MOSCOW—Russian gun lovers received a delegation from the U.S. National Rifle Association in the dead of winter 2015, and the Russians chose a place to meet that they hoped would linger in the Americans’ memory: a huge bunker complex Joseph Stalin ordered built 200 feet underground, soon after he got the news the United States had developed a nuclear bomb.
Today Bunker 42 is a luxurious restaurant where one can book a room illuminated with red, green, or white lights for $200, or as much as $1,700, an hour, depending on one’s appetite.
When the NRA visited, former Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Alexander Torshin served as the host, naturally. For years, he has been the NRA’s main man lobbying in Russia, with an outpost for his activities in Washington as well.
One of the guests at the Bunker 42 party, well-known political analyst Georgy Bovt, noticed that no other Russian officials were present, and, for what it’s worth, he didn’t get the impression the Americans were the kind of people who could establish a bridge between the political elites of the United States and Russia.
To somebody like Bovt, who has worked as an editor in chief for several magazines since the 1990s and seen the kind of shows the Kremlin will put on at a dinner, the spread looked pretty modest: just a few sandwiches and drinks.
“I could not see any sign of the Kremlin’s hand behind that event,” Bovt told The Daily Beast. “There were a few Americans who looked like ordinary pensioners discussing gun rights in the U.S. with members of a Russian shooting association, which, by the way, was closed down about a month ago.”
In January, the McClatchy news service reported that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking closely at Torshin, who is also a former senator from President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, amid allegations he may have funneled money into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through the NRA.
That story has come back into the news now in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, as heartbroken, angry survivors have focused attention on the gun lobby’s “puppet” politicians, who block common-sense efforts to limit the raw firepower available over the counter. Add Moscow to that mix, and the atmosphere of conspiracy grows very dark indeed.
But was the Russia-Torshin-NRA connection a factor in the Trump election?
U.S. intelligence agencies and at least one top White House official, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, say they have no doubt that Putin sought to influence the American elections and undermine their credibility, that the evidence is “incontrovertible.”
Even Trump now concedes that point, while denying vehemently that his campaign colluded with the Russian operation or that they tipped the scales in his favor. Indeed, he insists, improbably, that others somehow benefited more from the Russian operation than he did.
In point of fact, Trump lost the popular vote by about 3 million ballots but won in the decisive Electoral College tally because of a total margin of roughly 100,000 votes—or less—in three swing states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
It is not unreasonable to think that many votes could have been swayed by the Russian operation and, perhaps, by Russian money.
Earlier this month, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians connected to the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg (PDF), an operation run by a close Putin ally, on eight counts. These ranged from “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of State” to mail fraud and identity theft.
The 37-page indictment (PDF) says senior employees of the Internet Research Agency visited the U.S. under false pretenses in 2014 to gather intelligence on the upcoming elections, visiting several states, including Michigan, that might prove critical to the outcome. The IRA also subsequently was told by “unwitting” Trump activists to focus on “purple states” that were in play.
In Russia, where Putin’s political opponents have quite enough of their own problems, it has become commonplace among independent analysts as well as Kremlin supporters to dismiss the whole “Russia conspiracy” as a paranoid American fantasy. And experts on the disorganization of the Kremlin insist that the Torshin story is much more nuanced and perhaps less menacing than it appears in Washington, because the Kremlin’s right wing often has no idea what the left wing is doing.
As The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen wrote after the Mueller indictments, “Loyal Putinites and dissident intellectuals alike are remarkably united in finding the American obsession with Russian meddling to be ridiculous.”
Hence Bovt’s judgment about the crummy canapés in Stalin’s bunker.
That said, there is no question that NRA funds—more than $30 million—were a significant factor in support of Trump’s candidacy, and even a small donation forming part of that would raise legal issues. It is unlawful to use foreign money to influence federal elections.
If Torshin did give money to the NRA, tracing that through to legally actionable support for the Trump campaign could be extremely difficult. But Torshin’s profile makes him seem a very colorful villain. Spanish investigators allege the Russian banker is a mafia godfather laundering money for Moscow’s infamous Taganskaya organized-crime group through Spanish banks and real estate deals.
Indeed, the Spanish newspaper of record, El País, ran a lengthy report about Torshin almost a year ago.
According to that article, phone taps indicated that Torshin outranked a local capo named Alexander Romanov (who has since been convicted on organized crime related charges). Romanov referred to Torshin as “the Godfather” and “the boss.”
