Trivia question: What do the actors Liz Hurley and Jean-Claude Van Damme and the violin prodigy Vanessa Mae have in common?
Answer: They’re among a special coterie of global celebrities to hang out with Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator of Russia’s southern region of Chechnya.
Added to their number today (Jul. 17) was Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho. The Barcelona star—who has won just about everything there is on the soccer pitch, from the World Cup, to the Champions League, to the FIFA World Player of the Year award—dropped in on the machine-gun-wielding tyrant shortly after visits to India and Pakistan, where he was apparently trying to grow the game in South Asia.
The timing was inauspicious, as The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent points out:
Chechnya, which was home to a bloody civil war in the late 1990s and early 2000s, returned to international news this year when reports surfaced that LGBTQ men were being tortured and held in camps (paywall) in the region. Kadyrov has been in power since the death of his father, Chechyna’s previous president, in 2004, and is generally believed to have been given carte blanche for his actions by Russian president Vladimir Putin, as long as he keeps the tumultuous region from returning to war.
Zaur Dadayev, one of the men sentenced for the 2015 murder of Russian opposition figurehead Boris Nemtsov, was an associate of Kadyrov’s. He initially confessed to killing him as revenge for insulting the Chechen leader and the faith of Islam, but later recanted. When crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya interviewed Kadyrov in 2004, he called her an “enemy of the Chechen people.” (Politkovskaya, in turn, wrote that he was “psychopathic and extremely stupid.”) She ended up dead in a Moscow stairwell two years later; three Chechen brothers and a former FSB officer were implicated in the murder. Her former colleagues reportedly believe Kadyrov was behind it, but he has denied any involvement.
Ronaldinho is far from the first footballer to share a stage with Kadyrov. In 2011, the Chechen leader flew in a group of aging Brazilian heroes to play a team captained by himself; they were followed a couple of months later by a side led by the Argentine great, Diego Maradona.
The same year, Kadyrov brought Mae, Van Damme, and Hillary Swank over for his birthday. Mae was reportedly paid $500,000 for her performance, but didn’t match the enthusiasm of Belgian martial artist Van Damme, who ended a speech with, “I love you, Mr Kadyrov!” Fellow martial artist (and Putin buddy) Steven Seagal has also dropped in on Kadyrov.
In 2013, while shooting the poorly reviewed Viktor in Chechnya, Liz Hurley and Gérard Depardieu, who had recently become a Russian citizen, also paid Kadyrov a visit. Kadyrov and Austin Powers star Hurley were pictured bonding with Chanel.
Normally such visits are splashed all over Kadyrov’s idiosyncratic Instagram account, but, as Moscow journalist Alec Luhn pointed out, the strange thing about Ronaldinho’s visit was that while the Brazilian gushed on social media, Kadyrov this time stayed silent. “I was very well received by everyone here in Grozny. Even more special to come from so far and receive so much so much affection. Thanks for everything,” Ronaldinho tweeted (in Portuguese).