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Truth Isn't a Luxury: The Real Story of AU and Russia

Maria Butina was just one part of a larger web of connections between AU and the Russian government. The university has a longstanding and intricate relationship with Russian intelligence and diplomats—one that deserves to be investigated.


There are endless amounts of jokes and theories in reference to Maria Butina, a former graduate student at American University who was convicted on charges of conspiring to act as an illegal foreign agent on behalf of Russia. One might think that this connection between AU and Russian intelligence was just a one-time occurrence; however, Butina was not an isolated example. In fact, Butina brought together the vast and complex web of AU-Russia connections that had previously been seen as separate and unnoteworthy incidents. She was involved in the Carmel Institute, a Russian history and culture program at AU which is funded by Susan Carmel, a DC socialite with incredibly close ties to Putin. She had breakfast with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak, to whom she confided that she approved of the Carmel Institute and its work. Kislyak replied that he knew of this program since he inspired the idea. This is, of course, the very same Sergey Kislyak that was involved in the 2016 election interference investigations. One of Butina’s alleged “handlers'' was Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian banker with close ties to Putin who was a common guest speaker for those who attended trips hosted by the Russian Cultural Center. Another AU-affiliated person involved in the Butina story was Anton Fedyashin, an American University professor and the head of the Carmel Institute. These are the core connections, but each contains their own web with so much more information and incriminating evidence.

Starting with the Russian Cultural Center (RCC), which has been investigated by the FBI for its potential use by its former head, Yury Zaystev, to recruit Americans as potential intelligence assets for Russia. This is supported by the fact that Oleg Zhiganov (Zaytsev’s replacement at the RCC) was “expelled” from the US as part of a large group of people identified as Russian government officials in March of 2018. The FBI alleges that Zaytsev was “a Russian Foreign Intelligence officer and a professional spy, acting as the Director of the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. […] only so that he can maintain a residence here in the United States.” They believe that the cultural programs sponsored by the RCC were a way to determine potential intelligence agents that could be recruited from the US and put to work for Russia. Before his eviction, however, Zhiganov met with Butina on at least one occasion, potentially more, and the contents of these conversations remain unknown. The RCC connects directly to AU in a variety of concerning ways. Most notably, the RCC held an essay contest in which the winners would go on a trip to Russia. One of these winners? An unnamed American University professor. It has been suggested that the professor was Anton Fedyashin, who has two generations of KGB operatives in his family. Fedyashin’s involvement was never confirmed, but what is confirmed is that an AU professor attended a fully-funded Russian Cultural Center trip. In addition, Maria Butina herself attended events sponsored by the Russian Cultural Center during her tenure at AU.

It’s absolutely critical to also address Anton Fedyashin who is, as previously stated, the head of the Carmel Institute at American University. He describes the Institute with the following quote; “What we are trying to do with the program is to expose American students to Russia as a cultural superpower.” This is a frighteningly clear statement on the goals and aims of the Carmel Institute, which are to foster the impression of Russian superiority in the minds of AU students. The Institute is funded by Susan Carmel, who received the Order of Friendship from Putin himself.

Returning to former Ambassador Kislyak, mentioning his AU connections only in the context of his involvement with Maria Butina is doing a disservice to his true influence at the University. He is a strong supporter of the Carmel Institute since he was, in fact, the inspiration for it. He served as the honorary co-chair of the Institute and attended many of their events. Through these connections and others, Kislyak has close ties to its main financier Susan Carmel, whose Russian connections have been already well established.

Now it’s time to talk about another connecting piece—The Carmel Institute. In basic terms, the Carmel Institute hosts events at the RCC and Russian Embassy, and Professor Anton Fedyashin serves as the Institute’s head. The most important connection, however, is that Butina discussed the Institute in her conversation with Kislyak. In fact, both Carmel and Fedyashin “attribute the growth and success of the institute to the support and assistance from Kislyak, who hosts the institute’s events at the Russian Embassy.” It is also no secret that Kislyak is deeply involved with the Institute. He, like Carmel, is a known Putin supporter, and he had breakfast on at least one occasion with Maria Butina. The subject of this meeting was none other than the Carmel Institute, of course. Kislyak was also involved in the 2016 election tampering investigation. Meetings with him were covered up or lied about, one of the most notable being the meeting with Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn. During this meeting they asked Kislyak to set up a secret, encrypted line of communication with the Kremlin of which the US intelligence community would not be aware.

It’s impossible to truly understand the Carmel Institute without also understanding its founder and main financier, Susan Carmel. In 2015, Carmel expanded the previously established Institute of Russian Culture at AU to create the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History. She has worked closely with former ambassador Kislyak to plan and host events to expose students to Russian culture, films, and more. Ms. Carmel believes these events are an excellent way to introduce students to Russian culture, and quite a lot of people agree, including Putin. "The educational programs initiated in the United States by Susan Lehrman represent an important mission,” Putin said. In short, Ms. Carmel’s institute is headed by Fedyashin, who has generations of KGB ties, and is supported by Kislyak, who was involved with the 2016 election tampering investigations. The Institute has also garnered support from Putin, as well as having had many of its events supported by the Russian Embassy. The Embassy also works with the RCC, despite the RCC’s investigation by the FBI for allegedly being used to recruit spies, as well as the ARCCF, which is another of Carmel’s projects.

It’s also crucial that the involvement of the Russian Embassy, the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (ARCCF), and Alexander Torshin with American University is fully addressed. The Russian Embassy supports and works closely with the Carmel Institute, including but not limited to lending the support of their former ambassador and hosting events in their embassy. They also support the ARCCF, which is another project funded by Carmel with the support of Putin. Essentially, Carmel is another crucial link between AU, Butina, Fedyashin, Kislyak, the Russian Embassy, and the ARCCF. The ARCCF and the Carmel Institute only ever host Putin supporters for their events, and they also speak at each other’s events and conferences. Butina attended ARCCF events, in addition to those sponsored by the RCC and the Russian Embassy. However, we have yet to address one of the most important players in this story, Alexander Torshin, Butina’s alleged primary handler and confirmed former employer. Torshin’s connections to AU exist primarily through Butina (although he has also been a known speaker on RCC trips), but it is unconfirmed if he spoke on the trip that included an AU professor. However, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be addressed. Torshin is a Russian official and prominent banker who was close with Putin and advocated for gun rights with Butina while they were both working in Russia. He attended NRA meetings for years and had the support of at least one NRA president. In addition, “Torshin was placed under US Treasury sanctions in April 2018, and is being investigated by the FBI over allegations of funneling money to the NRA to aid the Trump campaign.” Torshin has been all but confirmed as one of Butina’s handlers, which makes it not unreasonable for him to have more undiscovered connections to American University.

While AU tour guides may emphasize the campus’s proximity to Embassy Row as a highlight of the University, its placement may not be a just a happy accident for students who want to trick-or-treat there on Halloween. American University’s involvement with Russia and Russian intelligence runs deep and is completely unknown to the majority of the student body. This can produce all kinds of consequences, such as a bias towards Russia in Carmel Institute events, a prejudice towards Russia in history classes, and many more issues that we don’t yet understand. Even more important than the potential biases in education, or even the possible intelligence recruitment of the student body, is the fact that we live in a country where people and institutions are supposed to be held accountable for their actions. There’s no reason for American University to not be held to the same standards.

Siena Cooney is a first year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a staff writer at American Agora.

Image courtesy Maxence Peniguet, Creative Commons

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