Torshin has denied the Spanish allegations, and, mocking the renewed accusations this week, he retweeted a picture of Al Pacino in The Godfather next to a quotation: “The rule for the reasonable ones is to go against the rules, when there is no other way to finish what you started.” (Torshin, by the way, often tweets in English.)
According to the police documents cited by the Spanish press, Torshin was supposed to go to the mobster Romanov’s birthday party in Palma in 2013, and Spanish authorities were waiting to arrest him. But Torshin didn’t turn up. “A unit consisting of 12 officers was awaiting him at the airport and in a hotel, where he was expected to arrive accompanied by other people being investigated in a money-laundering ring,” but they were left empty-handed.
The Spanish believe Torshin was tipped off.
Then, in February of last year, it appears it was the new Trump administration that was tipped off about Torshin’s shady connections.
Through his NRA ties, Torshin was invited to a prayer breakfast with the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump on Feb. 1 and was supposed to have a personal encounter before that started.
But according to the El País article and a report by Michael Isikoff on Yahoo! News, who also collaborated on the El País story, Torshin’s invitation was canceled at the last minute because a senior White House staffer spotted his name on the guest list and said he had “baggage,” meaning an alleged criminal background.
Whatever Torshin’s links to the Russian mob, he certainly makes no secret of his ties to the NRA.
Russians have an interest in the organization, not least, because of the extensive sale of AK-47 assault rifles in the American market. Indeed, after the gun’s inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, died in December 2013 at 94, Torshin published an obituary in The Washington Times.
In the last paragraph, Torshin mentioned that he “had the pleasure of attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston” in 2013, noting that he and Kalashnikov had “both been ‘life members’ of the NRA for years.”
In May 2016, Torshin confirmed to Russian reporters that he had been seated at the same table as Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner during the NRA convention that same month in Louisville, Kentucky.
But in Moscow, the skepticism remains.
“I have known Torshin for a long time and I can say that he has never passed, never transferred any money to Trump’s campaign. This is just a ridiculous thought,” Yuri Krupnov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, told The Daily Beast.
Indeed, Torshin’s critics in Russia regarded his meetings in the U.S. as a sign that he could not be trusted—in Russia. In 2015 the professor and corruption fighter Alexander Fridom published articles about Torshin’s cooperation with the NRA, “an organization that supported anti-Russian projects,” calling for Russian authorities to investigate Torshin.
At the time Torshin held a sensitive post as a member of the National Antiterrorist Committee.
“Russian modern history knows only two high-ranking officials having both full access to secret information in Russia and a political lobbying role abroad: former secretary of Security Council Boris Berezovsky and Senator Torshin,” Fridom wrote.
The majority of Russians, more than 70 percent, do not support Torshin’s idea of legalizing guns. They say there is more than enough violence on the streets—police reports counted more than 9,000 murders in 2017.
“If we legalize weapons, police would have to deal with people shooting each other to death on the buses and trains,” Sergei Markov, a member of parliament, told The Daily Beast. The recent school shootings in the U.S. have inspired the Russian parliament to discuss a new bill that would oblige every owner of firearms to wear identification tags similar to the symbols on the uniforms of law enforcement officials.
Banker Torshin would have to wear one, too.
In a rare interview on the television channel Moscow24, Torshin confessed: “To me, one kind of love is for firearms.”
Torshin also noted that he had grown up in a tiny village in Kamchatka. On a visit there in in 2008, he found only ruins and ashes where his house had once stood, an experience he seems to link to the need to defend hearth and home. “You are not afraid of anything after you see something like this.”
Torshin started collecting weapons 30 years ago, he said. “Something like a revolver, that you can hide in your vest, would be of interest for me,” Torshin told Russian viewers, showing where on his body he would hide such a weapon. The official was convinced that he, as well as every Russian man, should have a chance to defend his house, his vehicle, and his church parish from “young thugs.”
Three years ago, as a result of pressure from his critics—who blamed Torshin for being “an American agent”—the senator lost his vice-speaker position in the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council.
“Torshin was pushing for the legalization of weapons. That idea was never popular among our law enforcement agencies,” said Markov. “Many believed that Torshin, a lifelong member of the NRA, was paid by American firearms producers, acting as their lobbyist.”
With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey