Hollywood stars

Hollywood stars who rubbed shoulders with Vladimir Putin

It was one of those surreal moments where lighthearted entertainment dominates the story. Vladimir Putin sang the song Blueberry Hill at a children’s charity event in St. Petersburg in 2010, as a host of celebrities – including Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Gérard Depardieu, Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci – clapped like they were in kindergarten. When the politician uttered the opening phrase – “I found my thrill” – thoughts of the Georgian invasion or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko didn’t seem to pop up urgently in anyone’s head. that is. Knowing what we know now, the show looks more like Dr. Evil’s rendition of Just the Two of Us – but far less funny. In 2022, after Putin’s ruthless assault on Ukraine, guests present that day must feel very naive, perhaps even ashamed – but they are not the only Western celebrities to have rubbed shoulders with Putin. To defend this group, they had been invited to appear by Samuel Aroutiounian, a New Yorker who specialized in introducing Hollywood talent to Russia and who said later that he was unaware that Putin would appear.

Now, as big names from Angelina Jolie to Sean Penn and Mark Ruffalo throw their support behind embattled Ukraine, Hollywood must cringe at the time a public appearance with Putin wasn’t out of place. . By the mid-2000s, he had been content to nibble away at a few former Soviet provinces and brush off the odd dissident — events that didn’t bother most Entertainment Weekly readers. Russia was a major emerging film market and firmly on the celebrity circuit. So 2007’s Jean-Claude Van Damme could happily enhance the president’s macho credentials at an MMA event in St. Petersburg, while Leonardo DiCaprio purred at his feline companion at a big cat conservation summit. in 2010.

With his hegemony now firmly established, Putin already had a domestic entertainment machine working hard in his favour. Channel One – a descendant of the Soviet-era state broadcaster RTO – had produced Night Watch and Day Watch, two budding global blockbusters that put a Manichean veneer on the chaotic post-Communist Russia that Putin suppressed in beginning of the 21st century. “Darkness means freedom and light means responsibility – and, in real life, Putin, for sure, is light,” director Timur Bekmambetov said at the time. “He tries to fix everything, to organize everything. But it is very bad for freedom. Perhaps the succession of jingoistic military films that the Russian film industry was also beginning to produce – which included 9th Company in 2005, Admiral in 2008 and Stalingrad in 2013 – was a true indicator of its real allegiance.

Vladimir Putin and American actor Steven Seagal. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP via Getty Images

But Putin – castigated for his assaults in Chechnya and Georgia, and with suspicion swirling around state agencies after the murders of Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya – was in dire need of international legitimacy. Photo ops with big stars and the implied entry into the VIP zone of global mass entertainment helped normalize his thuggishness in the eyes of the world.

Or so he assumed. In 2014, when Putin had annexed Crimea and it was clear he wasn’t going to give up leadership anytime soon, Hollywood was starting to get coy. Speaking to Time magazine, Blueberry Hill mastermind Aroutiounian said of the A-list: “They’re much more concerned about not killing their careers. [In the current political climate] they don’t know what will happen to them when they return home. They will take a lot of heat. With his air of inscrutability, his Machiavellian geopolitical schemes and his critics’ habit of dying in extravagant assassinations, Putin looked more and more like a cartoonish arch-villain of the Blofeld type. His foreign military intelligence agency was even called GRU, after the villainous Despicable Me. But there remained a coterie of movie-world refuseniks who weren’t bothered by his growing pariah status: not just Depardieu, but Mickey Rourke, Steven Seagal and director Oliver Stone. In fact, this set of tough iconoclasts and libertarians seemed to actively embrace it.

Three of them fell into the camp of useful idiots. Depardieu took Russian citizenship and his refreshing 13% flat tax rate in 2013, after criticizing the French government for its levy plans. On good terms with Putin, he called Russia a “great democracy” in an open letter. At a Latvian film festival in 2014, Depardieu was emotional enough to declare Ukraine “part of Russia.” Tanks crossing the border in 2022 and the sound of the pie of the humble mocking: “I am against this fratricidal war”, he declared. “I say, ‘Stop the guns and negotiate.'”

Perhaps that’s what the Moscow Celebrity Train helped obscure from the start – for Putin, it was always about a colder, harsher reality.

Rourke, meanwhile, was unimpressed by Putin’s foray into Crimea and deemed him “a true gentleman” when he bought a T-shirt with the leader’s face on it at a Moscow department store in 2014. “I met him a couple of times and he was a very cool regular guy, looked me straight in the eye,” he told Sky News. acted as some sort of publicity stunt for Edgelord from the former Hellraiser, but he gave his Russian girlfriend as the real reason: “It’s all about family. I don’t care about politics. This is not my department.

Seagal doesn’t even try to play this card without getting out of jail. Having obtained Russian citizenship in 2016, he had previously called Putin’s annexation of Crimea “very reasonable” and hailed the president as “one of the world’s greatest living leaders”. With his old friend now trashing the rest of Ukraine, he only took his support down a notch:

“I consider Russia and Ukraine as one family and I truly believe that this is an outside entity that spends huge amounts of money on propaganda to induce the two countries to be at odds with each other. with each other,” he told Fox News.

You can see why — in a sort of botoxed 21st century version of the Hollywood Ten — three swaggering actors might identify with and want to date the Russian president. Stone’s case is more complicated. He had previously made documentaries on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, so with his past propensity for revolutionary figureheads, Putin was a logical next candidate. The director’s 2017 four-hour series The Putin Interviews no doubt pleases the frontman, but in doing so, it lures him in with all its bland cynicism. She also chooses her moments to challenge him: on Chechnya, on Russian “democracy”, on electoral interference.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Photo: Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

It’s not hard to see what Stone took away from his discussion of realpolitik with his country’s opponent. The big question is how Putin benefited from this arrangement. Could the series, by continually insisting on the equivalence between American and Russian expansionism, have been part of his broader disinformation strategy? To throw a tantalizing bone at sympathetic liberal anti-imperialists to distract them from his real business during the period: to radicalize the American and European nativist right wing.

At least Stone’s banter with Putin gave us a chance to sit back and watch the surface of man — even if it didn’t quite reach what lay beyond. In a standout vignette, the director seats the autocrat for his first viewing of Dr Strangelove. As the climactic montage of the mushroom cloud unfolds, Putin seems mildly amused by this portrayal of mutually assured destruction: “Nothing has changed.” Perhaps that’s what the Moscow Celebrity Train helped obscure from the start – for Putin, it was always about a colder, harsher reality. – Guardian