One of the Kremlin’s slogans in its brutal invasion of Ukraine is “We don’t leave our people behind.” It implies that, in Ukraine, there are Russian speakers whose very existence is under threat and that only Putin and his loyal army (which includes mercenaries and “volunteers” recruited from prisons) can save them from extinction. In reality, Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine have endured the worst of Putin’s attacks, and the Russian Army almost always leaves their dead behind. As the hasty retreat of Russian forces in the past week has shown, Moscow even forgot to evacuate Ukrainian collaborators, leaving those in the newly liberated territories to face charges of treason from the Zelensky government.
In 9 cases out of 10, if Russia says that it won’t leave you behind, you’ve already been abandoned. But there is one man that Putin—and Russia—is ready to fight for. Meet Viktor Bout, an inmate at an Illinois prison who is widely believed to be the most successful gunrunner in modern history.
Should a deal be reached between the White House and the Kremlin, Bout would be swapped for Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on questionable espionage charges, and W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner, currently serving a 9-year prison sentence in Russia for bringing a cannabis-oil vape cartridge into the zero-tolerance country. After Whelan was imprisoned in 2018, Putin said, “We will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on,” which to those of us familiar with the Russian president meant that he’d started building a prisoner-exchange fund.
Imprisoning Griner, the most well-known openly gay basketball player in the world, an American trailblazer who has broken one glass ceiling after another, seems to be right up Putin’s alley. After all, the man—and the system he built—is vehemently homophobic, strikingly misogynist, and anti-American to the bone. But in Putin’s twisted K.G.B. worldview, what he’s doing is an eye for an eye in a lifelong battle against the West, because for many, Viktor Bout is a hero—the Russian Brittney Griner.
To understand why someone who profits off of people killing each other is considered a hero in Russia, you’d have to look at the Soviet Union and, more specifically, its dissolution. I remember my parents rejoicing when the Soviet empire collapsed. People all across Europe and Central Asia were freed from the inhuman oppression of Russia’s imperialist ambitions that were once Communism and are now the “Russian world.”
For someone like Putin, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” As hard as it is to feel empathy for Russia’s bloodthirsty president, one can somewhat understand his sense of tragedy. Decades were spent spreading Soviet influence abroad, with billions invested in propping up authoritarian regimes, financing terrorism, planning revolutions, and de-stabilizing what Russian propaganda now calls “the collective West.”
But in Putin’s twisted K.G.B. worldview, what he’s doing is an eye for an eye in a lifelong battle against the West, because for many, Viktor Bout is a hero—the Russian Brittney Griner.
That’s a lot of work to see disappear with the first cracks of the Berlin Wall. Many tears fell into their Stolichnaya in the late 1980s as once esteemed members of the Soviet security apparatus watched their empire—and careers—go bust. But when the Soviet Union fell, Viktor Bout didn’t. He was one of the few Russians to catch a whiff of opportunity as the world around him crumbled. In Viktor’s case, this opportunity reeked of aviation fuel, gunpowder, and corpses.
Like Griner, you could call him a trailblazer. If you were an African warlord in the 1990s and early 2000s, Bout was your Amazon Prime. AK-47s, R.P.G.’s, armored personnel carriers, and maybe a combat helicopter or two—all of them delivered on time, with a smile, and no pesky sanctions to prevent the war crimes that you were so keen on committing. You could pay him in dollars, but if greenbacks weren’t your thing, Mr. Bout would’ve gladly accepted coffee, diamonds, or anything else that could fit into one of his many decrepit Soviet cargo planes—the world’s largest turboprop fleet at the time—shuttling between some of the most dangerous places on earth. Whatever the local language, he spoke it, and whatever the deal—he made it happen.
If you were an African warlord in the 1990s and early 2000s, Bout was your Amazon Prime.
His planes kept flying when the Russian Air Force had no fuel, spare parts, or sober pilots. At a time when the once mighty country had to shamefully rely on American financing to keep its nuclear arsenal safe, Bout single-handedly kept a figment of the Soviet empire alive, projecting its lethal power to far corners of the world. If you try to completely forget about the concept of ethics, good, evil, and the value of human life, you’ll see how Bout is a success story.
