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Does Depardieu herald Russia as a tax haven for Europe?

Fleeing France's high taxes for Russia's flat 13 percent rate, the French actor spoke of Russia in glowing terms during a high-profile meeting with Vladimir Putin over the weekend.

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Depardieu was shown over the weekend on Russian TV bearhugging and dining with a smiling Putin in the Kremlin leader's palatial Black Sea dacha in Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are slated to take place.

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Later Depardieu visited the deep-Russian republic of Mordovia, where (perhaps not coincidentally) one of the members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is serving her two-year sentence in one of the region's notorious penal colonies.

Mordovian officials greeted Depardieu like a visiting hero. Russian media reported that the French actor, who is planning to star in a film about the 18th century Russian peasant revolutionary Emilian Pugachov, was given a free apartment and offered the job of culture minister of the small, ethnic Volga River region.

And in a widely quoted open letter to Russian journalists, Depardieu declared that Putin's Russia is a "great democracy.... I love your President Vladimir Putin, and the feeling is mutual."

"I adore your culture, your intelligence. My father was a communist, listening to Radio Moscow! This is also my culture," he wrote.

"In Russia, there is a good life. Not necessarily in Moscow, which is too big a metropolis for me. I prefer the countryside, and I know wonderful places in Russia.... I like the press, but it is also very annoying because there is too often a single thought. Out of respect for your president and your great country, I have nothing to add," Depardieu wrote.

No opinion polls have yet detailed the Russian public's response to all this, but veteran pollster Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow, says it will probably be mostly positive.

"We don't yet know how the population feels about this move of Putin's, but I believe the approval will be higher than the level of disapproval," Mr. Grazhdankin says. "Putin is a figure who crystallizes positive and negative attitudes."

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow-based political consultancy, says the Depardieu visit to Russia, with its colorful political overtones, is a throwback to Soviet practices. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, nearly a century ago, leading Western intellectual lights such as H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw visited Russia, and brought back a largely sympathetic image of the new revolutionary state. Muckraking US journalist Lincoln Steffans famously returned from a trip to Soviet Russia declaring, "I have seen the future, and it works."

"This is a PR exercise, not too different from Putin's flight with the birds last September," aimed at countering negative views of Russia under his leadership, says Mr. Oreshkin.

"I recall in the 1980s the Soviet leadership gave Soviet citizenship and a Moscow apartment to a defecting American scientist, Arnold Lokshin," who claimed to be persecuted in the United States.

"Where is Lokshin now? I'm pretty sure Depardieu isn't going to want to come and live here, and this whole foolish business will blow over after a while," he adds.

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