Putin face-off: Make Schwarzenegger our man in Moscow

By Nina Khrushcheva
June 20, 2014

arnold & putin -- facing out!!

Russian President Vladimir Putin is star-struck.

He has the American action star Steven Seagal talking up Moscow’s Crimean policies. He extended Russian citizenship to the French movie icon Gérard Depardieu, who now owns a vineyard in Crimea. He basks in the ways that Russia’s cultural and artistic cognoscenti are supporting Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

This offers the United States an unexpected opening. If Washington really wants to wield more influence over Putin, President Barack Obama need only place one call: to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Give “The Governator” a sequel as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia.

US actor Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a picture in front of the Saint Basil cathedral on the Red ..Compare Schwarzenegger to Washington’s most recent ambassador, Michael McFaul. A Stanford political science professor, McFaul tended to follow his academic interests — focusing on building a civil society — which rubbed the Kremlin the wrong way and often hampered diplomatic efforts. Even John Tefft, a career diplomat and the former U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine who may be getting the Moscow post, is too well-known for his tough anti-Russian stance. He is unlikely to improve Washington’s relations with the Kremlin.

But consider: Schwarzenegger, who has serious political credentials as the two-term governor of California, is also the action hero of The Terminator, Terminator II: Judgment Day and Total Recall. He is a celebrated bodybuilder, five-time winner of the Mr. Universe competition. He has a larger-than-life personality, yet played a tough-but-kind nanny in Kindergarten Cop and an endearing man-mother in Junior.

Schwarzenegger personifies all the qualities that the Russian president most admires: He could teach Putin how to be everyone’s policeman and everyone’s nurse — at the same time. And since the Russian president is an avid martial arts enthusiast, the star of Collateral Damage and Commando could probably offer a few pointers.

putin & arnoldIn addition, Putin speaks German, having mastered it during his KGB posting as a Soviet spymaster in East Germany. So the Russian president can talk sports or East-West politics — or even women’s issues, since both he and Schwarzenegger have had past difficulties with marital fidelity — with the Austrian-born physical-fitness advocate in his native language.

I am not being frivolous — just pragmatic. I saw Putin courting cultural figures in his early Kremlin days. In the fall of 1999, we both attended a concert to hear the famous Georgian romance singer Nani Bregvadze, who was performing at a home in the chic section of Moscow. Putin was then an aspiring prime minister to President Boris Yeltsin and clearly intent on paying respects to influential members of the artistic intelligentsia. When this short man with opaque gray eyes, wearing a pitch-black suit, walked in, however, the elite had no interest in him.

Putin quickly sized up the cognoscenti’s disparaging mood. In a stunning move, he fell to his knees and crawled toward Bregvadze, begging her to sing. “You are my favorite artist of all time,” he insisted.

The snooty Moscow intellectuals were smitten.

His adoration of Bregvadze garnered positive buzz around the capital. “Even if he is KGB,” the intellectual elite asserted, “he understands us, he loves culture.”

I knew then and there that with such prominent supporters, Putin’s victory as the successor to Yeltsin was sealed.

Russia's President Putin congratulates cellist Rostropovich on his 80th birthday during a celebration in the Kremlin in MoscowIn 2003, I again watched Putin as he wooed Russia’s influential cultural elite. He was seated across the aisle from me at a concert in the new House of Music, off Moscow’s central Garden Ring. Putin was sandwiched between two iconic Russian artists. On one side was the celebrated former dissident, conductor-cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. On Putin’s other side was Rostropovich’s equally legendary wife, the opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

Putin looked thrilled to be surrounded by these cultural giants — former Soviet exiles no less. He must have felt all-powerful in being able to merge the past and the future — the once irreconcilable differences between communism and its critics. Hanging out with famous artists was, for Putin, a validation of his personal magnitude.

Relying on cultural influences is, of course, one of the oldest tricks in any autocrat’s playbook. History has demonstrated this, particularly in Russia.

Tsarina Catherine the Great sought the enlightened friendship of the French writer and philosopher Voltaire as justification for her efforts to strengthen and expand the Russian empire. More than a century and a half later, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin enlisted world-renowned artists like Boris Pasternak, the poet who wrote Dr. Zhivago, and Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer and pianist, to write odes and sing praises to the dictator and his rule.

Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor (and my great-grandfather), staked his de-Stalinization reform on the novels of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose 1962 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich described the grim realities of the Soviet detention camps.

President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow September 2..It was the ultimate post-Soviet irony that Putin, who launched his political career after serving as a KGB colonel, later embraced Solzhenitsyn, the fierce critic of the secret police, as a prophet of Slavic superiority. Though this time it was less about solving the existential problems of dictatorial rule and more about a photo-op with a cultural icon.

