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Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to show Russians a different kind of strongman

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/17/2022 Monica Hesse
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appeal to Russians began with a story of his childhood admiration of a Russian weightlifter. © Gaelen Morse/Getty Images Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appeal to Russians began with a story of his childhood admiration of a Russian weightlifter.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was a teenager, a friend invited him to the World Weightlifting Championships where he watched in awe as a Russian named Yuri Vlasov hoisted 200 kilograms (440 pounds) over his head and took the title, the Terminator turned politician (turned Terminator again) said in a video released on Thursday. “There was a 14-year-old-boy standing in front of the strongest man in the world,” Schwarzenegger said, explaining how he met Vlasov backstage and the encounter inspired him to start lifting weights. Decades later, Schwarzenegger met Vlasov again and the older strongman gave the younger strongman a coffee cup as a token of friendship.

In the video, he reached across his desk and produced the cup, kept after all these years. “The strength and heart of the Russian people have always inspired me,” he solemnly told the camera. “And that is why I hope you will let me tell you the truth.”

When a celebrity opens their mouth to comment on world events, it’s deeply embarrassing at least half the time. Such messages tend to come across as either tone-deaf or self-aggrandizing (recall the battalion of actors who serenaded us with the pandemic-inspired version of “Imagine” nobody wanted). There’s a little of this in Schwarzenegger’s video. Why would ordinary Russian people listen to the former Governator when there have been news stories of them refusing to believe even their own relatives in Ukraine about what’s really happening during the invasion? But over the course of nine minutes, Schwarzenegger — who built his career on muscles before he entered politics — makes the case that he is, somehow, the right man for this job.

He talks about the siege of Leningrad in World War II. How his own father fought in that battle, but for the wrong side — against Russia, as part of the Nazi army. He explains that Ukraine is not riddled with Nazis as the Kremlin has told Russian citizens — Ukraine’s president is Jewish. His words are intercut with news footage from recent weeks: buildings destroyed, people killed.

Video: Arnold Schwarzenegger makes plea to Russians against war in Ukraine (The Washington Post)

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Will anyone in Russia actually see this video? After all, the war effort has been buttressed at home by misinformation and media blackouts enforced by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Schwarzenegger seems to anticipate this, saying he’s sending the message through “various different channels,” and encouraging viewers to share it with their Russian friends.

He also seems to anticipate something else: that his international celebrity might count for something here. That he embodies some of the same shirtless physicality as does Putin. And that the people who associate masculine strength with moral authority might be more likely to believe the words — and pass on the videos, through secret channels if necessary — of a man like Schwarzenegger than a man like, say, Joe Biden.

The idea of the physical body is the backbone of this entire video. It’s present in Schwarzenegger discussing his career as a bodybuilder and action movie star. It’s present in the way he talks about his father, who he says suffered “terrible pain” for the rest of his life after the Second World War. It’s present when he talks about the Russian soldiers who are being killed when they follow orders to invade Ukraine.

And it’s present in Schwarzenegger’s opening anecdote, when he speaks of meeting Yuri Vlasov. He chooses to present himself not as the Austrian Oak, but rather as a small, star-struck 14-year-old with “boy hands,” in contrast to Vlasov, who had a “man’s hand that swallowed mine.” He was bowled over by Russian might, and by the strong things he saw a citizen of Russia do.

He knows these citizens have the power to do strong things again. “Let me close with a message to all of the Russians who have been protesting in the streets against the invasion of Ukraine. The world has seen your bravery. … You are my new heroes. You have the strength of Yuri Petrovitch Vlasov. You have the true heart of Russia.”


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