Putin’s Action Hero: How Steven Seagal Became the Kremlin’s Unlikeliest Envoy
Vladimir Putin knew his relationship with the United States was nearing breaking point when he met Barack Obama in Lough Erne, a picturesque lakeside golf resort in Northern Ireland, on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in June 2013.
The Russian and U.S. presidents had never gotten along. Putin spent their first meeting on the porch of his residence in Novo-Ogarevo, outside Moscow, in 2009 berating Obama for two decades of Washington’s perceived slights against Russia as they drank tea from a samovar. Obama could barely get a word in for two hours. They didn’t meet for years afterward.
Then, after Putin’s presidential place-warmer Dmitry Medvedev made way for him to rule again in 2012, their conversations grew even colder. The Lough Erne meeting was their worst yet. Putin rebuffed Obama’s attempts to make him drop his support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and said he would continue arms supplies to the regime, despite a death toll already in the tens of thousands.
Suddenly, Putin proposed a bold new idea: make Steven Seagal an honorary consul of Russia in California and Arizona.
Seagal, the martial artist turned washed-up action hero, was just the man to pull U.S.–Russia relations back from the brink, Putin said, according to four current and former U.S. officials. An American patriot through and through, Seagal truly knew Russia too: He was in touch with both his Russian roots — his grandmother was from Vladivostok — and with senior figures in the Russian political and security apparatus. Seagal and Putin had met in Moscow a few months earlier; the two men enjoyed a lunch at Novo-Ogarevo, then visited a martial arts complex. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the two men were longtime friends. That all made Seagal the ideal poster child for friendship between their nations, Putin told Obama, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about diplomatic matters.
Obama was flabbergasted. “Our reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” a U.S. official who was present at the Lough Erne meeting told BuzzFeed News.
The two men would pose morosely for protocol shots afterward, Putin slouched back in his chair as Obama gazed in the other direction, as if to symbolize the dead end their relationship had hit. After Putin rejected an arms reduction treaty and welcomed National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to Moscow with open arms in the ensuing few weeks, it would remain their last bilateral summit to date.
Jewel Samad / Getty Images
Putin’s unlikely bromance with Seagal speaks to a core tenet of his rule: that political power is star power, and the president is the biggest celebrity of all. Under Putin, politics has become a carefully stage-managed TV show where spectacle takes the place of substance. The defanged parliament is stacked with actors, singers, and athletes. Putin enjoys public adulation more befitting a Hollywood star than a politician. He regularly appears on the cover of celebrity-gossip magazines. His public appearances don’t displace primetime programming: They are primetime programming.
Putin’s macho persona, fashioned by his spin doctors when he came to power as a virtual unknown, is key to the cult of his celebrity. He channels action movie images in televised stunts that paint him as the emblem of the strong, resurgent Russia he seeks to build. He flew in a hang glider with endangered cranes and shot a tiger with a tranquilizer dart. He took to the Siberian wilderness shirtless, riding a horse, swimming in a lake, and stomping through the Tuvan bush with a hunting rifle. “He plays an action hero as president,” said Fiona Hill, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who co-authored Mr. Putin, a study of his personae.
The Kremlin began ferrying foreign celebrities to Moscow to meet Putin, staging displays of his virility and star pull. Jean-Claude Van Damme sat alongside Putin and Silvio Berlusconi at bare-knuckle fistfights. A shadowy Kremlin-linked charity flew in stars like Mickey Rourke, Sharon Stone, and Monica Bellucci for a gala in St. Petersburg, where Putin treated them to an impromptu rendition of “Blueberry Hill” on the piano. Putin even gave Gérard Depardieu a Russian passport after the actor left France in self-imposed tax exile.
Seagal seems to tick all the right boxes for Putin. Both men were born in 1952 and hold black belts in Japanese martial arts — Putin in judo, Seagal in aikido. They profess their admiration and respect for each other. “I would like to think I know him well, but suffice it to say I know him well enough to say that he is one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader, alive today. He cares more about Russia than anybody I know, and he’s not afraid to stand up and do what needs to get done,” Seagal said in a 2013 interview with Russia Today.
“It’s a totally normal friendship,” Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told BuzzFeed News. “I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s a huge fan, but he’s definitely seen some of his movies.”
Seagal’s star has fallen far enough to make the Kremlin’s overtures that much more appealing. Once a major box office draw as the star of run-and-gun flicks in the early ‘90s, Seagal has all but disappeared from the big screen since 2002; since then he has appeared almost exclusively in schlocky low-budget, direct-to-video movies with indistinguishable three-word titles. In recent years, he has developed a paunch, a grizzly goatee, and a luminescent orange tan that make him look a far cry from the man who claimed to have been the only foreigner to run an aikido dojo in Japan.
Theoretically, making Seagal an honorary consul would have given him little other than symbolic perks; arguably, he had more power on Steven Seagal: Lawman, the reality show in which he served as a sheriff’s deputy in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Requesting an obscure ceremonial appointment at such a high level, however, suggests Putin may have been attempting to make Seagal some sort of semiofficial go-between. Putin is known to conduct back-channel negotiations through intermediaries like Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician who serves as his proxy in Ukraine and whose daughter is said to be Putin’s godchild. (Seagal, incidentally, sat next to Medvedchuk in Putin’s box at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Sochi last October.) Dmitry Rogozin, a hawkish deputy prime minister, had asked Seagal to use his “authority and connections in the American establishment” to help Russian state companies break into the U.S. gun market a few months earlier.
Seagal's representatives declined or didn't respond to numerous interview requests over the course of several months, and failed to respond to a detailed list of questions from BuzzFeed News. The White House and State Department declined to comment. Peskov said he was unaware of Putin's attempt to appoint Seagal an honorary consul.
