— -- U.S. action star Steven Seagal today received a Russian passport, handed to him by President Vladimir Putin.
“The passport won’t be valid without your signature,” Putin told Seagal, according to remarks carried by state news agency Tass. “Thank you very much,” the actor reportedly replied before signing it at an unusual ceremony at the Kremlin.
The aging movie star was granted Russian citizenship in early November.
Seagal has seemingly been a Russia enthusiast for years, regularly visiting Moscow and lavishly praising Putin, whom he has described as a friend. In 2013, Seagal called Putin “one of the greatest world leaders.” He has publicly backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, saying he thought it “very reasonable” and describing Barack Obama’s policy on the conflict as “idiotic” in an interview with a Russian state newspaper.
The Kremlin has taken a similar liking to Seagal, it appears. Putin has hosted the actor and martial arts specialist at his residence outside Moscow, with Putin’s spokesman saying the two are longtime friends.
At today’s ceremony, Putin seemed to raise the idea of Seagal’s playing a role in fostering a warming of Washington-Moscow relations, saying, “I also hope that this small step will mark the beginning of the gradual improvement in our interstate relations.” In front of photographers, Putin added, “We have agreed from the very beginning that we won’t politicize this matter.”
Some observers have suggested that the Kremlin’s interest in foreign celebrities may be intended to burnish Putin’s image as an unreconstructed man of action. Seagal is the latest in a menagerie of aging male film and sports stars to be recently granted Russian citizenship, seemingly on the basis of their public expressions of friendship with Putin. The French actor Gerard Depardieu, U.S. boxer Roy Jones Jr. and the American mixed-martial arts fighter Jeff “the Snowman” Monson were recently given citizenship. Monson received his after opening a fighting school in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Seagal, 64, seemingly occupies a special space in this peculiar pantheon, often visiting Moscow and seen sitting at events alongside Putin, famously a martial arts lover. Seagal’s grandmother was born in the Russian port of Vladivostok, and his interest in the former Soviet Union has stretched beyond Moscow, with him embarking on an ad hoc tour of post-communist states — harvesting carrots with the president of Belarus and recently riding an armored horse at a nomadic festival in Kyrgyzstan. He was also awarded Serbian citizenship this year after opening a martial arts school in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
In recent years, the actor has converted his movie past into presenting himself as a sort of warrior monk, dispensing advice on self-discipline via his Twitter account. He has been characteristically philosophic in describing his friendship with Putin, saying, “I would like to think I know him well,” he said in a 2013 interview with the state channel Russia Today. “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.”