In St. Petersburg, two exhibitions of the “weapons baron” Viktor Bout opened at once in a row: in the Russian National Library and the Museum of the Political History of Russia. Without undertaking to assess the artistic value of the works, Fontanka talked to Bout about what the paintings in an American prison meant to him, and asked how he makes a living now.
In 2012, Viktor Bout was sentenced in the United States to 25 years in prison for “arms smuggling and supporting terrorism.” The Western media called him a “merchant of death” and claimed that he illegally sold weapons to places where there was an international embargo. For example, representatives of the Taliban* and Al-Qaeda* movements (the movements are recognized as terrorist in the Russian Federation, their activities are prohibited). Booth pleaded not guilty. In December 2022, he was exchanged for American basketball player Brittney Griner, who was convicted in Russia for drugs. Read more about Viktor Bout in the Fontanka article.
In June, Viktor Bout opened two exhibitions in St. Petersburg. The name is the same: “My shore is a thin line.” On June 19, the works were presented at the Russian National Library, on June 20 – at the Museum of the Political History of Russia. In addition, Booth’s creative evenings are planned in both institutions. The announcement of the event, which will be held at the museum, says that Bout painted his paintings in “a prison cell a little over two square meters.”
How did you start painting? As I understand it, it was a special program for prisoners?
– Not that it’s a program, it’s just that there are conditions in which everything can be done officially in prison. But, of course, without his own desire, nothing would have happened.
At what point did you start drawing?
– Probably, almost in the first year, although for a long time it was impossible to even have pens. I spent almost three years in solitary confinement, where, of course, you can’t draw with either a pencil or a pen. So, try something on a piece of paper. When the opportunity arose, of course, I wanted to work with color, with pencils and with other means.
– Single – is this the camera that is painted on the floor at the exhibition?
– Not really. The fact is that before the trial, I was in fact in complete isolation all the time. I only saw clouds.
— Were art supplies handed over to you through the prison store?
— They could be ordered through a special catalogue.
Are you writing now?
– I’m trying to do something. The exhibition presents one of the works, written already here, in St. Petersburg, immediately after the New Year.
You will probably find it yourself. (Probably, we are talking about the work “Fantasy”. – Approx. ed.) I won’t even talk about it.
– Your work in prison and now, at large … are they different?
– It’s hard to say, so far little work has been done after the release. Let’s see. Time will show.
When did you paint your last painting?
“About a week or maybe a month ago.
– What do you do for a living now?
This is an interesting question, so let’s talk about something else.
– Fine. That is, you are not ready to talk about the fact that you are engaged in gas trading?
– What kind of gas? I am not a gas trader.
According to the SPARK database, at the end of May, Bout became a co-owner of VBA Project Group, whose main activity is “consulting on commercial activities and management.” In June, the company acquired three subsidiaries: A-Trade NP, Veraks and Rusafro-Impex. They, judging by SPARK, are engaged in trade in liquefied gas, industrial equipment and fuel. Bout owns 90% of the VBA Project Group, and he controls 49% of the subsidiaries.
— And what about VBA Project Group and its subsidiaries A-Trade NP, Verax and Rusafro-Impex?
– If you are doing an investigation, do it further, then why are you interviewing?
– This is public information.
– Yes, this information is open, but do you ask questions or arrange an interrogation?
– I’m asking you.
– I’m telling you: I don’t comment on it.
– Fine. Then about something else: Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin said that you could lead any party. Tell me, your conditional voter, those people who would be ready to support Viktor Bout, who are they? What age are they, from what cities?
“It is still too early to talk about politics. I don’t have any concrete plans to start a political career now. Too little time has passed for this. I have not been in the country for fifteen years, I need to understand the realities, conditions, get to know people’s lives, communicate, see, visit as many as possible. If my help is needed somewhere, I am ready to do everything for the good of the Motherland. But I feel that a political career is not exactly my vocation, so it would be wrong to say that I somehow really aspire or want. Of course, it is better to return to business, start some other career. Well, let’s see how it all pans out. Moreover, I would like to say that I am not a supporter of any scandals or any insinuations. With regard to any comments, I think that now is a completely different time when we all need to work together so that we achieve victory shoulder to shoulder.
– And under what circumstances did you meet Yevgeny Viktorovich?
– Again, this was a special case, so let it remain outside the scope of our interview.
– When you were in prison, did you understand that the state was behind you? Did you expect to be exchanged?
– Firstly, the state is probably a projection of our entire people, our will. Of course, such hope has never passed, it has always been thanks to the help, first of all, of relatives and ordinary Russians. And also the participation of the (Russian) Peace Foundation and various other organizations who helped lawyers, who financed, who sent me a lot of books. I am very grateful to all those of our citizens who have been writing letters to me all these years, buying me books, passing on warm words. I am very grateful.
How did you get the latest news? There are newspaper clippings in the exhibition. Were you given press or were there Russian TV channels?
– TV channels were only American. The embassy signed me up for Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda, so I regularly received these publications.
– When you found out that there would be an exchange, how long did you think it would last? Week, month, year?
– It was not clear that the exchange would take place. Given the hype in the press, I knew that the process would be long and difficult.
Do you think you were exchanged because that was the will of the people? In your opinion, was it grassroots support?
— I think so, because I received a lot of letters. The LDPR party also helped a lot, starting from the very beginning (helped), Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky helped at one time, Leonid Viktorovich Slutsky at one time also helped the family and with lawyers very much, like Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin.
What did the pictures mean to you during your imprisonment? What role did they play?
– You know, it’s probably hard to say now. Difficult situations always help in creativity. Probably understand yourself better.
— The last work you wrote a month ago, what is it about?
– See at the next exhibitions.