Until recently, it was a happier time for Russia’s oligarchs: American A-, B-, and C-list celebrities flocked to Eastern Europe for easy paychecks, posing at film festivals and mingling at of evenings. For one night, and for a price, even a kleptocrat could feel cool.
At the center of the industry stood Bob Van Ronkel, 68, an American who lived in Russia for 15 years before moving to Las Vegas. Since 2002 he has keep more than 100 celebrities in the area, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Kanye West, Sean Penn and Mariah Carey, he has noted.
But now, thanks to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, play dates have been suspended indefinitely, and Van Ronkel is unfortunately caught in the middle.
“I never dreamed of meeting so many oligarchs, presidents and gangsters, it happened.”
“I can’t take sides without offending someone,” he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to be cut off from all the business I do in Russia…and yet I can’t turn Hollywood against me.”
Van Ronkel, however, expressed disbelief at some sanctions faced by Russian tycoons. “I can’t believe we’re going to start taking the oligarch’s assets. I mean, I can understand freezing [them]“, he lamented. (And that was before the United States imposed extended sanctions against eight other high-profile Russians on Thursday.)
Already, one of his close oligarchs is “in tears” over the conflict and suffering from the fall of the rouble, Van Ronkel said. “He has so many friends in Ukraine and has nothing against Ukrainians… All he cares about is doing business.”
In recent days, two of Van Ronkel’s deals have been put on hold. Things are even bleaker for the future.
Celebrities are already wary of the blowback for connections to Russia, not to mention that President Biden has closed US airspace to flights from the country.
“We should bounce off Dubai or somewhere like that,” he said of a theoretical client journey. “But, you know, it’s a pain.”
Not too long ago, Van Ronkel was happily partying with President Vladimir Putin and other members of Russia’s elite.
He recalls a trip in 2010 when he took Kevin Costner’s band to an event in St. Petersburg. Tonight, in front of Sharon Stone, Mickey Rourke and Goldie Hawn, Putin grabbed the mic and oddly sang “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino.
Van Ronkel also helped open the Grand Havana Room Moscow, which got billed as “Moscow’s most exclusive private club for Russia’s richest and most powerful businessmen”.
His journey to Russia began in 1998 after years running various businesses including a karate studio, a clothing company and a restaurant. He landed in Moscow with no real plan “other than trying to meet a new girlfriend”, he said, adding that his success was due to luck, hard work and the art of selling .
Eventually, “wealthy Russians started asking me if I knew or could get some stars to attend their events,” said Van Ronkel, who grew up humble but attended Beverly Hills High School. He was quick to use his connections to meet their demands. “I never dreamed of meeting so many oligarchs, presidents and gangsters, it just happened.”
But things are different now.
Van Ronkel said Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine came as a surprise, both to him and to his Russian connections.
He appeared to blame the invasion in part on US foreign policy, including the installation of US missile defense. systems in Europe. “It’s like [Putin] put one in Canada, Mexico or Cuba,” he said. “But we don’t understand that. We don’t listen to that. We don’t respect it.
He then texted The Daily Beast about an “interesting interview” on Fox News with a guest calling for the United States to “let Russia take the part of Ukraine that they want to take”, including refusing military aid to Ukraine and refusing to sanction Russia. (This guest, retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, was separately chastised by one of the network’s own reporters for his ‘distortions’ and for ‘looking like a Putin apologist’
Timur Beslangurov, a friend of Van Ronkel and managing partner of Russian firm VISTA Foreign Business Support, argued that the sanctions largely affect the Russian population and could bring the country closer to China and India.
“I think nothing good will happen. Neither for his company nor for any company,” Beslangurov said.
Van Ronkel considers his work to be apolitical, despite leaders like Putin he rubbed shoulders with – and whose personalities he helped normalize, you might say. (He said he had never been hired directly by Putin.)
“I live for the deal and try to do what no one else can do,” he said, citing client trips to Chechnya and Uzbekistan as examples. In the latter case, he is also actively working on a possible agreement “with famous Hollywood personalities” to promote tourism in the country. (The government of Uzbekistan is “largely authoritarian”, according to Human Rights Watch.)
Van Ronkel expressed his contrition for the victims of the ongoing war in Ukraine, noting that he and his clients will ultimately be fine while others will die in the fighting.
Financially, he could retire, he said, but he expects to stay in business: “COVID has slowed me down for the last year or two, then now all of a sudden this. Again, I’m a mover and a shaker, so I’ll roll with the punches.
If the connection with Russia fades completely, Van Ronkel has prospects elsewhere.
In the next two months, he hopes to launch a business aimed at attracting high-profile figures to the Middle East. And as usual, he’s dealing with the ruling class. “My partners who found me there are very, very powerful and control a lot of money,” he said.