The Stars Who Turned Out for a Chechen Strongman's Birthday Party

Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme were on hand

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In the days leading up to Ramzan Kadyrov's 35th birthday on Wednesday, an event that coincided with the 193rd anniversary of the founding of the Chechen capital, Grozny, the quirky and controversial Chechen strongman "categorically" banned public celebrations or special magazine editions devoted to his birthday and threatened to fire any official who so much as tried to give him a present. Kadyrov, who was appointed by Vladimir Putin in 2007 to stabilize a region that had experienced two separatist wars with Russia, commands a personal militia that has been accused of torturing and kidnapping opponents, and has called for instituting Sharia law in the Muslim republic. "We must do everything to ensure that every resident of the republic and hundreds of guests from many Russian regions and foreign states will enjoy the [City Day] holiday," he said, according to The Moscow Times. What a selfless sentiment. In practice, though, nobody seems to have enjoyed last night's festivities more than the birthday boy himself.

News reports indicate that a bizarre cast of Hollywood stars flew in for a concert that took place on a floating stage by the river in Grozny. "This is my first time in Grozny," actress Hilary Swank, shown speaking below, said at the event, according to Sky News. I love to travel, I love to see the world, I love to see different cultures, so really, truly from me, this is a great honor to learn more about you and your country and what you're building. And happy birthday Mr President."  Journalists are speculating that Kadyrov's alleged human rights abuses explain why the singer Shakira did not attend the event, despite early reports that she would (Kadyrov's friend Mike Tyson also appears to have been absent).

Belgian martial artist and actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, enjoying a laugh with Kadyrov below, was even more effusive last night. "I love you Mr. Kadyrov," he reportedly declared.

Local media reported that British violinist Vanessa Mae received a whopping $500,000 to perform during the concert. The Telegraph notes that when reporters asked Kadyrov where he got the money for the celebration, he responded, "Allah gives it to us. I don't know, it comes from somewhere." ("In reality," Sky News writes, "it comes from the Kremlin.")

Reuters, meanwhile, captured an accompanying fireworks and light show.

To really get a feel for the festivities, however, you need to check out this Euronews footage, which captures Kadyrov dancing and acrobats undulating in the air. Sky News has another video of Van Damme playfully kicking someone on stage and sword- and shield-wielding soldiers performing a number.

Don't let the lavish display distract you from the real problems Grozny faces, however. Unemployment stands at 85 percent, The New York Times notes  in a report on the restive region, and the scars of war haven't yet healed. "For all the superficial trappings of peace and prosperity," the paper writes, "Grozny can still be dangerous. It has been brought to heel by Mr. Kadyrov's strongman rule but its peaceful streets thrum with suppressed violence."

Correction: This post originally stated that actor Kevin Costner had attended the event, according to a BBC report. The BBC has since retracted that report and confirmed that Costner did not attend the festivities.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.