When six members of Congress went on a fact-finding trip to Russia in May to learn more about the brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombings, they sought the help of a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin: Steven Seagal. The aging star of bone-snapping action films such as Hard to Kill and Under Siege took the lawmakers around and arranged meetings with Russian security officials. “Seagal opened some doors,” Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who led the delegation, said on CNN. “We got to meet top people.”
Wait—Steven Seagal? As it turns out, Seagal and Putin pal around quite a bit. The actor has dined with the Russian leader, gone with him to sporting events, and attended state functions. The two “have long been friends and regularly meet each other,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian Itar-Tass News Agency in March. More recently, Seagal has cultivated a side gig as an informal go-between for Moscow and Washington. The state-owned RIA Novosti news service reported Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin asked Seagal to press lawmakers on Capitol Hill to remove barriers to the sale of Russian-made guns in the U.S. “Bizarre is the word that comes to mind,” Clifford Gaddy, an economist at the Brookings Institution who focuses on Russia, said in an e-mail.
In Russia, C-list action stars are adored without irony, and Putin and Seagal seem to have bonded over, among other tough-guy traits, a shared affinity for martial arts. Putin is skilled in judo—a fact he shows off in a 2008 DVD, Let’s Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin—and has invited Seagal, a former aikido instructor, to attend martial arts matches and the opening of a school that teaches Sambo, a form of fighting developed by the Red Army in the 1920s. The action star smiled and waved and made Putin look cool by association.
For Putin, using celebrities “has been a primary part of his politics,” says Nina Khrushcheva, who teaches international affairs at the New School in New York. “It’s partly a Soviet-era practice,” she adds, noting that Joseph Stalin befriended famous Western intellectuals. H.G. Wells spent time with Stalin, reporting later that he found the brutal dictator “candid, fair, and honest.” George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor visited Moscow in 1931, enjoying a lavish dinner with the leader amid a state-imposed famine. Shaw said he only saw “hopeful and enthusiastic” citizens. Lady Astor was not as compliant. “How long will you go on killing people?” she asked Stalin, according to David Remnick’s book Lenin’s Tomb. “As long as necessary,” Stalin replied.
Cozying up to authoritarian leaders can be a tricky business for celebrities, some of whom don’t seem to bother to do a quick Google search before saying yes to an invitation. In 2011, Hilary Swank apologized on The Tonight Show for attending the birthday party of Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally who’s been accused by human-rights groups of kidnapping, torture, and murder in his efforts to suppress Chechen separatists and Islamic insurgents. Kadyrov denies the claims. Swank promised to give away the six-figure fee she reportedly was paid to attend the event. On the other hand, French actor Gérard Depardieu, another friend of Putin’s, did not apologize for shouting “Glory to Kadyrov!” at the next year’s birthday bash. In January, Depardieu officially moved to Russia to avoid paying French taxes; Putin greeted him with bear hugs. The actor was given a Russian passport, an apartment, and two kittens. He’s since fallen in line with Putin’s politics, denouncing the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot and continuing to praise Kadyrov.
Seagal has also defended Kadyrov. In May he traveled to Chechnya to meet with the strongman and offered to arrange an introduction for the members of Congress. They declined. Seagal didn’t respond to interview requests, so it’s unclear what he sees in Kadyrov. “All these accusations are thrown around” about the Chechen leader, Seagal told reporters at a news conference during the congressional trip. “Is there any evidence? Has he been indicted?”