One of the first stooges we profiled on this site was Steven Seagal, the action star who’s got a bromance going with Vladimir Putin, whom he’s praised as “one of the greatest living world leaders.”
Now it turns out that Putin isn’t the only unsavory head of state in Seagal’s social circle. On December 1, the Associated Press reported that Seagal had “received the royal treatment” during a recent visit to Serbia. While there, he’d been granted audiences by President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali.
And that wasn’t all. Seagal was also presented with the Karic Brothers Award, which is given to a half-dozen or so people a year at an annual Belgrade ceremony. The award was created by Bogoljub Karic, who, as the AP pointed out, “was given asylum in Russia after he fled Serbia when its previous government charged him with corruption and the embezzlement of millions of dollars in state funds.” The award’s stated purpose is “to stimulate and motivate all those who create and produce value that will result in more pleasant living conditions”; winners have included businessmen, artists, actors, journalists, diplomats, clergymen, and politician.
One of Seagal’s fellow 2015 laureates was Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazakhstan, who, rather hilariously, was honored for “strengthening democracy and peace.” This, note well, for a “president” whose personal bank accounts were found to contain over a billion dollars fleeced from the Kazakh treasury; who pushed bills through the Kazakh Parliament granting him legal immunity and legalizing money laundering; who’s been repeatedly returned to office in elections universally considered to be total shams; and whose country, thanks largely to his thuggish, terroristic treatment of journalists, stands at #161 out of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index.
In short, these awards might fairly be described as a joke.
Upon accepting his award, which was described as a recognition of his “humanitarian work,” Seagal told the audience that he was “honored to follow many leaders who have received this award before me, such as Vladimir Putin.” (He also made the rather baffling remark that “the world’s 17 major Roman Emperors originate from this region, and that has to mean something.”)
But that was just the beginning. Seagal, who “used to overwhelm Russian and Serbian bad guys in Hollywood movies with his martial arts techniques,” was offered a job teaching Aikido, the Japanese martial art, to Serbian special police.
And in January it was reported that Seagal, after agreeing to set up a martial-arts school in Belgrade, had been granted Serbian citizenship. Seagal praised the country’s leaders and said “he feels like a Serb.” It was unclear exactly how aware Seagal was of the record of President Nikolic, who in 2007 proposed making Serbia part of a Russian superstate that would resist “the hegemony of America” and in 2012 denied that genocide had ever taken place in Srebenica. Of course, given Seagal’s enthusiasm for Putin, one can hardly imagine him balking at Nikolic’s comparatively amateur-level malevolence.
We’ve devoted a certain amount of attention on this site to top-drawer Hollywood stooges like Sean Penn, Robert Redford, and Steven Seagal, but so far we’ve neglected to cover one of the most assiduous ones: Danny Glover, star of such films as The Color Purple and Lethal Weapon, and, um, Lethal Weapon 2, and – let’s see, what else? – oh, yes, Lethal Weapon 3 and Lethal Weapon 4.To read the most prominent sources, you’d think Glover is a prince of a guy. “He is an active supporter of various humanitarian and political causes,” reads his Wikipedia page. On IMDB, he’s identified as an “[a]ctor, producer and humanitarian.” On his own Facebook page he calls himself an “actor, producer, activist, and humanitarian”; the h-word is also front and center on his official website.
Yet look beyond the PR and you’ll find that Glover’s outsized enthusiasm for despots makes some of his fellow Tinseltown tyrant-fans look almost irresolute by comparison.
Let’s start with Venezuela. Glover was chummy with the late strongman Hugo Chávez for years: along with Harry Belafonte, Cornel West, and others, he met with the caudillo back in 2006. So close was he to Chávez that El Presidente actually set up financing for a couple of movies Glover planned to produce – one of them about Simón Bolívar, the other about Haitian rebel leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. (Neither of these films has yet materialized, although the latter is listed as forthcoming on Glover’s IMBD page.)
Glover’s love for the Caracas regime didn’t end with Chávez’s death. Last year, when a gang of the usual suspects, among them Oliver Stone and Tom Hayden, wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress expressing support for Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, Glover’s name led the list of signatories.
But Chávez isn’t the only dictator, alive or dead, with whom Glover’s been chummy. Guess who his other fave is? We’ll take a look at that friendship on Monday.
Yesterday we discussed a December 2010 benefit at which stars like Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke gleefully rubbed shoulders with Vladimir Putin.
