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Jeff Monson, Former UFC Fighter, Is First American ‘Citizen’ of Ukraine’s Rebel Luhansk State

Jeff Monson had a shattered leg, a bruised ego and was in no mood to answer his phone.

The American mixed-martial-arts fighter had just lost one of the most important contests of his career — a punishing bout with Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko in Moscow — and his cell just wouldn't quit buzzing.

When he finally answered, he heard the voice of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been ringside that night.

Image: Jeff Monson
Jeff Monson attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum in April. YURI KADOBNOV / AFP/Getty Images

"Putin goes, 'Look, you might be an American but you have the Russian spirit, because the Russians never give up,'" Monson told NBC News this week.

That night — Nov. 20, 2011 — marked a turning point for Monson, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up in Olympia, Washington.

"It's never good to lose a fight, but everything from that night, besides losing, came good," the father-of-three said. "I can't describe it in any better way than the stars lined up."

He said he's always held left-wing, communist views, and had an interest in the Soviet Union. But the fight — and ensuing call from Putin — sparked a journey that's seen him apply for Russian citizenship, dabble in Muscovite politics, and gain minor-celebrity status in the former superpower.

Nicknamed "The Snowman," the 240-lb, 5-foot-9-inch fighter has enjoyed a successful career: twice winning the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship and competing in the UFC seven times.

Now 45, Monson's years in the ring have left him blind in one eye and physically creaking, no longer able to get medical clearance to fight in the U.S. But his new-found Russophilia has enabled him to continue his career under the country's more relaxed regulations.

Monson's love affair with the country peaked on Sept. 10 when he became the first American to gain "citizenship" to the Luhansk People's Republic, a breakaway rebel state in eastern Ukraine whose fight for independence is allegedly supported by Moscow and openly opposed by the United States.

The fighter says this was no whimsy, and he'd consider moving to Luhansk from his home in Miami if peace returns.

"It's not, like, an utter destruction zone. It's a beautiful place," he said. "I lived in the Seattle-Olympia area for most of my life and it's beautiful. Eastern Ukraine reminds me a lot of that. There's a lot of nature, there's a lot of lakes, a lot of rivers, a lot of trees, a lot of outdoors things."

Despite this description, Monson acknowledges the conflict has had a devastating impact on much of eastern Ukraine. More than 9,500 people have been killed since April 2014 and violence has forced around 1.5 million to flee their homes.

Image: A pro-Russian separatist stands at a checkpoint outside Luhansk
A pro-Russian separatist stands guard at a checkpoint near a burnt truck outside Luhansk in June 2014. SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / Reuters

The conflict began when pro-Russia rebels overran the region in 2014 after Ukraine's Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted following allegations of flagrant corruption.

The separatists — most of whom self-identify as ethnically Russian — said they wanted autonomy from Ukraine's new Europe-facing, U.S.-backed government.

A shaky cease-fire has helped quell some of the fighting, but it is a fragile and often fractured peace.

Related: Biden Warns Ukraine of Backsliding on Corruption

"The idea of the citizenship was to say, 'Look, I support your fight for your own autonomy, for your own freedom, for your own ability to make decisions for yourself,'" Monson said. "In the United States, this is how we were born as a country."

He called it hypocritical for the U.S. to criticize eastern Ukraine after Washington invaded Iraq "under a lie" about weapons of mass destruction.

The conflict has isolated eastern Ukraine, with many of its residents forced to scrabble around for basic supplies. Wanting to help, Monson set up a school in Luhansk, where he said he will give sports "master classes" to kids whenever he visits.

Much of his body is covered in tattoos. Some — including a hammer and sickle on his left leg — hint at his political leanings.

He describes himself as a "libertarian communist" — the sort of ideology that makes Bernie Sanders look like a political centrist. He says he believes in abolishing government and returning power to the people to rule their own lives as equals.

Those principles may seem at odds with Putin's Russia, which has been accused of being an anti-democratic kleptocracy built on corruption and the silencing of dissenters.

But Monson is not afraid to critique his newfound spiritual home — albeit cautiously.

Image: Jeff Monson
Jeff Monson holds a picture of Lenin and Stalin as he attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum in April. YURI KADOBNOV / AFP-Getty Images file

"It's a government, and that's why I'm a libertarian communist," he said. "Because I believe you can't be in government, or be part of government or a support government without having some corruption, without doing some things that are in your best interests but not in the best interests of the people at large."

That aside, he said he thinks Putin "has the welfare of Russia as his number-one concern."

After Monson's first conversation with the Russian leader, his ties to Moscow quickly deepened. Putin was watching again in November 2012 when the American entered the ring accompanied by the Soviet anthem.

Following an appearance on the country's version of "Dancing With the Stars" in March this year, Monson is now waiting to finalize his application for Russian citizenship.

When that goes through he will become a member of the opposition Communist Party, which has in turn used his appeal to try to lure younger people to bolster its increasingly aged membership. That rebranding effort also has seen the party produce posters of Vladimir Lenin re-imagined as a hipster with a leather jacket.

At a time of heightened tensions between the Moscow and Washington, Monson's acceptance in Russia has mirrored that of Steven Seagal and Gerard Depardieu. Despite the opulence of their Western nations, the stars are lauded for preferring the Russian way of life.

Monson acknowledges his PR value to the Kremlin, but insists his feelings are genuine.

"I really do feel like I have the Russian spirit," he said. "That's not saying anything against America. I love the land here, I love the beauty that we have here, I love many of the people here."

Image: Jeff Monson in Luhansk
Jeff Monson stands next to a destroyed tank in the Luhansk People's Republic during a visit earlier this year. Jeff Monson

He plans to retire from mixed martial arts in November after a final bout in Moscow. Monson said he chose the city because he wanted to bow out in front of a Russian crowd — though admits his hand was forced because he is no longer medically able to fight in the U.S.

After that, he will focus on grappling, a form of fighting based around chokeholds. That, and a possible career in politics.

"Honestly, that's the goal," he said, discussing his aspirations to become a Russian lawmaker. "I'm not interested in the money, I'm not interested in power or anything like that. I believe I can never be corrupted, because the things that people get corrupted by are not interesting to me."