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Actor Steven Seagal has turned heads with his praise for the Russian government. Vladimir Putin even personally gave him a Russian passport. Seagal is not the only American celebrity building relationships with Putin and Russian billionaires. Over the past two decades, Hollywood fixer Bob Van Ronkel has been a sort of bridge facilitating the revolving door of American celebrities who visited Moscow, including then reality TV star Donald Trump. NPR's Tim Mak brings us this profile.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: American Bob Van Ronkel lived in Moscow for 15 years and runs Doors to Hollywood - a company that takes American celebrities to Russia. Here's one example. Steven Seagal has been one of the most vocal supporters of Putin's regime. Here he is on British television saying there's no way Russia could have interfered in the 2016 American elections.
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STEVEN SEAGAL: For anyone to think that Vladimir Putin had anything to do with fixing the elections or even that the Russians have that kind of technology is stupid.
MAK: Years before Putin personally gave Seagal citizenship, Bob Van Ronkel helped introduce them. I talked to Van Ronkel at a seafood joint outside Los Angeles.
BOB VAN RONKEL: I was hired to bring Steven Seagal to perform with his band for another event with President Putin, so kind of was responsible for that introduction and Steven becoming best friends with him, which he is very good friends.
MAK: Why do the Russians care about this? Steve Hall, the former head of Russian operations at the CIA, said that even if Van Ronkel hadn't been particularly political, he was serving a larger effort that the Russian government encouraged.
STEVE HALL: It looks very good for Russia because it shows that they are not alone in the world. They haven't been isolated. They indeed have these cultural connections, and they use it to basically increase their validity to the West. And it's a very clever move that they've done for a long time.
MAK: Speaking to Van Ronkel leads to a jumble of A-list celebrities mixed in with names of Russian oligarchs.
VAN RONKEL: I was given a $7 million budget with one other guy to throw a seven-day birthday party for a Russian turning 30. We had helicopters, jets and yachts taking all the wealthy Russians, including Roman Abramovich, who was at this party, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Lara Flynn Boyle and Peta Wilson.
MAK: In Russia, paying to host Hollywood celebrities became the mark of true wealth in a country dominated by the ultra-wealthy, and Van Ronkel filled that niche. Here is Michael Hollomon, a friend of Van Ronkel's, who used to live in Moscow.
MICHAEL HOLLOMON: It was kind of a badge of honor to say, look who I could get to come to my party or my wedding or, you know, for my company's Christmas party. It just gave you instant credibility.
MAK: Take, for example, the time about 15 years ago that Van Ronkel helped introduce comedian Jim Carrey to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska was recently sanctioned by the United States for benefiting from a Russian government that participates in, quote, "malign activities." Hollomon was there the weekend Carrey and Deripaska met.
HOLLOMON: We did have an amazing weekend - you know, four or five days - that Oleg ended up hosting everything. This is the greatest night of my life, he said to me.
MAK: Bob Van Ronkel was even present during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant and helped guide NBC executives in Moscow for the event. That pageant figures into salacious and unverified claims of the Steele dossier, which claims the Russian government has dirt on President Trump. Van Ronkel saw Trump at one of the pageant after-parties.
VAN RONKEL: But he was bored at the after-party. He would rather have been sitting, talking to the president of Russia or some wealthy Russians about doing business.
MAK: Nowadays, Van Ronkel has moved back from Moscow and lives in Las Vegas. He still runs his company connecting Hollywood and Moscow, but business is slower due to the bite of U.S. sanctions on Russia and the poor Russian economy. The market for American celebrities, much like the relationship between our two governments, has grown cold. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
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