Newly Russian, Gérard Depardieu tours his adopted homeland
But critics say that his high-profile, flamboyant appearances echo the old Soviet-era practice of using sympathetic foreign celebrities to reflect well on the government.
Freshly-minted Russian citizen, French actor, and tax-hopper Gérard Depardieu returned to Russia over the weekend to get his "propiska," the registration of residency that every Russian must have stamped into his passport.
He then traveled on to Chechnya, where he danced the traditional Caucasian lezginka with local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and pledged to make a movie about the southern republic's stunning rebirth after two devastating wars in as many decades.
Russian media provided wall-to-wall coverage of Mr. Depardieu's visit, in what critics describe as a revival of the Soviet-era practice of cultivating sympathetic foreigners for propaganda purposes. Others argue it is just a matter of journalists piling onto a colorful story about a famous celebrity's hijinks in the Russian provinces.
In either case, Depardieu did not disappoint.
In Saransk, capital of the deep-Russian republic of Mordovia – whose other most famous inhabitant is Pussy Riot songstress Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who is incarcerated in a local penal colony – Depardieu received his "propiska" to the wild cheers of hundreds of people who crammed into a theater to witness the procedure.
"Glory to Saransk, Glory to Mordovia, Glory to Russia!" Depardieu shouted, waving his new Russian passport which now shows him registered as living at No. 1 Democracy Street, in Saransk.
In scenes strikingly reminiscent of Soviet times, Depardieu was shown touring a cheese factory and a local poultry farm, where he gratified TV cameras by lavishly praising the quality of Mordovian products. He added that he was thinking of opening up a restaurant in Saransk.
"We are very happy that the citizen of the world, the great actor Gérard Depardieu, has registered here in Saransk," said Vladimir Volkov, head of the Mordovian republic.
"We will continue to acquaint Depardieu with our culture, our agriculture, industry, our successful experience of inter-ethnic relations, and our people," he added.
On Sunday, Depardieu flew to Grozny, in Chechnya, where he received a hero's welcome from Mr. Kadyrov who – not to be outdone by Saransk – handed the French actor ownership papers to a five-room apartment in downtown Grozny.
The French actor known in the US for films like "Green Card" and in France for "The Return of Martin Guerre," has in recent years often exhausted the patience of the European public and media due to unscripted outbursts and awkward acts, often while appearing inebriated.
"I just handed Gérard Depardieu the documents to a five-room apartment and a certificate making him an honorary citizen of Chechnya," Kadyrov wrote alongside pictures of himself and Depardieu he sent out via Instagram on Monday.
Depardieu's embrace of Kadyrov angers Russian liberals even more than his much-advertised close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kadyrov has pacified his restive republic, enabling Russia to withdraw its occupation army, but at what critics say is a very high cost. Many experts describe Chechnya as a territory that exists outside Russian law, where Kadyrov's word is law and human rights don't exist.
In particular, human rights monitors accuse Kadyrov of implementing Sharia Law in violation of the Russian Constitution, and of forcing draconian dress and behavior codes on Chechen women and even female visitors to the republic.
Depardieu, who has visited Chechnya on Kadyrov's invitation before, said he is planning to make a documentary film about the "Chechen miracle" to show to disbelievers in the West.
"I want to explain how one man [Kadyrov] could build a city all over again in five years," the independent Interfax agency quoted Depardieu as saying. "I am sure that really happy people live here. To dance and sing like Chechens you have to be genuinely happy."
Opinion polls show that about half of Russians approve of Mr. Putin's decision to grant Russian citizenship to Depardieu, while about a quarter disapprove.
Some Russian officials have expressed the hope that his arrival in Russia could signal the beginning of a wave of rich European tax-evaders who would bring their talents and capital to Russia in exchange for enjoying the country's flat 13 percent income tax rate.
But critics argue his antics are stage-managed by Russian authorities, who reap huge publicity benefits from showing Russian TV audiences a famous Western movie star who declares all is well in Russia and Chechnya is a "happy place" under Kadyrov.
"The Soviet regime had some famous sympathizers, but in those days it was mostly politics and ideology that motivated them," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"Now it's not about ideology but material interest. Depardieu's obviously doing this because he was offended by the French authorities, and wants to get more money.... For its part, the Kremlin can counter its domestic opponents, who claim Russia is being isolated, by saying 'look, here's a famous artist, a high-society European, and he's with us'. The mutual interest here is clear," he says.
But others say Depardieu is just an eccentric personality whose lurch into Russia has riveted ordinary people, and the Russian media is just doing what media everywhere does by covering his every move.
"Depardieu is a big star, and he's very popular in Russia," says Leonid Polyakov, a political scientist with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"He applied for Russian citizenship and received it from Putin's own hand. Now he's demonstrating that he is one of us by going around, visiting various regions.... Of course it's a bit political. But he's really fascinating to Russians. Here is a big celebrity, fleeing his own country where millionaires are harassed. He's a normal guy, a bit comic, big hearted, extremely warm and likeable. How could journalists ignore that? It would be a sin not to cover it," he says.