On an overcast day in the spring of 2013, hundreds of screaming schoolchildren and excited factory workers surrounded a military helicopter as it touched down amid a light drizzle in Kovrov, a major center of Russia’s enduring defense industry about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, emerged, followed by Igor Kesaev, a billionaire tobacco baron who also owns a large part of the city’s arms plant. But the real star of the show came next: Steven Seagal.
Wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses and a backward baseball cap and sporting a tar-black goatee, the aging action star looked a far cry from the lean, handsome and charismatic martial arts virtuoso who became a surprise box-office smash in the 1980s and 1990s. But in Kovrov, a moldering industrial city that rarely sees such visitors, residents received the Out for Justice actor as if he were a conquering hero.
Seagal’s tour started in the museum at the V.A. Degtyarev Plant, a factory founded in 1916 that produces machine guns, rocket launchers, antitank missiles and even lawn mowers. After viewing a demonstration of heavy weaponry, Seagal spent an hour on the company’s firing range, testing automatic weapons and sniper rifles. Afterward, martial arts students put on an enthusiastic display for him at a local gymnasium, chanting “Steven! Steven! Steven!” until the seventh-dan aikido black belt stepped onto the mat and showed them some moves.
The point of the trip was announced at a press conference hours later: The deputy prime minister wanted Seagal to become the public face of the factory for an international advertising campaign aimed at expanding sales in the West.
“They have amazing weapons here,” Seagal told reporters. “I trust Kesaev and Rogozin like my brothers. Whatever they put in my hands, I will advertise.”
Rogozin discussed his hope that Seagal’s star power would help put the factory back on its feet. Russia’s massive military-industrial complex has struggled since the fall of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. Prior to that, during the peak of Cold War paranoia, large-scale arms plants were built across the country to supply armies in case of a major ground war with the West. But since the end of the Communist-run state, many have had trouble adjusting to the shift in military strategies and economic realities.
This wouldn’t be the only time Russia’s arms industry asked Seagal for help. In October 2013 he visited Moscow for Russia’s annual Arms & Hunting exhibition to announce he was lending his name to a new sniper rifle in development by a company called Orsis, where Rogozin’s son, Alexey, is deputy director. The company claimed the actor would be designing a large-caliber ergonomic rifle called the “Orsis by Steven Seagal.” He filmed a series of 15-second action-film-themed television spots for the company and claimed to be a lifelong sharpshooter with a personal record of 2,600 meters.
“My goal is to be able to do consistent and accurate shots at 3,000 meters,” he said. “I am waiting until this weapon is done to try that.”
But Russia is relying on Seagal for more than promotional appearances. In March 2013 Rogozin—whose portfolio includes overseeing Russia’s defense industry—announced at a Moscow press conference that Seagal had agreed to use his clout in U.S. political circles to help overturn an 18-year ban on the sale of most Russian weapons in America. Addressing Seagal in the Cabinet building, the deputy prime minister told the action star, “Your connections within the American establishment could help resolve this issue.”
This is how Seagal rolls nowadays. A has-been in Hollywood, the former star has carved out a second life in martial-arts-loving Russia, where the international-man-of-mystery persona he cultivates on and off the screen seems to be taken at face value. Seagal visits several times a year and has traveled widely in the country. In April he celebrated his 62nd birthday in Moscow, telling friends he considers Russia his “second home.” But the love doesn’t come just from film fans. Seagal’s stardom has led him to relationships with some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential people, including the most powerful man of all: Vladimir Putin.
With a shared love of martial arts—Putin is a black belt in judo and tae kwon do—the two often dine and take in matches together. Seagal joined the Russian president at the opening of a school in southern Moscow that teaches sambo, a martial art combining judo and wrestling that was created in the 1920s for Red Army soldiers. At one point the six-foot-four Seagal played bodyguard for the much shorter Putin when a mob of students gathered. The event received blanket coverage on state-run news programs, leading to a well-known internet meme of a smiling Putin standing in front of Seagal with a rose photoshopped into his mouth.
“The first time I went to [Putin’s] home, I walked in and saw a life-size statue of Kano Jiguro, who is the founder of judo. I was immediately impressed and wanted to get to know this man deeper and deeper,” Seagal said last November in an interview with RT, the Kremlin’s 24-hour English-language propaganda channel.
Pressed on how close they really are, Seagal described the Russian president as a Churchillian character who has been unfairly maligned in the West.
