Before Viktor Bout became Russia’s most famous arms dealer, long before a federal court sentenced him to 25 years in prison and before he became widely known as the “Merchant of Death,” he was married to Alla. Now, as her husband serves out his sentence in Marion prison in Illinois, she is in Moscow searching for ways to bring him home.
What’s it like to be the wife of the world’s most recognizable gunrunner? Alla Bout, a petite woman with a tired face and an exhausted voice, says it’s “devastating” and blames the U.S. government for what she calls the injustice of her husband being labeled a face of the evil of otherwise senseless civil wars and strife.
The Bouts’ rundown two-story house looks modest next to the giant villas in the luxurious gated community of Galitsyno-7, 30 kilometers outside Moscow. Alla Bout complains that she has no money to fix the leaky roof or crumbling façade. She waves to a white Art Deco-style mansion across the street: “If [Viktor] really built a billion-dollar fortune, as his accusers in New York claim, he would have built something like that.” Nervously, she checks the signal on her iPhone. She is expecting the week’s one allotted 14-minute call from Illinois.
The first time she heard the words “your husband is a terrorist” was in 2001. “We came to apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, where we had lived since 1993,” she says. “We heard that America doesn’t let in terrorists. I thought, if my husband is a terrorist, who is everybody else?”
That year the United Nations reported that Viktor Bout had violated arms embargoes in the wars in Angola, where he had once served as a Soviet military intelligence officer, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. As a result, his bank accounts were frozen, despite his claims he was merely operating a cargo airline servicing African hotspots. “He lost about $10 million,” his wife says. The couple moved back to their gated house in Moscow, and for a few years they lived on her income from a fashion studio, “about $3,000 a month,” she says.
To help her husband stay sane in prison, she’s sent him volumes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Rajneesh Oshe, the Indian philosopher whose teachings are a favorite of the Bouts’. “I’ve lived with this strong, fearless, and patriotic man for over 20 years,” she says. “I was proud of him when he organized the rescue of an Ilyshin-76 airplane crew hijacked by the Taliban in Kandahar in 1995, and I am proud of his stoic behavior in a U.S. jail now.”
Nobody ever denied that her husband was a soldier once, and even if he sold weapons today, so have many U.S. citizens who aren’t behind bars. “America sold weapons to Georgia that killed Russian citizens during the war in 2008,” she says with emotion. Would it be acceptable for Russian agents to kidnap executives from Bushmaster, a firearms manufacturer that supplies Georgia, while they’re on vacation in Europe? These are the questions she asks herself.
In 2001, Viktor Bout’s fame grew by leaps and bounds. He was accused of selling airplanes to the Taliban, of helping al Qaeda move its cash and gold to Afghanistan from Sudan, and after 9/11, he got a new nickname: Russia’s Osama bin Laden. In March 2008, for the first time in years, Bout went abroad to Thailand “just for four days, to sell his last two cruddy airplanes,” Alla Bout says. Instead, U.S. prosecutors say, he negotiated a deal to sell rockets to U.S. agents posing as Revolutionary Armed Forces or FARC rebels. “During that recorded conversation, he said he would like to kill Americans,” she says. “That was his only proven crime, as far as I understand.”
Most of Alla Bout’s friends, especially those with assets or relatives in the United States, have shunned her and her daughter with Viktor, Liza. And although Russian officials, “at least in their statements,” support her husband as a political prisoner and victim of the tense relationship between Russia and the United States, she says nobody has come to her aid. “The only people coming are journalists from Channel 1,” the state television station, which is shooting a film about her, she says.
She jumps to the phone when Bout calls her from prison. In neutral, hurried tones, the husband and wife talk. She suggests he would “cheer up” if he played a Russian pantomime game with his fellow inmates, who include convicted Islamic terrorists, a famous tax evader, and other serious but run-of-the-mill criminals. She sounds grateful for his suggestion that she use milk and apple juice as eye drops for their old English bulldog, Josephine. She quickly describes the situation with their daughter’s high-school classes—to avoid journalists, Liza goes to school in St. Petersburg. Viktor Bout asks her about some news, the Russian reaction to a U.N. human-rights resolution. She promises to double-check.
“He didn’t think the other inmates in his jail would play games with him. He said they were serious people and that some are on the verge of hysteria,” she says after hanging up. “They aren’t the types to discuss Oshe’s teachings either, I guess.”
In a letter to Itar-Tass this week, Viktor Bout writes: “Prison, as Dostoyevsky wrote (if I am not mistaken), is a mirror of society. I have never been to the U.S. before, so it would be a very distorted picture, and I hope there is another America, but that’s only my hope.” He describes the inmates as “very peaceful and organized, peaceful in the majority.” He also adds a quote by Oshe on the importance of communication: “When you lose language, suddenly you drop out of human society and civilization. You become part of the trees, rocks, the sky.”
Alla Bout gets offended at the suggestion that her husband, though once a military interpreter, might be a Russian secret agent today. “For as long as I’ve lived with him, he has never received money from any Russian secret services or ministries. He worked 24 hours a day to make his own fortune, which now is all gone,” she says.
Authorized by her husband to write official letters last June, she requested that the Russian Justice Ministry negotiate his transfer to Russia to serve out the rest of his sentence. The letter was sent on to the Russian Foreign Ministry and then to the authorities in the United States. She doesn’t think her husband’s case has a chance of being reconsidered before the U.S. elections in November, and maybe not even then. But she’s hoping for a prisoner exchange: “People suggested that he could be exchanged for Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I hope they catch all of the spies in Moscow and swap them for my husband.”