Sports

Throwback Thursday: When Vladimir Putin Took Robert Kraft's Super Bowl Ring

In 2005, Robert Kraft handed Vladimir Putin a $25,000 New England Patriots Super Bowl ring. He's never gotten it back.
January 26, 2017, 8:25pm
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports Created:

"I keep them in a drawer where I have my cufflinks," Robert Kraft is saying, as seriously as anyone could say such a thing. The New England Patriots owner is talking about his four Super Bowl rings while a NFL Media camera crawls over them. They are big honking doorknocker-looking things, all of them frosty with diamonds of various sizes; the gritting and faintly John Kerry-esque profile of the Patriots logo is progressively more swamped by all the garish gleaming going on around it. The last of Kraft's rings, for New England's victory in Super Bowl IL, was the largest Super Bowl ring ever made at the time; it has 205 diamonds on it and looks like something a later Hapsburg dauphin might have worn as a belt buckle. Every one cost $36,500. This is the sort of jewelry that, historically, has gotten people guillotined.

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Kraft continues, as gravely as one would when discussing something as important as a four-pound ring with "World Champions" written on it in diamonds. "They're all in a drawer except for my third one," he says. "The original is in Russia, with the president of the country." It's a funny story, although Kraft doesn't quite tell it that way. He has been telling the story for more than a decade, ever since Vladimir Putin helped himself to the ring during a business trip that Kraft made to Russia in 2005. While he appears to have settled on a version of it that works, Kraft doesn't really tell it like someone who finds the whole thing as funny as it is. But then, for all the times Kraft has told the story, he's never quite figured out what version of it he wants to tell.

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It's not a terribly complicated story, but the confusion is understandable in another sense, because the basic details of the story reveal it as perhaps the most upscale mugging in recorded history, and there is not a lot of precedent for telling a story like that. In June of 2005, just a few weeks after Kraft's Patriots received the rings they'd earned in Super Bowl XXXIX, Kraft joined a delegation of American oligarchs—the Boston Globe called it "a virtual who's who of American business, including chief executives from IBM, Intel, Citigroup, and International Paper"—on a trip to Russia. When Kraft tells the story now he calls it "a business trip with my friend Sandy Weill," and that is not a falsehood or even an elision; Kraft is indeed friends with Weill, the disgraced architect of Citigroup, and both were on the trip.

As Kraft tells the story now, the Super Bowl ring wound up in Putin's pocket through a chain of events that might naturally happen when two billionaires are in a room with a shark-eyed autocrat. "I showed Sandy my ring, and he said, 'Why don't you show it to the president?'" Kraft remembers in the video. "And I showed it to him and he put it on, and he sort of just enjoyed it, so he kept it on." The video cuts back to Kraft at that moment, and he is almost smiling. Give or take the smile, this is more or less the version of the story that Kraft has settled upon.

It's by no means the only one, and there's no reason to think that it's the most honest one, either. The broad strokes of what happened are simple enough. Kraft hands Putin a gaudy ring with 124 diamonds on it, Putin admires it and either tries it on or doesn't, Kraft either puts his hand out to request it back or doesn't. In the earliest contemporaneous retellings of the story, Kraft says "it's a Super Bowl ring, it's a very good ring" while Putin examines it. Every version of the story ends with Putin putting the ring in his pocket and walking out.

The surreality of it, which is notable, owes to everything happening around the incident. Remember that this moment unfolds within a room at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg, a chandelier-strewn Romanov manse that is one of Putin's official Presidential residences; Putin had it renovated in 2001 at an estimated cost of $250 million and its interior design scheme could be described as Basically A Super Bowl Ring, But Also A Room. The dramatis personae in the story are so unconscionably wealthy and so reflexively accustomed to getting their way that they are more like private islands than actual human beings; Sandy Weill, a 2010 New York Times profile reveals, has a four-foot hunk of wood "etched with his portrait and the words 'The Shatterer of Glass-Steagall'" hanging in his office, and this guy just plays the role of bystander. Kraft is a billionaire with a billionaire's ego. Putin, you are probably familiar with; he is a purebred authoritarian reptile, and as such it's not impossible that Kraft's ring wasn't even the first item of expensive jewelry he'd helped himself to that day. If you're entitled enough, everything you see looks like a gift.