“I know him well enough to know that he is one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive today,” he said.
Seagal’s relationship with Russia has not gone unnoticed in the U.S. In June 2013 the action star surprised reporters when he appeared at a Moscow press conference with a group of visiting U.S. members of Congress, who credited Seagal with helping arrange high-level meetings with Russian security officials during a fact-finding tour following the Boston Marathon bombing.
Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and close friend of Seagal’s who was among the group, says the meetings would never have occurred without the actor’s help.
“Steven played a really very significant role in the success of that congressional delegation visit to Russia,” Rohrabacher tells me. “Usually when you go over with congressional delegations you’re meeting people who are going through the motions of meeting you and repeating what the government policy is, almost verbatim. And the meetings in Russia over the years have been particularly boring. They always end up after an hour and a half of basically not inching forward, or with no progress in terms of substance or policy, with too much vodka, and everyone walks away soused but having accomplished nothing.”
Among those present at a key dinner meeting was Rogozin. The brash 50-year-old nationalist is known for his outspoken anti-Western rhetoric. He was among the first Kremlin officials to be hit with international sanctions earlier this year following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the breakaway Ukrainian region.
“We had a great dinner, and this man isn’t known for being pro-American,” says Rohrabacher. “He is known to be a very tough guy, and he was opening up to us. We had a wonderful discussion about areas that America and Russia could cooperate in. I think that had everything to do with Steven Seagal.” Rohrabacher likens Seagal—a fellow Republican—to another well-known actor.
“You know, I used to work for an actor. His name was Ronald Reagan, and he made a lot of difference, but there were people in the press who constantly tried to put him down and disparage him with the idea that, ‘Oh, he’s just an actor.’ Well, acting is a noble profession. Steven has used his prestige to do good things for the cause of peace and to bring cooperation between the United States and Russia, and I think that’s wonderful,” says Rohrabacher.
Seagal has said he was asked to set up meetings between Russian officials and the U.S. congressional delegation last year only because Rohrabacher was aware of Seagal’s links to Russia.
“Dana and I have been friends for a long time, and he knew of my relationship with Russia. He knows that I go back in Russia a long time and that I have a lot of friends here, some of whom are very powerful and influential. But he also believes that I have insight into the culture, into the heart of Russia and into the people who are running the country in some ways,” Seagal said in the November interview with RT. “Dana knew that I knew the right people in Russia, and he knew that I would get them to tell him the truth.”
But that was before the overthrow of the government in Russia’s neighbor Ukraine earlier this year, which led to the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the surging pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine—which Russia has been blamed for instigating—have led to economic sanctions from the West against a number of Kremlin officials and others close to Putin. The situation caused Seagal to double down, calling President Obama’s policy in Ukraine “idiotic” and accusing the American media of one-sided reporting and U.S. citizens of knowing “very little about the situation in the Ukraine.”
“Their opinion is formed by what they see on TV, especially on CNN, which is a mirror image of what the Obama administration wants to show people,” he told the official state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in March. “I see American TV constantly criticizing Putin, using speculation and manipulation. I was horrified recently when one of my friends called and said, ‘Steven, what’s going on? Why is your friend Putin doing this? Is he crazy?’ I had to explain that wasn’t true and you can’t believe what you see on TV. It’s just cynical propaganda.”
Ultimately, Seagal said, he wants to see the two world powers become “brothers and best friends”: “That is my mission in life—to get better relations between Russia and America and keep them good.”
It’s easy to dismiss Steven Seagal as being entirely full of shit. At various points in his life he has reportedly claimed to have helped the CIA while living in Japan, to be a reincarnated 17th century Buddhist monk, to have secretly worked as a police officer during the entirety of his movie career and to be a champion marksman. There are also claims that major auction houses call on him to authenticate samurai swords, as he is one of the world’s foremost experts. He has variously said he is of Italian, Russian and even Mongolian descent (he’s actually half Irish and half Jewish, with grandparents hailing from Russia) and is also an avowed Buddhist who has given public lectures on compassion, despite being a huge fan of guns and a staunch proponent of efforts to secure U.S. borders against illegal immigrants.