Given Putin’s long quest for celebrity approval, the Obama administration’s nomination of Schwarzenegger could offer the Russian leader a photo-op he can’t refuse. For Washington, the choice could be a better long-term strategy than exercising largely ineffective ideological outrage — even if the White House seems to enjoy insulting Putin — or costly economic sanctions.

Though a new Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, has been elected, the Ukrainian crisis is still continuing. If Russia decides on a third act of its expansion (parts of Georgia and Ukraine being the first two) — say, to take over a Transdnestria region in Moldova, in case that country turns toward the West — The Governator might just have enough muscle to put a stop to it.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2014 in St. Petersburg, May 24, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin; Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a news conference in Algiers, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a picture in front of the Saint Basil cathedral on the Red Square during a sightseeing tour of Moscow, September 25, 1996. REUTERS/Files

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Arnold Schwarzenegger smokes a cigar while skiing in Calgary, Canada, December 13, 1986. REUTERS/Patrick Price; Russian President Vladimir Putin in the resort of Krasnaya Polyana near Sochi, January 3, 2014.  REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Vladimir Putin (L) congratulates cellist Mstislav Rostropovich on his 80th birthday during a celebration in the Kremlin in Moscow, March 27, 2007. REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

PHOTO (INSERT 4)  President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, September 20, 2000. REUTERS/Files

 

12 comments

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The whole Putin story is a continuing satire. The only person who seems to have really seen through Putin is China’s President Xi who treats him like another Kim Jong Un, only one size larger. A tinpot dictator’s giant must be continuously flattered, not attacked. It works beautifully for China — a bit of cheap flattery pays off handsomely in oil, gas and other needed minerals.

Sure, Putin would love Schwarzenegger, just as Kim Jong Un loves that black ballplayer fellow.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

@pbgd: well said! a case of another Napoleon complex… these XXI century dictators are a pathetic proof that despite all technological advances, the mankind never learns.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

There’d be trouble in store if Mr Putin ever suspected that by making this appointment, we were laughing at his homoerotic holiday snaps.

Perhaps we’d be on safer ground by following the advice of Napoleon Bonaparte in Time Bandits, and sending a _really short_ actor that would make him feel tall. Danny deVito, for example.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

I think Mr. President should nominate Mr. governorator. He would be a good choice to be the next ambassador to Russian. Beside, Putin loves to flex his muscle. Mr. Harlarious-Harlifornia can fill in with a lot fun: skiing, smoking cigar, drinking vodka, boxing, hunting, cruising, and flexing 7-muscle. He can show Putin a lot of things and activities, so Putin would not worry much about how to deal with HARmerica policy.

Posted by gov3rnator | Report as abusive

It is actually quite a realistic proposal. Pretty obvious his acting career is finished. The governator became a reasonable politician and learnt to say the right thing at the right time. The US needs to acknowledge that Russia is on the rise again and send a “somebody” who can build a rapport with Putin, not a diplomat who whilst well known to other diplomats isn’t in the public eye. I can already see the pictures of the 2 of them wrestling bears in the Crimea. I support the diplomatic use of the rich and famous especially actors. These people are already America’s defacto cultural representatives to the world so why not?

Posted by Sharedbyus | Report as abusive

Well said and of course no dictatorship can happen without their cult following. Behind every one is a blinded gaggle of followers who have relieved themselves of thinking, feeling, and decency. The only outcome possible is utter failure.

Posted by Alex77 | Report as abusive

I endorse his candidacy

Posted by Boss2014 | Report as abusive

Than finished Skynet that sent the terminator?

Posted by zigphrid | Report as abusive

Nina is not far from the truth as the Russian saying states :Sila yest uma nennado (have muscle no brains required).

Posted by Dan555 | Report as abusive

Putin. Schwarzenegger. Both cardboard men. Puppets for others, featureless characters, the kind of men who have to drive SUVs around a city without snow, because they have no other way of showing personality. I was next to AS once, his bodyguard had more aura. It took me a minute to notice that that fencepost-like figure was actually THERE….

On the other hand (my job sometimes puts me in contact with VIPs), I sat next to Kasparov once…. It was like sitting next to a huge freezer. The man sent off the weirdest vibes. That’s why Putin is afraid of him.

Posted by Talleyrand02 | Report as abusive

Russia today is a country where hatred to the US, Europe, all the West overflows. Feel humiliated and insulted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian responded to Putin’s idea of ​​national revival in the same way as the Germans responded to Hitler’s idea of reviving the great Reich, national revival as hatred to those who want to be out of their harsh and uncivilized embrace

Posted by meir622 | Report as abusive

Great idea to pursue. Herr Arnold to Moskva.
Gospodin Putin is the greatest man on earth.
(Muhammad was the greatest man in history.)
Peace be upon him and them.
I love it. Russia is so important

Posted by khalil_muhammad | Report as abusive