Putin’s Action Hero: How Steven Seagal Became the Kremlin’s Unlikeliest Envoy
The Russian president stunned Obama when he proposed Steven Seagal as an intermediary between Washington and Moscow. BuzzFeed News' Max Seddon and Rosie Gray tell the extraordinary story of the faded action star's dalliances with the Kremlin.
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, and thus a potential intermediary between the White House and the Kremlin.
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.
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.
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.
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."
“The first time I went to his home I walked in and saw a life-sized statue of Kano Jigoro, who is the founder of judo, so I was immediately, you know, taken and impressed and, you know, sort of really wanting to get to know this man deeper and deeper,” Seagal said in the 2013 Russia Today interview. “He is a student of, uh, Asian philosophy, but he is also a student of, you know, medieval, you know, great leaders and tacticians. He’s a smart man who studies those people who’ve had amazing results in history.”
By the spring of 2013, Seagal could boast of better connections in Russia than even McFaul, the ambassador. He toured the Kalashnikov factory with Rogozin, the deputy prime minister, who invited him to become the company’s public face in the West. Seagal frequently appears at Kalashnikov stands at arms trade shows to this day, though the company says that he is simply a “fan” of its products and that it does not pay him. It’s unclear what, if any, lobbying he performed on behalf of the company, since he is not listed in the Foreign Agents Registration Act database, as required by law. In May, Seagal flew to Chechnya to meet local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who rules the former breakaway territory with an iron fist and has been accused of horrific rights abuses, as well as several murders. Kadyrov gave Seagal a lavish welcome, arranged a special demonstration of his feared security forces, and taught him the lezginka, a traditional Caucasian dance that requires making rapid, jerky arm movements while you tap your feet. A spokesperson for Kadyrov did not return inquiries from BuzzFeed News.
Those connections came in handy a few weeks later, when six members of Congress led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher went on a fact-finding mission to Russia in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing a month earlier. Rohrabacher, a California Republican and former Reagan speechwriter, was once such a consummate cold warrior that he even served alongside the mujahedeen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In recent years, however, Rohrabacher’s belief that the U.S. needs Putin’s help to fight Islamic extremism and the rise of China has seen him become the Kremlin’s biggest (essentially, its only) defender on Capitol Hill. He is fond of saying that he “used to shoot Russians,” but now believes in working together with them — a line that does not always go down well with Russians.
Convinced that the State Department wouldn’t give him the full picture, Rohrabacher enlisted Seagal as a fixer. On the second day of the trip, Seagal appeared in the lobby of the hotel where the members of Congress were staying, surrounded by his entourage — including one man whose job seemed to consist of carrying a bag of sunglasses for him, according to a source with direct knowledge of what happened on the trip. Another member of the entourage had in his room large quantities of moonshine, jars of which Seagal would give out to people he was meeting, per the source.
Seagal also floated making a movie that would star him fighting alongside Russian agents to combat Islamic terrorism, inspired by the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Like the Genghis Khan film, it appears not to have gotten off the ground.
“You can trust Steven ... he’s a tulku.”
Seagal has a close relationship with Rohrabacher and was also in close communication with Paul Berkowitz, Rohrabacher’s top aide at the time. Berkowitz and Seagal were texting throughout the trip, according to the source with direct knowledge of the proceedings. “You can trust Steven,” Berkowitz repeatedly assured the delegation. “He’s a tulku,” he said, using a Tibetan Buddhist term for a reincarnated lama. (Seagal was declared to be the reincarnation of Chungdrag Dorje, a 17th-century monk and “treasure finder,” in 1997 by Penor Rinpoche, a high-level Buddhist teacher in southern India.)
“There’s all sorts of tulkus,” Berkowitz, who is also a Buddhist, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “Steven actually studied a lot of Tibetan Buddhism. He’s a tulku.”
“You would refer to him as ‘rinpoche’ ['precious one'] or ‘Steven,’” Berkowitz said when asked what he calls Seagal. “It depends on your relationship with him.”
Rohrabacher has known Seagal for decades, he told BuzzFeed News.
“I’ve had a lot of friends in Hollywood and I remember going to his house about 15 years ago here in southern California,” Rohrabacher said. “It was kind of very strange. It was all kinds of Buddhist stuff in his house and music and incense.” Rohrabacher said Seagal talks on the phone with and is on a first-name basis with some of the highest-level Russian officials. “It certainly goes way high up,” he said.
While some of the staffers and members on the trip went along with Seagal’s involvement, others were aghast. They got warning only about a week before the trip that Seagal would be there. Seagal sat in on several of the meetings the delegation had with Russian officials, including a meeting with top Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, though he didn’t say much. The trip included a strange dinner with Rogozin in an Italian restaurant near Russia’s Foreign Ministry. According to the source with direct knowledge of the trip, Rogozin and his wife “were constantly hugging Steven” and it was a “weird, emotional dinner.” Seagal and Rogozin appeared to be “obviously close friends,” the source said.
Rohrabacher was clearly enjoying himself. He and Rogozin would later spend much of a meeting discussing their shared passion for space lasers capable of zapping doomsday asteroids before they destroy Earth.
Later that week, Rogozin organized another dinner for a few members of Congress, including Rohrabacher and stalwart Iowa conservative Steve King, at a game restaurant in one of Moscow’s most expensive zip codes. This time, several of Rogozin’s friends in Russia’s arms export industry joined them, as did Seagal. Rogozin’s spokesman did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.
All the while, Seagal had been pressing the representatives to fly to Chechnya and meet Kadyrov, who would tell of his exploits suppressing a volatile Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus. Rohrabacher and some of the other Republicans jumped at the chance. To them, Kadyrov’s notorious policy of terror and blood reprisal seemed perfectly adequate measures to tackle terrorism. The Tsarnaev brothers were, after all, ethnic Chechens; Tamerlan, the elder brother, was said to have been radicalized in neighboring Dagestan.
Seagal offered to arrange Russian military planes to fly the representatives to Grozny, the Chechen capital. “We were aghast,” said a diplomat involved with the trip. Embassy staff tried to persuade them not to go. “We were trying to explain, ‘Do you know who this is?’”
Rohrabacher, convinced that Obama’s administration was trying to deprive him of a good photo opportunity, wouldn’t listen. Seagal was telling him everything was OK. “All these allegations are thrown around,” Seagal later said at a press conference. “Is there any evidence? Has he been indicted?”
Horrified embassy officials began to calculate the cost of sending armored vehicles that meet security requirements for congressional trips, which ran into the tens of thousands of dollars. “Rohrabacher is insane,” another diplomat lamented. Eventually, the State Department got House Speaker John Boehner to call Rohrabacher and make him promise not to go. The other three Republicans still tried to find a way to make it to Chechnya, but had to abandon the trip when Seagal failed to find sufficiently secure transport. Seagal offered to fly them there on his private plane, but that would have violated House rules, Rohrabacher said. As a consolation, Seagal and the members of Congress flew to Beslan in nearby North Ossetia, the site of one of Russia’s worst terrorist attacks. The security measures didn’t meet House rules there either, a U.S. official said.
Rohrabacher wasn’t the only congressman who took liberties on the trip. On the last day, a Sunday, he and King visited a service at Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior, where feminist art group Pussy Riot staged a punk protest for which two members were jailed in 2012. That afternoon, King denounced the protesters and all but endorsed their two-year prison sentence at a press conference. The cathedral had been “desecrated by those riots,” King said. “It’s hard to find sympathy for people who would do that to people’s faith.”
In the evening, after the representatives returned to the Ritz, King asked a diplomat to arrange for a “Chinese masseuse” to be sent to his room, two U.S. officials said. One official with connections in Chinese circles was even asked to make inquiries about how to procure one, but declined. A representative for King did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Rohrabacher is planning another congressional delegation to Russia this spring, he told BuzzFeed News. And yes, Steven Seagal may be involved. “I’ll probably call Steven and say, ‘Let the leadership know I’ll be in town,’” Rohrabacher said.
For months after the congressional trip, Seagal’s diplomatic talents remained a priority for Russia. Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, made several visits to the State Department to pester officials about Seagal’s appointment. “He kept asking, ‘Can you please tell us the status of our request about Mr. Seagal?’ And every time they’d just tell him, ‘We’re still thinking about it,’” said a source familiar with the conversations. After several failed attempts, Kislyak eventually dropped the matter. The State Department assumed the affair was closed until calls started coming in from a raspy-voiced man who said that he was reaching out on Seagal’s behalf. Eventually, an official agreed to meet the elderly, wheelchair-bound man, who flew in from Oklahoma. The official sat patiently, taking notes and only occasionally interjecting as the man, who said he was a retired foreign service officer who had been stationed in Moscow in the 1980s, made a 40-minute pitch about Seagal’s patriotism. Many other great Americans had connections to Putin, the man said. Why not honor the president’s request and make their relationship official? “It was a little sad, but he was trying,” the U.S. official told BuzzFeed News.