That was bad enough. But it gets worse. Guess what? The benefit, it turned out, hadn’t really been a benefit at all: not a single hospital or clinic or other such organization ended up receiving so much as a ruble as a result of it. Yet that didn’t keep Putin’s pals from organizing a similar event the following year – and, astonishingly, it didn’t prevent another gaggle of famous folk from turning up.
Among them: Chris Noth of Sex and the City, Sophia Loren, Steven Seagal, Andrea Bocelli, Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, Woody Allen, Jeremy Irons – and Isabella Rosellini, who, according to the New Yorker,had been informed that morning that she was involved in a scam “but was unfazed by it.”
Max Seddon and Rosie Gray, writing about these shenanigans recently in Buzzfeed, provided information about Seagal’s trips to Russia – which they described as “frequent” – that was new to us. In 2007 he visited Kalmykia, a majority-Buddhist province, and promised its leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, to produce and star in a movie about Genghis Khan; when that project failed to get green-lighted, Seagal blamed “the Jews”: “There are no Buddhists among the people who finance movies,” he explained. Another tidbit from Buzzfeed: last August, while Russian troops were pouring into Ukraine, Mickey Rourke, in exchange for a $50,000 Kremlin payment, allowed himself to be photographed wearing a Putin t-shirt. (Rourke had previously said that he purchased the t-shirt of his own accord and solely for reasons of private sentiment: “I have a Russian girlfriend.”)
Finally, as recently as this June – while Poland and the Baltic republics were begging NATO to beef up their defenses in case of a possible Russian invasion – Woody Allen was spotted in Russia again, this time attending the opening of a new art museum owned by billionaire – and Putin intimate – Roman Abramovich and his wife, Daria Zhukova. Other guests at the opening included George Lucas, Harvey Weinstein, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Salma Hayek. Was Allen, we wonder, paid to be there – or was he, perhaps, fishing for Russian financing for a future project? As for Putin, is he courting these people, who’ve already provided him with positive press in the West, in hopes of developing some larger-scale, longer-term connection with some of the Tinseltown powers-that-be? Who’s better at propaganda, after all, than Hollywood?
Back in April, Buzzfeed ran a useful and perceptive study of the use Vladimir Putin makes of his useful American-showbiz stooges. The focus was on washed-up lowbrow-movie headliner Steven Seagal, whose friendship (Buzzfeed called it a “bromance”) with Putin we’ve already rehearsed here, but the insights were widely applicable.
“Putin’s unlikely bromance with Seagal,” wrote Max Seddon and Rosie Gray, “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.” Seddon and Gray quoted Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill as saying that Putin “plays an action hero as president.”
Hence the systematic “ferrying” of “foreign celebrities to Moscow to meet Putin, staging displays of his virility and star pull.” Case in point: a December 2010 event in St. Petersburg that was billed as a benefit concert for children with cancer. That night Putin not only mingled with the likes of Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke, but also (sort of) sang “Blueberry Hill” and (sort of) played a Russian song on a piano.
Did the stars all show up out of the goodness of their hearts? Not according to Shaun Walker of the Independent, who, noting that “Russia is fertile ground for celebrities of all hues to make pots of extra cash,” underscored that the star who’s “been popping up more than any other of late” is Stone:
At anything Russia-related these days, her grinning face seems to put in an appearance, like some kind of recurring nightmare, supporting whatever it is that the particular junket is about. A trusted source told me about the prices to bring different “entertainers” to Russia for events – Stone is one of the more expensive, reportedly coming in at as much as $250,000 a time. But pay that, and, calendar permitting, she’ll likely be there.
It has to be said that Stone gives plenty of bang for the buck: at the purported child-cancer benefit, she actually sang a duet with Putin and cheered his own “performance” lustily. But then again, so did Hawn, Russell, and the rest.
This disgraceful conduct didn’t go entirely unnoticed. In a livid commentary, Russian-born adult-film actor and producer Michael Lucas condemned the Hollywood luminaries who attended the so-called benefit for showing such
adoration for a man who really is a swell guy — when he’s not ordering people to be thrown out of windows or shot in their doorways. When the camera cuts to the audience during his nails-on-chalkboard performance, the stars have enraptured, ecstatic looks — like they were at Frank Sinatra’s final performance…. Don’t they — or their handlers, know how to use Wikipedia? Did Sharon Stone not realize she was flashing a victory sign to an ex-KGB agent, an eternal Communist, and a historical revisionist? (Now he is forcing Russia’s teachers to portray Josef Stalin — who murdered at least 8 million of his own people in Siberian gulags — as a good leader and the savior of Russia.)
