Hard to Shill: Steven Seagal in Chechnya

In explaining his decision to travel to Chechnya with Seagal, the Congressman professed the need to get beyond " the Cold War attitude," which is exactly what the Kremlin likes to accuse the United States of espousing whenever the United States asks the Kremlin to stop killing whistle-blowing attorneys or putting punk bands and dissidents in prison.

***

Russia and Chechnya have lately become a haven for celebrities -- A-list, has-been, and pornographic alike -- who wind up pretending to be surprised that journalists and human rights monitors condemn their cavorting with dictators. Hillary Swank discovered the hard way in 2011 that helping Kadyrov celebrate his birthday in Grozny was less than a Hollywood PR coup. Gerard Depardieu may be "too drunk" to understand charges DUI charges against him in Paris, but he was certainly lucid enough to flee France's 75-percent taxation rate for the cozier 13-percent flat tax of Mordavia. He is not only "inspired" by Kadyrov's leadership, which has arranged for the Green Card protagonist to inhabit a luxurious five-room apartment in Grozny, but Depardieu currently shooting a " blood-and-guts" thriller there with Liz Hurley.

Seagal, meanwhile, is also chums with Kadyrov and Putin. Here's a video of him dancing what he thinks is a native Chechen dance in Grozny as the smiling ginger warlord looks on and claps. For a D-lister who has only attained the rank of reserve deputy sheriff in Jefferson Paris, Seagal is seen by Russian officialdom as incredibly important and deferred-to back home. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin identified him as the perfect candidate to help abolish a U.S.-Russian agreement that restricts the importation of Russian firearms into the United States. "I believe that your authority and connections within the American establishment could help resolve this issue," Rogozin told Seagal in March during the latter's visit to Moscow.

What the hell is going on here? The Kremlin's infatuation with Seagal has been treated in the press as little more than an outre kinship with Putin over their shared interest in martial arts (Seagal has a black belt in Aikido, Putin's got one in judo). Although I suspect some of elevation of this relationship has to do with claims Seagal made early in his career that he was an "advisor" to the Central Intelligence Agency and provided security to everyone from the Shah of Iran to Desmond Tutu to Anwar Sadat. People magazine in 1990 was highly skeptical of this hilarious resume-padding: "While it is the CIA's policy neither to confirm nor deny the identity of its operatives, sources familiar with the agency say Seagal's tale is improbable. Still, that hasn't stopped the star from trotting it out whenever he sees the need."

You might like to think that these sorts of cock-and-bull stories won't get you very far among hardened and well-trained KGB types, but paranoia, it pays to remember, is often married to gullibility, and "Cold War attitudes" are particularly hard to shake in Russia. A ham knows his audience only too well. I can well imagine Steven kibitzing with Ramzan and Vladimir about the time his ponytail got stuck in the trigger device for a Stinger missile he was showing Osama bin Laden how to operate in Kabul.

From fake spook to CODEL straphanger in just under a quarter century: Seagal is still big. It's just the pictures that got small.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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