Hollywood even made a movie about him.
Lord of War, a 2005 action biopic starring Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov—an Americanized version of Bout—became Viktor’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the film, Cage’s character fights for the American Dream: selling guns so he can afford to live in a New York apartment overlooking Central Park with his supermodel wife. Movie-Bout rents out entire Caribbean resorts, flies private, and is shuttled around Manhattan in a chauffeured Cadillac limousine. It was one of the more popular films of that era in Russia, and whenever I watch it, I get the feeling that Movie-Bout’s over-the-top lifestyle is the only way the American mindset can relate to the real-life Lord of War. Because if not for the money, why would anyone even sell guns? Some of the best parts of the film are Bout’s internal dialogue: for every massacre, conscripted child soldier, and ruthless warlord in the story, we hear the protagonist justifying his actions, as if trying to keep a semblance of morality in the chaos that he himself created.
The real Bout was a far cry from his depiction in cinema. An acquaintance of mine whose relative worked for Bout in the 1990s once described meeting the elusive gunrunner at a corporate party for one of his freight companies. What shocked my acquaintance the most wasn’t the fact that in front of him stood a man responsible for innumerable deaths; it was his car. “The Merchant of Death” pulled up in a modest Mitsubishi S.U.V., no bodyguards in sight. “It wasn’t even bulletproof,” he told me of the car. “I checked.” No limos, made-to-measure suits, or the trademark Nicolas Cage flair. The real Bout, it seemed, wasn’t doing it for the money—or the American Dream.
Like Brittney Griner, Bout broke glass ceilings with the full force of an R.P.G. blast: in the K.G.B. worldview, international law is the ultimate glass ceiling, and those who break it become heroes in their own right, mavericks who stick it to the U.S. and their global policing by flying crates of munitions to places that aren’t allowed to have so much as a BB gun.
“The Merchant of Death” pulled up in a modest Mitsubishi S.U.V., no bodyguards in sight.
When everything is war, those who do something that the other side considers illegal are considered victors. And when these victors do get arrested, as Bout did in 2008, it’s their silence that proves them as true heroes. According to numerous people in both Russian and American intelligence circles, not once did Bout snitch, cooperate with American authorities, or in any way betray what he and his fan club at the K.G.B. considered to be Russian national interests. For the Russian security services, this makes him one of the empire’s greatest sons, and to get their hero back, they’ll take one of ours. That’s because if Brittney Griner is the embodiment of the American Dream, Bout represents the Russian one.
A 2012 profile of Bout in The New Yorker ends with his saying that he’ll get back to Russia: “I don’t know when. But I’m still young. Your empire will collapse and I’ll get out of here.” It looks as if he’s really coming back to Russia—no doubt as a hero who beat the [legal] system. Even Lord of War—made a few years before Bout’s arrest—ends with Yuri Orlov leaving jail. There’s no doubt that a man of Bout’s talent is someone the Kremlin desperately needs, especially at this point in the war.
In the past months, Russia has tried to obtain weapons and munitions from Iran, North Korea, and even Bout’s native Tajikistan. It’s running low on advanced guns, rockets, and the microchips that go inside them. Someone who’s earned the nickname “Sanctions-Buster” can all but certainly provide Moscow with the weapons it needs for its barbaric invasion.
When looking at the proposed prisoner exchange as a matter of national security, it’s understandable why many in the American intelligence community are against the swap: the U.S. isn’t getting a high-level spy back, just a basketball player who got caught up in the new Cold War, all while letting go of one of the most dangerous men on the planet. But here, it seems the difference between the Russian and American Dreams comes to play.
In a non-Putinized worldview where good and bad aren’t just artificial constructs made up by cynical interest groups, keeping evil at bay can’t be done at the cost of losing hope. Brittney Griner is exactly that—a hope for the millions of girls who look up to her as she breaks every outdated norm, glass ceiling, and basketball record on the court. Comparing her with someone who can only break laws and people’s lives, it’s easy to see who the real hero is. And that hero cannot be left behind.
To hear Andrew Ryvkin reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Andrew Ryvkin is a Russian journalist and screenwriter who was forced to emigrate after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine