Depardieu the Defector
Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru
Gérard Depardieu’s bombastic personality and distinguished acting career have made him a cultural icon in France. However, he recently earned international notoriety by embracing Russian president Vladimir Putin and announcing that he would give up his French passport in favor of a Russian one.
Over the past century, a number of celebrities with strong political ideologies have declared their support for controversial foreign regimes. American poet Ezra Pound believed that fascism offered a superior alternative to capitalist democracy, which he blamed for the First World War, and spent World War II singing the system’s praises on Italian radio. Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun openly admired Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany’s brand of fascism. American actor and singer Paul Robeson died an unapologetic supporter of the Soviet Union, arguing that it was free of the institutionalized racism he experienced in the United States. And today, some artists have shown an ideological affinity for authoritarian-leaning leftist regimes, as with Sean Penn and Danny Glover’s support for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
However, many other such relationships lack coherent ideological underpinnings. American actress Hilary Swank and other stars were chastised by human rights groups for appearing at Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday party in 2011. French actress Brigitte Bardot recently praised Putin for supposedly protecting animals—implying that animal rights safeguards take precedence over human rights abuses—and threatened to run away to Russia if French officials euthanized two sick elephants. Depardieu demonstrated a higher level of support for the Russian regime, though, when he adopted Russian citizenship after a disagreement over taxes.
In December, outraged by French president François Hollande’s proposal to raise tax rates to 75 percent for those earning over 1 million euros a year, Depardieu announced plans to flee to Belgium to avoid what he considered punitive measures against success and creativity. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the move “pathetic.” Depardieu responded with an angry open letter, returning the insult. The prime minister backpedaled to appease Depardieu, and the French Constitutional Council eventually ruled against the new tax rate, but the damage was done. When Putin invited Depardieu to Russia and presented him with a Russian passport, the actor accepted, and he has already purchased land for a home outside of Moscow.
But why choose Russia instead of staying in Belgium or joining fellow French actor Christian Clavier in relatively low-tax Britain? Neither country matches Russia’s flat tax rate of 13 percent, but both are closer to home and feature important amenities like the rule of law, secure property rights, and legal protections for free expression. By contrast, corruption and an unreliable legal system make personal connections the most valuable commodity in Russia. Indeed, as this Foreign Policy article suggests, the value of such connections might explain why Depardieu chose Russia. He has appeared in commercials and films in the country and claims a personal friendship with Putin himself. He also appeared at Kadyrov’s 2012 birthday party and had the rare honor of singing a duet with Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the autocratic Uzbek president Islam Karimov, an intermittent Putin ally. Depardieu’s links to Russia’s ruling elite might make life there particularly rewarding, at least for a time. Russia’s republic of Mordovia has already offered him the position of minister of culture, the sort of perk that he probably could not expect in Britain or Belgium.
That still leaves the question of why Putin would choose Depardieu. However the Russian leader may feel about him personally, the “defection” of such a famous Western actor is a public-relations victory. It allows Putin to thumb his nose at foreign governments that have accused his own of corruption and human rights abuses, and it runs counter to the dominant trend of wealthy Russians fleeing—or sending their money—to the West. Furthermore, since Depardieu owes his success in Russia to his relationship with Putin, he is obligated to defend the president from his detractors, both in Russia and abroad. He has already gone to bat for the regime by publicly criticizing the protest group Pussy Riot and the Russian opposition movement.
Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested that Russia’s tax policy would attract many wealthy foreigners, but few have followed Depardieu’s example. Even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed skepticism that the tax rate would be a major draw. Instead, Depardieu’s relationship with Russia is part of a different, long-standing trend whereby Putin responds to criticism with misdirection. For example, he answered the passage of the Magnitsky Act in the U.S. Congress in December by accusing the United States of its own human rights abuses and banning American adoptions of Russian orphans. And instead of addressing the concerns of civil society over the past year, he claimed that the opposition movement was colluding with foreigners and passed laws tarring civic activists as traitors and “foreign agents.”
Unfortunately for both Depardieu and Putin, history shows that embraces between respected artists and dictators are far more likely to taint the former than redeem the latter.
*Dawes Cooke is a researcher assisting Freedom House with the forthcoming report Nations in Transit 2013.