MOSCOW (AP) — Viktor Bout, a former Russian arms dealer who was released from prison in the U.S. in a swap for WNBA star Brittney Griner in December, unveiled an exhibition of his artworks at a Moscow gallery on Tuesday.
Bout, widely known abroad as the “Merchant of Death,” was convicted in 2011 on terrorism charges with prosecutors saying that he was ready to sell up to $20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters.
He strongly denied the charges and proclaimed his innocence, describing himself as a legitimate entrepreneur who didn’t sell any weapons. Russian officials have cast him as a victim of a nefarious U.S. sting operation and demanded his release for many years.
When Moscow and Washington made a deal to swap him for Griner in December, Bout was held in a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois and had not been scheduled to be released until 2029.
After his return to Moscow, Bout, 56, quickly became a member of the Kremlin-backed Liberal Democratic Party but has dodged questions about a possible political career.
Bout’s art exhibition features a wide gamut of styles and subjects — from portraits of Soviet-era movie stars to warplanes to animals. Most of his drawings and paintings are done in a realistic manner, but there are also some attempts at abstract composition.
The exhibition includes personal objects, photos and a floor plan of his cell in the U.S. prison.
“When you are surrounded by absolutely grey walls topped by barbed wire and when you don’t see the horizon for a long time, it’s hard,” Bout said Tuesday at his exhibition. “The deprivation of such visual stimuli was a challenge for me. Drawing helped me overcome all that.”
He added that his experience taught him that “life can always change drastically.”
“You must not give up, you must do everything to the end, and you must remain faithful to your fate despite any difficulties,” Bout said.