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And if you're rich enough and powerful enough, the sort of misunderstandings that would naturally follow from that can take on the shape and size of an international incident. In the immediate aftermath, Kraft played the fact that he got juxed by a head of state under a giant chandelier as an amazing honor. In a statement issued when he returned from the trip, Kraft said that he "decided to give [Putin] the ring," in part because of his own Russian heritage. "'It was truly an act of serendipity and one that I am honored to have experienced," the statement continued. "It touched me to see President Putin's reaction to the ring, and I felt, emotionally, that it was the right way to conclude an exceptional meeting." This was not quite believable at the time—the initial Russian newspaper reports on the incident described Kraft appearing "shy" when he went to hand over the ring—but it was the story that Kraft stuck to, more or less, until 2013.

Ring-shaped, but not really the same thing. Photo by James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly eight years to the day that Putin walked off with the ring, Kraft gave a charity gala audience at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel a reverse angle on the story. The same things happen in it, albeit with the sort of embellishments that would naturally adhere to a story after eight years of private retellings; in the Waldorf-Astoria Remix, for instance, Putin remarks "I can kill someone with this ring" as part of his appraisal. This time, though, Kraft admitted that he very much wanted the ring back, and that an unnamed official in the George W. Bush administration encouraged him to spin the executive gaffling as a generous moment of cultural exchange. "I really didn't [want to]," the New York Post reported Kraft telling the guests at the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence event. "I had an emotional tie to the ring, it has my name on it. I don't want to see it on eBay. There was a pause on the other end of the line, and the voice repeated, 'It would really be in the best interest if you meant to give the ring as a present.'"

And with that, it was an incident again. Stacey James, a Kraft Foundation spokesperson, did his part to make the new story fit inside the old one. "It's a humorous, anecdotal story that Robert retells for laughs," he said in a statement. "He loves that his ring is at the Kremlin, and, as he stated back in 2005, he continues to have great respect for Russia and the leadership of President Putin." The response from Russia arrived in a wash of characteristically caustic opacity; Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the Associated Press that Kraft's account was a falsehood and that he'd seen and heard "from 20 centimeters" away that Kraft had given it as a gift. Putin, for his part, denied any recollection of either Kraft or the ring, and officials noted that the ring was on display in the Kremlin Library along with other gifts given by foreign dignitaries.

"All that talk about some kind of pressure that was exerted on him should be the subject of a detailed talk with psychoanalysts, I think," Peskov told the AP in 2013. "At the same time, I am aware that this gentleman is feeling such a horrible pain about the 2005 loss. The president will be ready to send him another ring as a gift, which [Putin] can buy with his own money." At an economic summit with Angela Merkel in St. Petersburg a week later, Putin elaborated on the replacement ring that he would send Kraft. "I will ask our specialists to make a replacement and make sure it will be an expensive thing, with rich metal," Putin said. "I hope this will resolve this complex international problem." If such a ring exists, or was ever delivered, there is no evidence of it. A British tabloid recently reported that President Donald Trump, a friend of Kraft's and, um, a peer of Putin's, would ask Putin to return the ring, but there's not really any evidence of that, either.

Because of the enduring relevance of the various parties involved in this story—Kraft's Patriots will take a shot at winning him a fifth ring next weekend, and Putin … you are familiar with—there is the sense that there must be some sort of lesson or broader resonance echoing around the edges of all this. But if there's a meaningful signal in this noise—and you can almost hear it, something about the pettiness of power and the insufficiency of politesse in answering older, ruder imperatives—it is buried pretty deep. In a global moment of conflict and confusion, during our ongoing confrontation with the risk of great power in the hands of small men, at the end of every familiar thing ending around us, there is something insufficient about the simple facts of a petty crime like this. If Robert Kraft's ring-snatching tells us anything about the crudity of power or how quickly norms can be made to fold, they are mostly things that we are reminded of all the time. We already know all this, but it's worth remembering, maybe, just how petty it all can get.

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