

Even though Alina and John lived in Las Vegas, the marriage capital of the world, Alina wanted to do it in Russia. John agreed. No one from his side of the family attended the wedding, as far as is known. Alina’s mother, Gulnara Mukhutdinova, was definitely there; on the couple’s first anniversary, she wrote on Instagram, “Exactly a year ago there was a celebration that affected my future destiny … I started doing the ritual work again! Proud and love you, my lovely John and Alina!”

It is unclear what “ritual work” or destiny she was referring to. Gulnara also posted about Alina’s grandmother, a recipient of the Honored Builder of Russia medal back in the U.S.S.R. days.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Parler …

The happy couple returned to the U.S. after the wedding and officially launched Parler in August of 2018. Alina was present every step of the way. Her bio read, “Parler First Lady.”

Marketing itself as a harbinger of “total free speech,” the social-media platform quickly became a place for professional trolls as well as white supremacists of the Pepe the Frog variety. Large amounts of money poured in, from Trump-campaign funders such as the Mercer family (the American hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer was also the principal investor in the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica) and lesser-known conservative operatives, some of whom remained entirely anonymous.

Repeat after them: M-A-G-A!

Alina and John became regulars at Trump venues, playing golf at Trump National Doral Miami and staying in Trump hotels across the country when they weren’t in their big home in Henderson, Nevada. And Parler, fanned by Trump’s flames, skyrocketed.

MAGA heavyweights Candace Owens and Dan Bongino, old-timer Rudy Giuliani, and Infowars’ Alex Jones joined, declaring it the “only unbiased and uncensored social platform on the Internet.”

Alina got pregnant a few months after the wedding. In November 2018 she proudly received her daughter’s American Social Security card and posted on social media about it. She later shared another picture of her baby wrapped in a Russian flag, with a caption that read, “I hope she is going to love Russia as much as I do ❤️ my little patriot 🇷🇺.”

Alina was present at every step of Parler’s launch, calling herself the app’s “First Lady.”

In 2019, the Trump International Hotel, in Washington, D.C., hosted one of Parler’s biggest parties. Alina and John, a true power couple by then, arrived with their baby decked out in head-to-toe MAGA, including a white beanie with bright-red lettering.

All of the top Parler users were eager to mingle with the First Lady and C.E.O. At the same time, it was becoming clear that Parler lovin’ and Russia lovin’ were one and the same in the couple’s eyes. John started to engage politically on the app, posting statements such as “1 in 3 Russians died fighting the Nazis,” and how Americans should remember that.

John and Alina’s daughter reps her mother’s home country.

Traffic to the site continued to grow exponentially, as Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. joined the anti-woke network. In November of last year, Parler reached nearly 10 million users. Many of them were Russian trolls.

A month before, The Washington Post had reported, “A mysterious European named Leo has offered a stream of familiar—and completely false—right-wing talking points on Parler…: Mail-in voting amounts to fraud,” for instance, and “Left-wing activists somehow infected President Trump with the coronavirus.” “Leo” was identified as “a key asset in an alleged Russian disinformation campaign that has been purged from three mainstream social media platforms.” Parler, though, along with far-right Web site Gab, continued to host accounts with possible links to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, whose campaign crippled the 2016 presidential election, even after news of the disinformation campaign became public.

Ironically, Russia would never allow an app like Parler to freely exist for Russian users.

At the top of the App Store, Parler was rife with doxing (the hacking and publishing of private information), cyberbullying, and violent incitement, not just pro-Putin propaganda. Alina wasn’t vocal about any of this on her Parler, Instagram, or Twitter accounts.

There were discussions at Parler HQ at the time about the company’s exposure to lawsuits and the possible deletion of certain posts, the sort of thing for which it used to criticize its rivals, Twitter and Facebook. But in the end Parler stayed true to its identity: content moderation was handled by boards made up of users’ own peers, in keeping with the total-free-speech mantra and Parler’s “Declaration of Internet Independence.”

Ironically, Russia would never allow an app like Parler to freely exist for Russian users.

It all culminated in a death threat to then vice president Mike Pence, posted by Trump-campaign lawyer and conspiracy theorist Lin Wood, in the run-up to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a riot that was orchestrated and documented primarily on Parler.

With the Capitol riot, Parler’s fame, until then relegated to the outer-right spheres of the American consciousness, went mainstream. At the same time, Alina and John’s world collapsed. The couple had been able to see a future for their company beyond Trump’s loss, but on January 9, Apple, Google, and Amazon Web Services (John’s former employer) banned Parler, effectively shutting it down.

A glimmer of hope emerged when, a few days later, Alina and John managed to relaunch Parler on a Moscow server coincidentally also used by Russian intelligence. (Alina took the time to address long-standing rumors that she was a Russian spy by going on a Russia 1 TV show and then sharing a clip of it on her Instagram. It’s all in Russian, but the gist is that Twitter is full of fake news and hate speech, that she and her husband are “taking it all with a smile,” and that the F.B.I. is judging people based on their nationality.)

On January 29, Rebekah Mercer, the app’s primary backer and head of the board, decided to fire John, a move he says was at least partly spurred by their differing approaches to content moderation. Parler’s chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff, did not reply to Air Mail’s request for comment, but released a statement saying Matze’s explanation for his firing was “inaccurate and misleading.”

It probably angered Alina, and it definitely angered John, who issued a statement insisting he had been terminated and never wanted to leave the company. On March 22 it was revealed that John is suing Parler.

Alina and John did not reply to AIR MAIL’s request for comment. Parler released the following statement before John was let go from the company:

“Alina, whose working-class family lived in the former Soviet Union, came to America to start her own multi-racial, interfaith family with John. To subject them to baseless accusations that their marriage is part of some twisted espionage scheme — all because she is an immigrant — is precisely the sort of ‘racism, nativism, fear and demonization’ President Biden urged us to reject in his inaugural address. The entire Parler team stands behind John and Alina.”

The wedding in Russia, the timing, the Russian server, the ironic spy T-shirt, the Russian trolls, the Russian patriotism … it’s a lot to take in. Even if Alina had no instructions from the Kremlin, she’s a remarkable character. This unlikely journey from Kazan to MAGA royalty is a true victory of love over visa.

Nimrod Kamer is a London-based writer and editor, and the author of The Social Climber’s Handbook: A Shameless Guide