By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
I have never liked Arnold Schwarzenegger. To me, he has always seemed smug, conceited, and arrogant, especially for someone who started out as a bodybuilder and made his Hollywood millions by playing emotionless, robot-like characters like the Terminator—the only roles that he, with his heavy Austrian accent and wooden delivery, could seem to handle. (Granted, he was a top bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Universe title for weightlifting at age 20. And I’ll admit it. I did enjoy Conan the Barbarian, one of those movies so bad that it was good.)
Then there were Schwarzenegger’s conservative politics. He managed to parlay his marriage to Maria Shriver, niece of Democratic President John F. Kennedy, along with his tough-guy action-star fame, to become the Republican governor of California from 2003 to 2011. (Schwarzenegger and Shriver separated in 2011 and finalized their divorce in 2021.)
There was even talk on the right (fanned by Schwarzenegger himself) in 2004 of attempting to change the Constitution’s requirement that presidents be born within the United States, specifically in order to permit Schwarzenegger–born in Austria and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1983 while retaining his Austrian citizenship–to run for president. And the fact that his father was a Nazi during World War II made me suspect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bona fides.
True. there was previously a hint of his anti-fascist/anti-authoritarian views in 2017 when, in response to the march in Charlottesville by Nazis and white supremacists, Schwarzenegger told them in a video, “Your heroes are losers.," and expressed the belief that "all human beings have equal value." However, Arnold then held up a little Trump bobblehead as he offered an example of what he, as president, would have said instead—suggesting some political self-aggrandizement mixed in with the nobility of that statement.
But now I find, to my surprise, that I am forced to like Arnold more despite myself. My about-face has been caused by the nine-minute video he posted on Twitter and the Telegram channels on March 17.
The video has been a techno-political triumph. Because of Schwarzenegger’s huge popularity in Russia, it immediately went viral, garnering millions of views on both Twitter and Telegram. The Telegram social media app, still accessible in Russia, is one of the few ways to transmit independent news that has not been blocked.
In the video, the actor speaks directly to the Russian people, trying to cut through Putin’s information blockade to tell them the truth about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Noting his longtime sense of friendship to the Russian people, Schwarzenegger says, "I’m speaking to you today because there are things that are going on in the world that are being kept from you, terrible things that you should know about…Ukraine did not start this war, neither did nationalists or Nazis…This is not the Russian people’s war." He goes on to inform viewers of the details of the war and its effect on civilians and soldiers, both Ukrainian and Russian.
Movingly, Schwarzenegger speaks of his Nazi father’s actions in World War II, and the effect it had on the rest of his father’s life, saying he did not want this fate for the Russians:
[My father] was injured at Leningrad and the Nazi army he was part of did vicious harm to the great city and to its brave people…When my father arrived in Leningrad, he was all pumped up on the lies of his government…When he left Leningrad, he was broken–physically and mentally. He lived the rest of his life in pain. Pain from a broken back, pain from the shrapnel that always reminded him of those terrible years. And pain from the guilt that he felt. To the Russian soldiers listening to this broadcast, you already know much of the truth that I’ve been speaking. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. I don’t want you to be broken like my father.
He also directly addresses Vladimir Putin: “To President Putin, I say: You started this war. You are leading this war. You can stop this war.”
Finally, Schwarzenegger addresses the Russians protesting the war, those being beaten and jailed, telling them: “You are my new heroes.”
Arnold’s very personal, heartfelt appeal is honest and touching. And that the video’s details have been fact-checked by Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council Ukraine expert whose integrity as concerns Ukraine and Russia is unimpeachable, has added extra weight to Arnold’s words. Vindman knows a thing or two about making political statements: he sacrificed his military career by testifying at Trump’s first impeachment trial, exposing Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into maunfacturing an investigation of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Furthermore, according to USA Today, Putin follows only 22 people on his official English-language Twitter account and Schwarzenegger is one of them. So, it is more than likely that Putin saw the video, and one cannot imagine that the strongman was pleased.
The Russian propaganda machine has, predictably, been busy counterattacking. Russian state TV host Vadim Gigin responded by calling Schwarzenegger’s face “the cover page of American imperialism and colonialism,” and querulously complained “He, in California, will tell us, who live here…the truth?! That is their approach towards us.”
In the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian powerlifting champion Maryana Naumova, accused Schwarzenegger of “living in an alternative, imaginary reality.” Repeating Putin’s accusation of Ukrainian Nazism, she wrote: “The fact that Mr. Zelensky, as you say, is a Jew, did not help them. Nazism has no nationality; Nazism is not based on the word ‘German.’ And Russophobia is no better than anti-Semitism.”
The Daily Beast reported that Zakhar Prilepin, a famous Russian writer who is wanted by Ukraine’s security service on charges of “taking part in the activity of a terrorist organization,” wrote on his Telegram channel, “This Austrian, the son of his father, who served in the SS and was wounded near Leningrad, is trying to act as the good cop.”
It is difficult to know how the Russians who only see state TV will react to these counterattacks, but, to me, they seem to have the strength of weak tea, especially when weighed against Schwarzenegger’s popularity and the sincerity of his video.
I would second a statement byAndrei Soldatov, a London-based Russian investigative journalist. According to USA Today, Soldatov said, “you've got pro-Kremlin people attacking Schwarzenegger, and it didn't go well.” He added, “You can’t attack Schwarzenegger. It's a bad idea.”
With any luck, this will not be the last time we’ll hear from Arnold on this issue. After all, as the celluloid strongman famously promised in The Terminator, “I’ll be back.” Personally, I hope he will. At this moment, I am not inclined to dislike Arnold. If I ran into him, I would offer to buy him a cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie. Oh, hell. I’d spring for an entire dinner!
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.