MEET KSENIA SOBCHAK: THE JANE FONDA OF RUSSIA’S DISSIDENT MOVEMENT
It was December 24 and 23 degrees in central Moscow—well below freezing—but the people on Sakharov Prospect barely registered the cold. Around 60,000 had clogged the broad boulevard. Earlier that month Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, had stolen the parliamentary elections with such brazenness that now, for the first time in ten years, Muscovites, roused from a decade of political apathy, had taken to the streets in protest. They chanted Freedom! They chanted Rights! They chanted Fair elections! For hours they chanted Russia without Putin! as if anything were possible.
Their march had ended here, on Sakharov Prospect, where organizers had set up a sound system and a stage. As clouds rolled across Moscow’s low skyline, a blond in a puffy white jacket and jeans approached the microphone. Her face, among the most famous in Russia, flashed onto the giant screen behind her. “My name is Ksenia Sobchak,” she said. “And I have a lot to lose.”
It must have started with oneboo. Then one turned to two, to three, and immediately it felt like the whole crowd was heckling her: “Fuck you!” “Get off the stage!” “Leave!” “Go fuck yourself!” “Whore!” People gave her the finger. Others rolled their eyes. She plowed on, telling the audience they needed to take their country back, to form a political party everyone could get behind, but it was almost impossible to make out what she was saying over the riot of jeers.
The American press calls her Russia’s Paris Hilton, but Sobchak is a far more prominent figure in Russia than Hilton ever was in America. She herself points out, 97 percent of Russians know who she is, even if most of them don’t like her. Only two living Russians enjoy better name recognition: Three-term president Vladimir Putin and one-term president Dmitri Medvedev.
Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, an early champion of democracy and capitalism, was the first elected mayor of St. Petersburg. He singlehandedly launched Putin’s political career, and Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. In 1996, her father spiraled spectacularly to disgrace. He faced imprisonment on corruption charges, which he evaded with Putin’s help, by going into exile. When Boris Yeltsin turned Russia over to Putin, the charges disappeared and Anatoly Sobchak returned to Russia. He died in 2000 on the campaign trail for Putin. Ksenia, meanwhile, made a name for herself hosting a reality show called Dom-2 about a group of young people tasked with building a house on the outskirts of Moscow. The content combined the worst of Jersey Shore, The Real OC, and Tila Tequila. It was scandalous, deliciously addictive, and intellectually bankrupt programming. She posed for Russian Playboy, Maxim, and FHM; co-wrotePhilosophy in the Boudoir and How to Marry a Millionaire. She hosted decadent parties, dated oligarchs, and wrote a column for Russian GQ. In short, she came to embody Russia’s new heady, careless, apolitical glamour.
Then, last year, she underwent a mystifying transformation. She traded her reality show for a political talk show. She broke up with her boyfriend, a government official, and started dating an opposition leader. She climbed on stages and addressed massive street rallies. Russia’s Paris Hilton had turned into a Russian Jane Fonda, or so it seemed.
No one knows quite what to make of the change. Sobchak could be anything, the Russian blogosphere speculated: A Trojan horse sent by the Kremlin, a spy, a turncoat, a neophyte politician striving to be on the right side of history, a confused and bored celebrity trying to finally grow up, or a lustful 30-year-old with stunted psychological development caught up in the most exciting moment of her adult life.