Meet The Russian Reality TV Star With Jewish Roots Who’s Taking On Putin
Russia’s presidential election, coming up on Sunday, offers no suspense: there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin will sweep a fake contest with no real challengers. (The only opposition leader with fairly high popularity, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, has been disqualified from running by a trumped-up fraud conviction.)
But the predictable line-up of Potemkin candidates includes one person whose motives are ambiguous and whose political future may hold some surprise twists.
She is the daughter of Putin’s former boss and a former reality television host. She is a celebrity socialite once dubbed “the Russian Paris Hilton,” and the author of a book on how to marry rich. She is also an outspoken opposition activist who has braved police harassment and death threats. And she is a little Jewish.
Her name is Ksenia Sobchak and she is something of a mystery. To matters even more confusing, she is also widely believed to be running against Putin — with Putin’s blessing (she denies this). Is Sobchak a Kremlin stooge, supported in her challenge to the autocratic Putin in order to make the elections look legit? Or is she perhaps just the kind of celebrity-cum-politician that Russia needs in the age of Trump?
Sobchak, 36, was once described by a Russian culture critic as “a brand before she was even born.” Her late father, Anatoly Sobchak, a law professor and the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg, was one of the political stars of the early days of post-Soviet Russia. Putin, then an obscure ex-intelligence officer, was his aide and protégé. A few years later, Sobchak’s fortunes declined while those of Putin rose; the two men remained close, and in 1999 Putin came to his ex-mentor’s rescue to get corruption charges against him dismissed.
On her mother’s side, Sobchak’s maternal grandfather, Boris Moiseyevich Narusov — Russified from “Narusovich” — was a Jew. Sobchak’s mother Lyudmila Narusova, herself a politician, converted to Christianity in the 1990s; yet she is also a board member of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Sobchak was baptized at her mother’s wishes at the age of 13 (there is a persistent, apparently unsubstantiated, rumor that Putin was her godfather). She now considers herself a nondenominational believer in spirituality and a higher power; yet she also does not shy away from her Jewish heritage. In 2013, she emceed an evening of literary readings on Jewish themes at a Moscow synagogue and opened the event by talking about her grandfather and her experiences with anti-Semitism. In her recent Ekho Moskvy interview, Sobchak brought up the issue of prejudice in an odd context, saying that some of her liberal haters loathe her as viscerally and irrationally as anti-Semites loathe Jews.
After her father’s death in 2000, Ksenia moved to Moscow, where she attended university and graduate school. A many-faceted woman from the get go, she earned a master’s degree in political science while becoming known as a glamor girl on Moscow’s elite party circuit.
In 2004, Sobchak launched her TV career as a co-host of the immensely popular “House 2,” a “Big Brother” knockoff in which a group of young men and women share a house, couple, fight, and vie for various prizes such as a trip to Venice. Sobchak’s stint with “House-2” lasted eight years; during that time, she also hosted several other programs and starred in a reality show that followed her own life, “Blonde in Chocolate.”
She quickly became infamous. The scandalous “House 2,” with its frequent references to sex and masturbation as well as on-camera make-out sessions, was an easy target for outrage in Russia with its legacy of Communist puritanism and its newfound state-encouraged religious morality. In 2005, a group of Moscow City Council members wrote to the general prosecutor’s office asking that the show be axed, and Sobchak herself charged with promoting prostitution. (While no such action was taken, daytime airings of the show were later banned and its evening broadcasts moved from 9 to 11 p.m. by court order.)
Sobchak remained unapologetic. She fired back at the Moscow council members in a letter that mocked them as self-appointed inquisitors. She shared risqué photos of herself. In a 2008 talk show appearance, she unflappably rebuffed attempts at slut-shaming by host Alexander Gordon and other guests.
In a particularly jaw-dropping moment, Sobchak remarked, “I’m free to masturbate in the bathtub, you’re free to change the channel.” Later, she batted away Gordon’s reproach by asking, “Don’t you ever masturbate?” (Gordon was briefly speechless before sidestepping the question.) As a coup de grace, when Gordon tried to embarrass her by pointing out that a company had started making a Ksenia Sobchak sex doll, Sobchak asked, “Have you bought one already?”
But in late 2011, Sobchak’s career took an unexpected turn. She joined the surge of opposition activism unleashed by reports of widespread fraud in the parliamentary elections and the announcement that Putin would seek another term as president, after the one-term puppet presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. She spoke at several rallies in December 2011 and in early 2012. On May 8, she was arrested at a protest alongside Navalny. In June 2012, her apartment was raided and searched; Sobchak seemed genuinely traumatized when she recounted the experience, particularly the fact that the investigators amused themselves by reading out loud from her private mail.
Her activism cost her her job. She lost her short-lived talk show on MTV Russia. Two award shows dropped her as a co-host and presenter, and the musical entertainment channel Muz-TV canceled her next scheduled reality show, a Russian version of “Top Model.” Sobchak found herself exiled to Dozhd (TV Rain), an embattled cable and Internet channel that remains one of Russia’s few on-air outlets for dissent, though she later found her way back to a couple of entertainment channels including Muz-TV.