In recent years Seagal has worked closely with Joe Arpaio, America’s self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff,” to train posses of armed volunteers to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border. Seagal filmed the last season of his reality show, Steven Seagal: Lawman, in the county where Arpaio is sheriff and moved from Hollywood to Scottsdale, where he was quoted earlier this year saying he was considering running for Arizona governor. “I think most action stars like to be seen as somewhat of an enigma,” said a person close to Seagal. “But it’s not like he’s Mr. Secretive who no one can ever find out anything about.”
Seagal did not respond to numerous requests for an interview for this article, but people in his camp downplay the importance of his activities in Russia.
“I don’t think he’s trying to be an ambassador—maybe a person trying to just help some people get together and talk. He wouldn’t view himself as an ambassador. I think he has a realistic view of the role of a private citizen,” says Kenin Spivak, his personal manager until earlier this year.
Seagal claims he simply has a spiritual connection to Russia and doesn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that.
“I am popular in Russia, and there are people who are jealous of that and resent that,” he told Moscow’s TV Rain last year. “I love Russia, and some people love Africa, and some people like Mexico, and some people love the color purple. I am not ashamed to say that there are places in the world that I love. I love Japan. Should I be ashamed of that? Are there people who say I come to Japan because I want something? That’s just simply idiotic. Who would say that? Only idiots.”
Despite the altruistic talk, Seagal’s actual interest in Russia appears primarily to be about money. For several years Seagal has banked on financing from Russian backers for his various film projects. Seagal actually still makes movies—lots of them. Since his last major box-office release, 2002’s Half Past Dead—a flop co-starring rapper Ja Rule that features Seagal as a Russian car thief named Sascha Petrosevitch—he has churned out an impressive 23 films. Almost all have gone direct to video. He is no longer able to perform the slick martial arts moves of his youth and often relies on quick edits to disguise his declining gracefulness. But these low-budget B movies remain profitable because Seagal still has fans in Eastern Europe and Asia.
“I remember being at the American Film Market in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and people were standing in line just to read the synopsis of his future film. They were ready to pay the money just to be co-producers. That still works here,” says Eugene Zykov, a veteran Russian film producer and historian. “They come, and people with money say, ‘Steven Seagal, can we do something with you?’ Many people who have money know that Steven Seagal still makes good money on distribution worldwide.”
For years Seagal has been looking for backers for a biopic of 13th century Mongol leader Genghis Khan or for a Robin Hood–style film featuring one of a number of Russian historical figures, or even a third chapter of Under Siege, his most successful film. During his recent trips to Russia, Seagal often said he was in town “on business” but declined to elaborate. His former manager, however, confirms the main purpose of the trips is to raise money.
Some of his more recent films have Russian-themed plots or feature Seagal playing a Russian character. In 2009’s Driven to Kill, he plays Ruslan, a Russian ex-mobster who gets back into the business to avenge his family after his enemies attack them. In much of the film he speaks English with a vaguely Eastern European accent, but in some scenes he attempts to speak Russian, only to switch back to English after a few words. The following year he starred as a DEA agent battling Russian drug dealers in Born to Raise Hell. The movie was filmed on location in Bucharest—a popular spot nowadays for low-budget action movies—as were his upcoming films A Good Man and The Mercenary: Absolution.
Like many things about Seagal, the identity of his backers is a mystery. He does, however, count quite a few very wealthy Russians as friends.
Igor Kesaev, the tycoon who owns the Russian gun plant Seagal visited last spring, is worth roughly $4 billion according to Forbes, making him one of the 50 wealthiest people in Russia. Kesaev, a blue-eyed 48-year-old, bears a striking resemblance to Daniel Craig. Through his conglomerate he imports Bentley sedans and luxury goods from Armani and Tiffany into Russia, operates a publicly traded supermarket chain and has vast holdings in real estate, including Moscow’s Mercury City Tower, the tallest building in Europe. But his real money comes from tobacco. His Megapolis Group controls 70 percent of tobacco distribution in Russia, which is the second-largest consumer of cigarettes in the world, after China. In December Megapolis sold 20 percent stakes to both Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco Inc. for a combined $1.5 billion. Kesaev also reportedly has close ties to Russia’s security apparatus.
Through a spokesperson, Kesaev declined to discuss his relationship with the American actor. Then there is Dmitry Itskov, an eccentric entrepreneur behind something called the 2045 Initiative. The effort is described on its website as a cyber–New Age project to bring together the world’s top experts on robotics and nanotechnology “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” Basically James Cameron’s Avatar come to life.