The other day, watching the Eurovision Song Contest – Europe’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, only with bad songs instead of a football game – we reflected on how odd it was to see performers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland taking the same stage as an act from Russia. This was, after all, going on at a time when the people living in the countries on Russia’s Western border have serious, growing, and thoroughly legitimate concerns that Vladimir Putin, any day now, may order Russian troops to march across their borders. As one observer noted a couple of weeks ago, the Baltics may be “model states for democracy, respect for human rights, and transparency,” may “have the highest standard of living among the former states of the Soviet Union,” and may be the only former Soviet states in the Eurozone, but “the mood in all three countries is dark.”
Consider this: in a single week earlier this month, NATO military exercises were held in Poland, Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia and the Baltic Sea. Such is the air of menace Putin has created in his neighborhood, reported the Guardian in May, that “[e]ven Sweden and Finland have started musing aloud about joining NATO.”
Missing from Eurovision this year was Ukraine, which already has Russian troops on its soil. (In fact, the financial challenges caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine were reportedly the reason why Ukraine pulled out of this year’s Eurovision.) One is reminded of the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, at which countries soon to go to war with one another engaged in “friendly” athletic competition under the very eyes of Hitler; only the comparison would be even more apt if the Berlin Olympics had taken place not in the summer of 1936 but three years later, after the Anschluss and Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland.
Putin has been rattling sabers for months. According to recent reports, he’s informed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that if he wanted, he “could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest” within two days. He also told European Commission President José Manuel Barroso: “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.” In mid May, the heads of the Baltic countries’ armed forces asked NATO to station on their territories “a new unit similar to the Berlin Brigade that was stationed in Germany during the Cold War.” The danger is real.
And yet even as things heat up along Russia’s western border, Putin’s apologists in the West hold firm.
Take action-film heavyweight Steven Seagal, who not only calls Putin a pal but considers him “one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive.” This month, when Putin held a celebration of Russia’s World War II victory – at which he gave a speech accusing the U.S. of seeking “to create a unipolar world” – Seagal was there in the audience, cheering him on. We’ve already noted Seagal’s curious friendship with Putin, but recently there have been some fresh tidbits of news from that front. It was reported in April, for example, that Putin, back in 2013, asked the U.S. to recognize his movie-star buddy as an “honorary consul of Russia” who would act as “a potential intermediary between the White House and the Kremlin.” (The U.S. response, according to one unnamed official, was: “You’ve got to be kidding.”) Although U.S. and European officials boycotted Putin’s VE-Day anniversary event in protest against his actions in Ukraine, Seagal was able to rub shoulders at the shindig with some of Putin’s other international comrades – including Raul Castro, Robert Mugabe, and Xi Jinping.
Even some people who don’t really seem to be full-fledged Putin fans have been infected by those fans’ disingenuous rhetoric. Take British journalist David Blair. He doesn’t appear to possess any great affection for Putin, but in a recent article, after snidely mocking Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves for having grown up in New Jersey and for speaking English with an American accent (horrors!), Blair actually characterized Ilves’s distaste for Putin as rooted not in an understandable concern about Kremlin belligerence, but in an indignancy over “Putin’s disregard for post-World War II international rules (and, by extension, his disrespect for post-Cold War American hegemony).”
American hegemony. Yes, in the lexicon of Putin’s Western fans, that’s what this is all about. Not the reality of Russian aggression, but the fiction of “American hegemony,” a nonsense term used to make a good thing – the banding together of democracies for mutual protection against a warmongering tyrant – look like a bad thing.
Blair went on to note that even though the Baltic countries are full NATO members, “no American or NATO soldiers are permanently defending the Baltics.” If Putin invaded, “these countries could not protect themselves” and “NATO would not be able to reinforce them.” But while Ilves calls for NATO to put permanent NATO troops in the Baltics, Blair warned against it, maintaining that “Russia would regard this as a grave escalation.” Again, Blair doesn’t seem to be a Putin fan, but he’s speaking their language – referring to a purely defensive measure as if it were an act of aggression. Nobody, including Putin, seriously believes that NATO would station troops in the Baltics with an eye to invading Russia. That being the case, the word “escalation” is utterly out of place here.
