Vladimir Putin wants all Russians to be tough like Steven Seagal

Action star Steven Seagal looks on while going to the Moscow International Film Festival closing ceremony, Sunday, June 29, 2003. Judo enthusiast Vladimir Putin didn't try out any moves out on Seagal when he spoke Sunday to actors taking part in the Moscow International Film Festival. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)
Action star Steven Seagal looks on while going to the Moscow International Film Festival closing ceremony in 2003.  (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

Think Russians are tough? They could be tougher. They could be Steven Seagal tough.

That’s at least the logic behind Vladimir Putin’s move this week to reinstate a Soviet-style fitness workout called “Ready for Labor and Defense.” Inspired by both Russia’s haul of 33 medals at the Sochi Olympics — the most of any country — and, apparently, Steven Seagal, Putin has funded the workout program with the games’ leftover cash.

“The Olympics and Paralympics have demonstrated that we are again becoming one of the leaders in global sports,” Putin said in his remarks.

He added: “We’re discussing what is necessary to … attract the vast majority of our citizens to take part in regular physical training.”

Launched in 1931, the workout regime was hailed by dictator Joseph Stalin as a way to get all Russians into tip-top shape to both work and fight for the Fatherland. Known as GTO, the regime required school and university students to pass programs that had names like “Strength and Courage,” “Cheerfulness and Health,” and “Physical Perfection.”

Most of the programs, demarcated by age group, had participants run, swim, ski, climb ropes, and do a lot of pull ups. Other parts of the regime, which was discontinued after the Soviet Union collapsed, involved other crucial elements of Stalinist fitness, like shooting guns and throwing fake grenades.

Few have had more experience throwing fake grenades than Steven Seagal, who, for reasons unclear, has a huge bromance going with Vladimir Putin. “I want to be polite and say I don’t know him very well,” said Seagal, wearing dark glasses and a pensive expression, in an interview last year. “I would like to think I know him well. But I know him well enough to know that he is one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive.”


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and American action movie actor Steven Seagal visit a newly built sports complex of Sambo-70 prominent wrestling school in Moscow. Putin teamed up today with Steven Seagal to promote the Soviet-style regime of rigorous physical training for schoolchildren. Sambo is the official in-house martial art of the KGB security services which Putin practiced before switching to judo.  (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Such sentiment so touched Putin that he invited Seagal last year to Russia in his incipient push to make Russians tougher. In mid-March, with Seagal in tow, Putin said GTO had become essential for Russians “to stand up for themselves, their family and, in the final run, the Fatherland.” He said Russians were in “significantly worse” shape than they were a few decades ago.

Could Seagal help?

To promote the initiative, the action star, who retains celebrity among Russia’s oligarch class, toured a newly built sports complex with Putin. Seagal fitted on a pair of Bono-esque yellow glasses, and, side by side, he and Putin watched martial arts.

Their pairing hit a crescendo when Seagal and Putin waded together into a throng of flag-waving children. Seagal, unsure, got closer to Putin, and the Russian leader proceeded to pantomime quite possible the most awkward hand gestures ever.

Seagal’s face went like this:


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Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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