Especially in light of the heavy price she paid for it, this self-reinvention as a dissident remains something of a mystery. Since it coincided with her relationship with opposition activist Ilya Yashin, some saw it as a classic “stand by your man” moment. (Sobchak and Yashin parted ways a few months later; she married actor Maksim Vitorgan in early 2013 and now has a 14-month-old son.) Others saw it as publicity-seeking, a new phase in the Ksenia Sobchak media project.
Sobchak herself has always claimed that she was driven by her conscience and by the desire to do something meaningful. “It was not enough for me to live for myself,” she told Ekho Moskvy Radio in a recent interview. She has also said that she had simply not realized until 2011 how corrupt and repressive the system was.
And yet, there’s good reason to be suspicious about the purity of these motives. Russia’s repressive machine has treated Sobchak with kid gloves; even the large amount of cash confiscated from her apartment in the 2012 search, mostly Euros and U.S. currency, was eventually returned when the investigators determined that it was lawfully obtained and there was no evidence of tax evasion. Despite her ostensible fall from grace, she remains one of Russia’s richest celebrities, with the Russian edition of Forbes estimating her wealth last year at $2.1 million.
And now, here comes Sobchak the presidential contender.
Sobchak’s candidacy, announced in October of last year, has given rise to new speculation that she is a tool of the Kremlin, especially since she has received abundant coverage on state-run national TV channels that normally blacklist the opposition. She also admitted that she told Putin about her planned run when interviewing him a documentary about her father. Navalny and others have assailed her as a spoiler candidate intended to channel the pro-opposition vote in a “safe” direction. He’s not the only one who thinks so, either. Russian journalist and activist Victor Davidoff told me in an email that Sobchak’s presidential run was clearly supported by the Kremlin with the sole purpose of boosting the turnout — and hence the legitimacy of the election — by giving liberals and young people someone to vote for.
Such faux liberals have run in previous Putin-era elections. Nonetheless, Sobchak is different in two important ways. She has an actual, if relatively recent, background as an opposition activist. And she has shown herself willing not just to proclaim general liberal principles but to criticize and challenge Putin and the government, albeit in limited ways.
In December, for example, she took the microphone at Putin’s televised question-and-answer session and asked a pointed question about Navalny being barred from running and more generally about the suppression of the opposition. (Putin responded by invoking the bogeyman of a Ukraine-style revolution and disorder.)
She has also assailed the government for failing to honor the memory of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. She has criticized the annexation of Crimea as a violation of Russia’s prior agreements with Ukraine, though she tempered this by adding that its immediate return to Ukraine would be impossible since it would provoke civil war. She was the only person to criticize Putin in Wednesday’s televised (and, naturally, Putin-free) presidential debate.
All of which is to say that if Sobchak is a “Kremlin project,” she is clearly a more sophisticated one that the past versions. In a February 10 column for the website of the Russian service of the German radio station Deutsche Welle, Russian political commentator Konstantin Eggert advanced a startling theory: that Putin is grooming Sobchak as a potential successor for 2024, when he is barred from running again by the Russian Constitution. (Eggert believes that Putin is strongly invested in preserving the appearance of the rule of law and will not make himself president for life.) Eggert points out that Sobchak is presumed to be personally loyal to Putin, but, no less importantly, she could help repair relations with the West, which are “essential to the survival of the Putin elite.” What better way to ensure Western goodwill than a woman president, a socially liberal and pro-gay one at that?
If Eggert’s theory is true, Sobchak will have to overcome the hurdle of being a woman in a society where 1950s-style overt male chauvinism is still normal; the Levada Center, a leading polling firm, found that support for women’s equal participation in politics in Russia has actually dropped in the past decade, with only 34 percent (down from 45 percent in 2006) saying they would like to see a woman president in the next 10 or 15 years.
So far, the former “Russian Paris Hilton” has contributed some lively theater to the campaign. In a February TV debate between the presidential challengers, Sobchak responded to insults by ultranationalist clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky by throwing a glass of water at him — to which he responded by calling her a whore. At the close of the last debate, she angrily confronted host Vladimir Solovyov about being repeatedly interrupted by the other candidates and demanded to be given her time back; another verbal melee with Zhirinovsky ensued, and Sobchak stormed off the set in the broadcast’s final moments, visibly batting away tears. (This promptly sparked a new debate about her authenticity: A real breakdown? A well-played grab for sympathy? A possible new pregnancy?)
Sobchak is expected to receive no more than two percent of the vote, behind Zhirinovsky and Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, who are each expected to get six or seven percent. But she is clearly looking beyond the election. On Thursday, she announced the launch of a new political party, the Party of Change, with opposition activist and former Duma member Dmitry Gudkov.
What impact Sobchak’s new political career will have is difficult to predict. It’s entirely possible that, wittingly or not, she will help the Kremlin by splitting the already enfeebled Russian opposition and helping coax the West into a more conciliatory stance toward the existing regime. Yet, if Sobchak continues to get levels of mainstream media access that are off-limits to other opposition activists, the result may be that more Russians raised on a steady diet of propaganda will be exposed to speech that challenges the government, to critiques of political repression and corruption and to advocacy of liberal ideas.
Could the former reality TV star become a serious political player? Oh, wait…