In 2011 Seagal came out in support of Itskov’s plan, writing to Putin asking him to back the initiative. “This would probably be the most amazing breakthrough in science in the history of mankind. In many ways this would almost be a kind of paradise on earth. For me, as a Buddhist, this is one of the greatest things the world has ever seen. I am proud to be a part of this movement,” he wrote.
Itskov also declined to talk about Seagal.
The most controversial of Seagal’s relationships is his friendship with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. The former militant leader, who later helped the Kremlin pacify the region after a series of ugly wars between the Russian army and Islamic separatists, is a huge Seagal fan and hosted the action star in the region’s capital city of Grozny at least twice in 2013. On one occasion, footage of Seagal performing a painful-to-watch rendition of the lezginka, a sharp-moved dance popular in the Caucasus region, became national news.
Burly, goateed and often wearing a tracksuit, the baby-faced Kadyrov looks like an American frat boy but has long been accused by human rights groups of being a vicious despot whose paramilitary forces subjugate the region through torture, rape, home burning and murder. The 37-year-old Kadyrov denies all this and has taken to inviting celebrities to visit Grozny under the pretense that he wants the world to see how he turned the city from a war-shattered ruin into a gleaming urban oasis. Activists have roundly criticized those who have accepted Kadyrov’s invitations. In 2011 Academy Award–winning actress Hilary Swank fired her manager after she came under fire for appearing at a lavish party, ostensibly celebrating Grozny City Day, which happened to coincide with Kadyrov’s 35th birthday. Embarrassed, Swank said she was unaware of the accusations against him and gave her appearance fee to charity. But Kadyrov seems to have a special place in his heart for Seagal, once saying the action star had a soul that was “almost Chechen.”
“He called him ‘almost Chechen’ because Seagal represents—not just in his movies but in life—a positive, heroic and courageous person,” Kadyrov spokesman Alvi Karimov explains. “His stance toward life, his traits of character, represent the values that Chechen parents want in their children. He’s not saying to copy Seagal but to believe in things like honesty, pride, courage, belief in the fatherland and readiness to serve the fatherland.”
Seagal, for his part, is unapologetic about his friendship with Kadyrov. “I have said this over and over and over and over again: If he gets indicted, if someone makes legal and official charges against him, I want to know about it right away,” Seagal told RT. “Is Ramzan Kadyrov a war criminal? Is he really? If he is, show me something that rises above wild conjecture and speculation, okay? Show me something that is proof that he really committed war crimes or did anything that is criminal.”
Understanding why Seagal has received such a rapturous embrace in Russia is simple: Russians love action movies.
“Guys like Seagal, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee are like half my business, maybe even more than half,” says Sergei, a DVD seller at Moscow’s sprawling Gorbushkin Dvor electronics market.
Flipping through his catalog of Seagal films—which is nearly all of them—Sergei explains that Russians, particularly men, tend to have simple cinematic tastes and that actors like Seagal speak to something elemental in the Russian soul. He also says action films are the easiest to dub into Russian.
“These are the most popular stars out there. Russians can’t get enough of these guys,” he says. Eugene Zykov, the film producer, says Russia’s fascination with martial arts films dates back to the 1970s, when Bruce Lee’s movies began to filter into the Soviet Union.
“When we saw it, youngsters, people my age, about 20, 25, we got crazy. We started to break the fences. There were lots of telephone booths where the glass was smashed by crazy guys who wanted to test how successful they were,” he says.
As the obsession spread, Soviet authorities grew nervous and banned the practice of many martial arts for several years.
“The people of Brezhnev’s time, at the top of society, were afraid of us, you know. They suddenly understood that hundreds of thousands of youngsters had started to become Eastern-oriented and were more interested in martial arts instead of Communism,” Zykov says.
But the ban only drove martial arts underground and made them more popular. Zykov, who is 63, says that planted the seed for people of his generation—including Putin, who is 61—to nourish a lifelong love of martial arts films and film stars.
“They looked like the masters of your society, a master of the world, so that is why Russians take them as idols,” he explains to me. “American society will never understand how people here are still enthusiastic about what was banned a generation ago. But we are still very much enthused by guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal because they are professional. These people are still idols, and I think that’s okay. We respect professionals.”