Eventually, Seagal seemed to outlive his use to the Kremlin. When Rohrabacher made another visit, this time to inspect security measures for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Seagal was unable to score the high-level meetings he had boasted of the last time.
Rohrabacher still keeps faith in him. “I don’t rely on Steven Seagal to set up meetings for me,” he told BuzzFeed News. “With relations at such a low ebb right now, it’s not that Steven’s influence has declined, but that all of America’s influence has declined,” he said.
The patriotic fervor and rabid anti-Americanism promoted by the Kremlin after Russia annexed Crimea weeks later made it harder for Seagal to defend Putin.
“One of my friends called me the other day in horror: ‘Steven, what happened? Why’s your friend Putin acting like that, is he crazy?’” Seagal said in a March 2014 interview with Russia’s state newspaper. “I have to explain that it’s not like that and you can’t believe what you see on TV.”
Later that year, Seagal toured another arms expo with Rogozin, who knew the partnership now looked less and less tenable. “A lot of people criticize him at home,” Rogozin said. “It is not an easy time for him right now.”
Soon afterward, the U.S. placed Kalashnikov on a sanctions list for its role in fueling the Ukraine conflict, thus cutting it off from the U.S. gun market. When the company undertook an ambitious rebranding that fall, it announced that Seagal was no longer part of the picture. Officially, the sanctions were the reason, but sources at the company said that management had already been uneasy with using him professionally anyway. “We really respect him and his love for Russian weapons, but we never had a contract with him,” Andrei Kirisenko, an adviser to the company’s director, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s all goodwill.”
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told BuzzFeed News that the president's friendship with Seagal was on ice. “They don’t really have the chance to talk,” he said. “I don’t know of any meetings between them recently, or planned for the future.”
These days, Russia is a lonely place to be a Western celebrity. The furor over Putin’s ban on “gay propaganda” that overshadowed the Sochi Olympics — to say nothing of Russia’s subsequent military incursions into Ukraine — mean that, like Kadyrov, he has now become too toxic. Putin’s political proxies increasingly see Hollywood as an enemy, the hostile carrier of Western values alien to Russian traditions. One lawmaker recently introduced a bill to ban all films made in the U.S. and Europe.
For some people, there are exceptions. In August, as Russian regular troops poured over the border to beat back a Ukrainian offensive against separatist rebels in the east, Mickey Rourke posed wearing a Putin T-shirt. Russia’s presidential administration paid him $50,000 for the trouble, according to documents leaked by a mysterious Kremlin-linked group known as Shaltai Boltai. (A representative for Rourke did not return a request for comment.) Last December, Gérard Depardieu took to the Four Seasons on Red Square to launch a range of Swiss watches bearing Russia’s double-headed eagle. Dubbed “Proud to be Russian” by their maker, Custos, they cost 15,000 Swiss francs (about $15,370). “In Europe, nobody can live without Russia,” Depardieu said.
Neither, it seems, can Seagal. That same summer, Seagal visited Sevastopol in Russian-controlled Crimea for the annual rally of the Night Wolves, a nationalist biker gang under Putin’s personal patronage. The group’s leader, a deeply Russian Orthodox Christian former surgeon named Alexander Zaldostanov, organized an elaborate re-enactment of the Ukraine conflict as told by the more rabid elements of Russian propaganda TV — part Hell’s Angels performing circus, part Mad Max–style militaristic display of power. Fireworks lit up the night sky as a Soviet coat of arms with the double-headed imperial eagle instead of the hammer and sickle glowed in the light of a flaming torch.
Seagal was scheduled to close out the festival the next night with his blues band, but flew in to Sevastopol a few days earlier to catch the final rehearsals of the re-enactment. “We wanted him to see the part of the program with an idea, a message to people,” Zaldostanov told BuzzFeed News. “He was shocked and amazed. It was like he’d discovered a piece of Russia inside himself.”
Zaldostanov gave him a statuette of a Russian soldier and one of the Putin T-shirts from the range Rourke had promoted. “I’m Russian!” Seagal said, rattling off his ancestry. “That explains a lot,” Zaldostanov said.