MOSCOW — At the time, it seemed like a joke: Russian President Vladimir Putin, at his annual press conference before more than 1,000 journalists last month, declared that if one of the world’s most widely known Frenchmen, actor Gerard Depardieu, really wanted to renounce his French citizenship, he would find the doors to Russia wide open — with a residency permit and Russian citizenship for the asking.
Since then, a public feud between Depardieu and French officials has continued to simmer over the actor’s complaint a few days earlier about France’s high tax rates on the wealthy. French politicians and commentators lambasted him for renouncing his French citizenship and registering as a resident of Nechin in Belgium, which has lower taxes.
And Thursday, the Kremlin announced that Putin had kept his promise and signed a decree making Depardieu a Russian citizen.
A spokesman for Putin, Dmitri Peskov, said that Depardieu recently applied for citizenship and that it was granted in honor of his cultural achievements.
“The thing is that Depardieu has been a part of large film projects and has acted many parts, including the part of Rasputin,” Peskov told the Interfax news agency. Referring to a television movie about the mad monk, he added, “This film has not been shown here, but it is a very bold and innovative interpretation of the character.”
In a letter to Russia’s Channel One television station, Depardieu confirmed that he applied for Russian citizenship and said he was happy it was granted.
“I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history and your writers,” he wrote, adding that his father was a Communist who listened to Moscow Radio. He promised to study Russian and said he wanted to live in a village because Moscow was too big of a city.
He said he had informed French President Francois Hollande of his decision and also said, “I love your president, Vladimir Putin, very much and it’s mutual.”
It seemed likely, however, that Putin also saw a poetic opportunity in the chance for Russia, long known for losing wealthy citizens to the West, to claim one in return.
That Depardieu might find Russia an attractive place in which to settle down, or at least to declare as his official tax address, fits in well with a narrative that Putin has developed in recent months, portraying Russia not just as a geopolitical equal of Western powers but as superior in many respects, especially in terms of its performance during the economic downturn.
“On the whole, we made a recovery from the crisis even faster than other countries,” Putin said. “Just look at the recession in Europe. Russia has posted growth, albeit a modest one, but we still have a much better situation than in the once-prosperous eurozone or even in the United States.”
By taking Russian citizenship, Depardieu appears to trade steep French income tax rates — which he has said claim 85 percent of his income — and Belgian rates of 60 percent or higher for Russia’s flat income tax of 13percent.
The value-added tax, a sales tax on goods and services, is 18percent in Russia, compared with nearly 20 percent in France. And Russian social security taxes are 30percent compared with 50percent in France.