That cycle repeated with the younger generation, when films including Seagal’s and Van Damme’s were among the first big Hollywood blockbusters to sweep through Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled and foreign films began to be widely shown. To this day, dubbed versions of films such as Hard to Kill and Universal Soldier are regularly shown on television.
“They are treated like kings here, like sheiks. People believe they are not only wealthy but that they can change the world,” Zykov says. “That is why they come here.”
Accordingly, Seagal is not the only foreign star to find continued adulation in Russia. Van Damme was once a regular visitor to Russia and often showed up at Putin’s side at mixed martial arts matches. The Muscles From Brussels made more than one trip to Chechnya to see Kadyrov and was at the Grozny City Day event that landed Hilary Swank in hot water with rights groups. (Van Damme was also criticized for attending the party, but instead of apologizing he returned to Chechnya a month later to dine with Kadyrov.)
Last year, French actor Gérard Depardieu made headlines when, amid a bitter tax fight with the French government, he was granted Russian citizenship by Putin. The Academy Award nominee claimed he had been forced to give up his native country after the government proposed a top income-tax rate of 75 percent on high-wealth residents like himself. Russia, which has a flat income tax of 13 percent, was much more appealing. Pilloried in the French media, Depardieu remained defiant, saying his heart belonged to Moscow.
“I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history and your writers. I like to make films here,” he wrote in a letter to a Russian television station shortly after receiving his citizenship. “I love your culture, your intelligence. My father was a Communist. This is also part of my culture.”
Seagal has said he fully understands why Depardieu turned his back on France, but when asked if he would ever consider becoming a Russian citizen as the French actor had, Seagal was noncommittal. “I have no intention of giving up my U.S. citizenship, because I love my country and I believe in it. I have nothing against taking Russian citizenship. Maybe it’ll happen someday,” he said.
For more than 25 years Seagal has peddled myths about himself that are sometimes hard to separate from reality. But while most people in the U.S. stopped buying into his shifting world of CIA black ops, firearms, Buddhist spiritualism and two-fisted justice sometime around 1996, in Russia his legend lives on. Seagal’s penchant for guns is well-known—he has spoken in support of Second Amendment rights for many years—and his friendship with government officials in both Russia and the United States seems legit. Still, it’s unlikely Seagal has enough sway in Washington to change the Russian arms ban he was asked to help lift.
The 1996 gun ban is a protectionist measure created to keep millions of weapons manufactured in the former Soviet Union—including the famed Kalashnikov rifle—from flooding the American market. The agreement allows about 100 types of Russian-made weapons to be exported to the U.S. Most are antiques, though the list includes the Saiga, a modified version of the Kalashnikov.
Unlike laws passed in Congress, the pact was hammered out between the U.S. Department of State and Russia’s defense ministry. It can be rescinded at any time, but Walker English, sales director of Arsenal Inc., a Las Vegas–based gun manufacturer that specializes in sporting rifles, says he could not imagine U.S. gun makers standing by and allowing it. “I also highly doubt that Steven Seagal has any sway with the U.S. State Department—at least the current U.S. State Department—seeing that Steven Seagal is extremely conservative and John Kerry is not,” says English.
To explain why he thinks Russia turned to him for help in amending a long-standing agreement that few seem to have any interest in changing, Seagal has pointed to things that lie on both the mythical and factual sides of his life story.
“Well, I’m also a police officer, and I know a lot of important people in the government structure and people high up in the military and so on and so forth, so I think that was a pretty logical assumption for them,” he told Russia’s TV Rain last year.
Still, Seagal said he wouldn’t commit to throwing his weight behind anything until he saw exactly what was being proposed. And since the middle of last year, public discussion of the effort has gone quiet. Representative Rohrabacher says the actor has never talked to him about it. And Rogozin, the sanctioned Kremlin official who paraded Seagal around Russia’s arms plants last year, has steadfastly declined to discuss the issue further, calling it “a matter of national security.”
After Crimea, it seems less likely Seagal would be able to change anything, but that was probably never the point. His involvement was more likely intended to drum up publicity for companies owned by his friends. Most stars concerned about their image would be inclined to keep Russia at arm’s length right now, given the hostile political climate. But Seagal has nothing to lose, and he knows it. He’s aware he’s no longer a player in Hollywood, and Russia serves his purposes in many ways. For Seagal, who has been married four times and has seven children, the calculation is simple: It’s a living.
“In having to feed my kids and survive, I will do business wherever I go in the world,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Playboy.