Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal may have been born in the USA, but these days his loyalty lies squarely with Russia. A Russian citizen since 2016 and Russia’s ‘special envoy’ to the US since 2018, Seagal has called Vladimir Putin a “brother” and proudly declared himself a Russophile. But while Seagal, who says he is of Russian descent, has lately become a Kremlin mouthpiece, his ties to the country may have been greatly exaggerated.
Despite his claim that he’s “one million per cent Russian”, it doesn’t appear that Seagal can even speak the language, while his exact heritage remains uncertain. As for Seagal’s ‘brotherly’ relationship with Vladimir Putin: according to a Kremlin spokesperson, the Russian Premier isn’t actually a fan of the former movie star.
From the beginning of his acting fame, Steven Seagal’s background has been shrouded in mystery, not least because the man himself has always had a tendency to be liberal with the truth.
A 1990 profile in People Magazine cites early claims from Seagal that he spent much of his youth in Brooklyn, New York. Yet Seagal’s own mother denied this, stating he was instead born in Lansing, Michigan on April 10, 1952, and initially grew up near Detroit before the family (including Steven and his three sisters) moved to Fullerton, California when Steven was five.
At some point in the early 70s, Seagal made an even bigger move: from 1971 to 1973, and again from 1974 to 1984, he lived in Japan, in which time he apparently learned the language fluently and trained in the martial art aikido. However, there is some uncertainty around Seagal’s life in Japan, due to more dubious claims on his part.
At various points, Seagal has claimed that he trained under the founder of aikido, who had in fact died in 1969; that he was the first non-Asian to own a Japanese dojo, when in fact Seagal merely worked at one owned by the family of his first wife, Miyako Fujitani; and that he worked in black ops for the CIA, which has been flatly denied by US military intelligence.
An uncertain heritage
More recent years have seen the Under Siege star (whose mother was Irish) make similarly unverifiable claims about his Russian heritage. While it has been reported (albeit based on Seagal’s word) that Seagal’s paternal grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants, in a 2016 Russian TV interview, Seagal laid out his ancestry claims in full:
“My father comes from Vladivostok [a South-East Russian port on the Pacific, close to China and Korea]. We have family from Siberia, we have family from Belarus, family from, apparently, St. Petersburg… we just recently got results of a DNA check and discovered that genetically there is Buryat mixed with Yakutian people.”
Apparently deciding to move east in part to avoid paying a $200,000 fine to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, in 2016 Seagal made Moscow his new home and successfully applied for Russian citizenship. A statement from the Kremlin said that Seagal – who was “renown[ed] for his quite warm feelings toward our country” – had been really persistent for a long time” in asking to be made a Russian citizen. (Seagal was ultimately still ordered to pay the fine.)
Seagal is not the only western celebrity of late to grow disillusioned with their home land and find a warm welcome in Russia. French actor Gerard Depardieu became a Russian citizen in 2013, and is a vocal supporter of the country’s controversial President, Vladimir Putin. American actor Mickey Rourke, while not a Russian citizen, has also spent much time in the nation and once praised Putin as “a very cool, regular guy”. (Rourke has since reversed his position, condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.)
“He’s definitely seen some of his movies”
It has been widely reported – again thanks in part to claims from Seagal himself – that the actor was granted Russian citizenship partly because of a close relationship he enjoyed with Vladimir Putin.
Just how close Seagal and the Russian President really are, however, is another matter of uncertainty. The actor has implied the two of them are very cosy indeed, once remarking that he “would like to consider [Putin] a brother,” and elsewhere claiming they bonded over “similar interests” including martial arts.
However, while Seagal and Putin have been photographed together at various functions including a mixed martial arts fight, Kremlin officials have denied the two are great friends. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the President “[isn’t] necessarily… a huge fan [of Seagal], but he’s definitely seen some of his movies.”
A citizen of the world
Russia is not the only place other than the US (and Japan) that has been called Seagal’s spiritual home. In 2016, the same year he was made a Russian citizen, Seagal was also granted Serbian citizenship, with the actor having previously said he felt like a Serb. Seagal has also been feted by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and Chechen leader (and accused war criminal) Ramzan Kadyrov, who has called Seagal “almost a Chechen”.
Russia, however, remains Seagal’s primary home base, at least for now. In 2018, Seagal was appointed Russia’s special envoy to the US. When the Kremlin first proposed such a move in 2013, an unnamed official from the Obama White House remarked, “our reaction was, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.'”
The years that followed would see Seagal (who has not made a movie since 2019’s Beyond the Law) make more appearances on Russian and Eastern European media, where he has voiced support for Russia, Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. However, as vocal as he may be in his support for Russia and claim to be “one million per cent Russophile”, it is noticeable that Seagal still continues to speak English in conversation with Russians.
Though he appears to have learned Russian dialogue for some of his more recent movies, Seagal has since 2014 made appearances inside Russia with an interpreter always on hand, while as recently as 2022 his Russian media appearances have seen him converse with the hosts in English. (Oddly, a brief clip from 2019 shows Seagal speaking English with a noticeably Russian accent, which he may have picked up from his extended stay in the country.)
“I grew up loving Russia”
Still, irrespective of whether or not he speaks the language or how strong his Russian heritage really is, Seagal remains a prominent figure there. February 2023 saw Putin give Seagal the Order of Friendship award, a Russian honour typically bestowed on those who have helped international relations with the increasingly troubled nation.
In March 2023, appearing at an event alongside various other prominent Russophiles, Seagal declared: “My father was pure Russian… I grew up with Russian culture. I grew up loving Russia and loving all of what I learned about it from a very early age. And for me, I am one million per cent Russophile and one million per cent Russian.”
In this same speech, Seagal also accused the United States of spending “billions of dollars on disinformation [and] lies” about Russia.
To this day, Seagal still holds citizenship in both the USA and Russia (as well as Serbia). In a 2018 interview with the BBC, Seagal dismissed the question of which nation he would remain a citizen of if forced to chose between them. However, these most recent remarks would imply he’s made up his mind.