The hypocrisy factor in all this is through the roof. How many of the Western politicians, journalists, and others who defend Putin would want to ply their trades in Russia? Even one of Putin’s top domestic media stooges, it turns out, no longer lives in Russia but – guess where? In the U.S., naturally. We’re talking about Ashot Gabrelyanov, who, with his father, has “built a tabloid empire” and is believed to “wor[k] closely with Russia’s intelligence services” to promote the Putin regime and defame its enemies. A few months ago, as Mashable reported on May 1, the younger Gabrelyanov, founder of Russia’s top news (or “news”) site, LifeSite News, moved to New York City – and ever since then he’s been busy on social media gushing over the same country he routinely demonizes on his website. “NYC is incredible,” he enthused on Instagram. Meet the new poster boy for hypocritical Putin fandom.
In the last couple of postings, we’ve looked at a couple of Vladimir Putin’s American fans – Oliver Stone on the left and Christopher Caldwell on the right. In February, Luke O’Brien of Politico served up a substantial report on another Putin apologist, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
O’Brien provided a history Rohrabacher’s Russian ties. One day back in the 1990s, it seems, along with fellow California Congressman Ed Royce and a “professional adventurer and anticommunist activist” named Jack Wheeler, Rohrabacher actually hung out with Putin – who was then mayor of St. Petersburg – at a D.C. watering hole. After a few friendly drinks, Putin and Rohrabacher arm-wrestled. Putin won hands down. Rohrabacher was impressed that such a little guy had so much manly brawn. That, O’Brien says, was the day Rohrabacher “fell for Vladimir Putin.”
Royce now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rohrabacher chairs its subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and emerging threats. “More than anyone in Congress,” states O’Brien, Rohrabacher
has become a reliable defender of the Russian point of view, whether it has to do with NATO expansion (“not thoughtful in creating a better relationship with our former enemy”), the inadvisability of economic sanctions (“instead of doing it that way, we should be making an all-out effort to create dialogue”) or the current hostilities in Ukraine, which Rohrabacher says were precipitated at least in part by Western meddling (“I don’t think we should blame all this on Russia”).
Rohrabacher, writes O’Brien, “seems to see in Putin, for all his faults, qualities similar to those of the man he once worked for—a leader who restored national pride after a period of defeat, humiliation and political tumult. Russia, to him, is a country reborn.”
Thanks to his powerful position as head of a major subcommittee, Rohrabacher has been able to provide a platform to other Putin admirers. One of them is Andranik Migranyan, head of a “Kremlin-aligned think tank.” Another is Anthony Salvia, a former State Department official who runs a “little-known nonprofit” called the American Institute in Ukraine and whose presentation to the subcommittee “papered over Russian aggression in Ukraine.” (He also omitted to inform his listeners that he’s a director of a group that lobbies for Rodina, a right-wing Russian political party.)
In April 2013, Rohrabacher could be seen consorting in a Marine hangar in California with Igor Pasternak, Kazakh-born CEO of Worldwide Aeros Corp., and Kazakh officials, including Ambassador Kairat Umarov, who were given “a behind-the-scenes look at the most innovative and revolutionary development in the aviation space, the Aeroscraft.”
Now, here’s where the whole Rohrabacher-Putin love story turns a tad surreal. Among Rohrabacher’s good buddies and top advisors on Russia, it turns out, is none other than Steven Seagal. Yes, that Steven Seagal – the non-Oscar-winning star of such masterpieces as Above the Law, Under Siege, and Fire Down Below. Apparently, Rohrabacher considers Seagal some kind of global-politics guru – so much so that, a couple of years ago, he “refused to hold a hearing on Russia for his subcommittee in part because Seagal was unavailable as a witness.” At one point Rohrabacher wanted to let Seagal arrange a meeting for him with Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet leader in the Chechen Republic. Rohrabacher was “raring to go” – but Foggy Bottom put the kibosh on his plans.
Like Rohrabacher, Putin himself reportedlyholds Seagal in “high regard” as an international wheeler-dealer – so much so that he sought to hire the actor “to lobby for the Russian arms industry in the United States.” The two men, by all accounts, are very chummy: Seagal has called Putin a personal friend, described him as a “brother,” and praised him as “one of the greatest living world leaders.” A defender of Putin’s invasion of Crimea (which he considered a “very reasonable” move), Seagal even appeared on the Kremlin-owned RT channel as – we kid you not – an “expert commentator on the standoff in Ukraine” (!). Seagal’s fellow acting heavyweight and Putin fan Gérard Depardieu turned in his French citizenship for a Russian passport; Seagal has said he’s thinking of making the same move.