“It would be very hard to intimidate someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Some figures in Washington have floated appointing go-betweens to bridge Obama’s notoriously frosty personal rapport with Putin. Last year, the White House reportedly asked 91-year-old diplomatic sage Henry Kissinger to call Putin on Obama’s behalf. Earlier, when Hill, a former national intelligence officer, first heard that Michael McFaul was to leave his post after a torrid time as ambassador to Moscow, she lobbied the administration to appoint Arnold Schwarzenegger as his replacement. The idea was just crazy enough to work, Hill argued. Whereas McFaul, a lifelong Russia specialist, had found himself frozen out and hounded by Kremlin media, Schwarzenegger would think nothing of the ensuing media frenzy. His Hollywood stardom, macho image, and link through marriage to the Kennedys would captivate Russians — Putin included. The two could also bond by speaking in German, which Putin speaks fluently and is known to favor.
“It would be very hard to intimidate someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the real substance could go on behind the scenes,” Hill said. Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton's point man on Russia and Hill's boss at Brookings, later endorsed the idea publicly. The White House eventually appointed John Tefft, a career diplomat. A representative for Schwarzenegger said the former California governor was unaware of Hill's attempt.
During the height of his fame in the 1990s, Seagal went to Moscow to open a branch of Planet Hollywood. Within a few years, it became a seedy strip club, before its owners filed for bankruptcy. By the time he next returned in 2003, his star was on the wane. He fell out with his longtime producing partner, Jules Nasso, who had hired a member of the Gambino crime family to shake him down after he ended their relationship on the apparent advice of a mysterious Buddhist “spiritual adviser” called Mukara. His last movie, Half Past Dead, was panned by critics and made less than $20 million worldwide. Seagal would not make it to theaters for another eight years.
AFP / Getty Images
This mattered little in Russia, where Seagal was feted as a star guest of the Moscow Film Festival. He was brought there by Bob Van Ronkel, an American expat in Moscow who has taken credit for bringing numerous celebrities to Russia. Van Ronkel’s website lists Kanye West, Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson, and Mariah Carey among his celebrity clients.
“Initially the trips were to attend film festivals in Russia and Kazakhstan and attend some charity events,” Van Ronkel said of Seagal. “Since then, Steven has been offered commercials, film roles, and is working on all kinds of other interesting business deals in Russia and with very many interesting people.” The two met in the early 1990s, when Seagal was a partner in a Beverly Hills restaurant called Eclipse. Van Ronkel now runs an acting school in Moscow. In past interviews, Van Ronkel has mentioned large sums of money flowing to the celebrities whose trips he facilitates.
When Seagal complained about the luxury hotel room laid on for him at the festival, Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias was kicked out of a guest room in the Kremlin to make way for him, according to tabloid accounts. At the festival’s close, Seagal accompanied aging European pinups Fanny Ardant and Gina Lollobrigida to meet Putin at Novo-Ogarevo. He told local media that he was a great admirer of Putin, who said he hoped Seagal would come back soon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (second left) and Steven Seagal (left) visit a new sports arena in Moscow on March 13, 2013.
Alexei Nikolsky / AP
As Seagal’s career tanked further, his trips to Russia became more frequent. He visited the majority Buddhist province of Kalmykia in 2007 and played chess with its eccentric ruler, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who speaks openly about his experiences with aliens. Seagal vowed to film a long-stalled vanity project there in which he would write, direct, and star as Genghis Khan, but the production never got off the ground. “There are no Buddhists among the people who finance movies,” Seagal told a group of local monks. “They are Jews and have no interest in anyone’s philosophy.” He periodically surfaced on Russian TV shows and in Russian martial arts studios.
In 2011, Seagal found a more sympathetic partner: eccentric Russian millionaire Dmitry Itzkov, then busy enlisting celebrities to endorse a futuristic neurological scheme he calls the 2045 Project. Itzkov’s movement aims to create a “more advanced non-biological carrier” for the human mind — basically the body from Avatar — and thus enable immortality. This appealed greatly to Seagal, who wrote Putin a letter asking him to endorse it. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, I know you as a prominent world leader and as a person who has already done great things for Russia,” Seagal wrote. “Thus I am appealing to you, hoping that we may have the opportunity for a mutually beneficial enterprise making the world a better place.”
Within months, Seagal was in Moscow. The cause this time was a charity event organized by the Federation Foundation, which flew in stars like Sophia Loren, Woody Allen, and Kevin Costner for a gala event ostensibly in support of Russian children’s hospitals. (The foundation’s mission had been changed to raising “awareness” rather than money after the beneficiaries of an earlier concert complained about not receiving any of the funds.) Some of the stars told reporters they had been paid to attend. Seagal danced with a young girl and visited several hospitals with the foundation’s “patroness,” an obscure actress named Elena Sever. The celebrities were later ferried to Putin’s villa for a private meeting with the president, Peskov said.
“[I’m an ordinary person, and] having to feed my kids and survive, I will do business wherever I go in the world,” Seagal later said in a 2013 interview with Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite and TV presenter and the daughter of Putin’s political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. “I love Russia. Some people love Africa, some people love Mexico, some people love purple, the color purple,” Seagal said. “I love Russia and I’m not scared to say it.”
Seagal and Putin soon began appearing in public more frequently. They went on a morale-boosting visit to meet the Russian judo team for the 2012 Olympics. The next year, they dined at Putin’s residence and visited a martial arts studio to promote Putin’s revival of a Soviet-era fitness program. Seagal later spoke of how the two men bonded over their shared love of Eastern martial arts.
“He is a student of, uh, Asian philosophy, but he is also a student of, you know, medieval, you know, great leaders and tacticians.”