The curious case of the television star running against Vladimir Putin


Ksenia Sobchak has won praise from Russian activists and journalists. But no one gets on the Presidential ballot without Putin’s permission.

There was a bit of cringing in the standing-room-only crowd in one of the larger Columbia University halls when the Russian Presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak spoke there last Thursday. A wave of discomfort washed over the room when Sobchak said, “Russia is the biggest European nation,” and added, “We are Europeans, we are not Asians.” Another wave came after an audience member noted that Sobchak has risked alienating voters by voicing support for L.G.B.T. people and even same-sex marriage; Sobchak lamented that Russian television would surely now disregard all the serious topics that had been discussed that evening, and focus instead on the frivolous topic of L.G.B.T. rights.

Aside from those moments, though, the audience loved Sobchak, the thirty-six-year-old television personality whose name will appear on the ballot in the Presidential election, or what passes for a Presidential election, on March 18th. One after another, graduate students, Russia scholars, and Russian exiles congratulated Sobchak for her courage. The outcome of the exercise known as the election is preordained—Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for more than eighteen years, will gain another six-year mandate—but Sobchak has been using her campaign to speak out about taboo subjects, including Russian political prisoners. She even went to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, to draw attention to the case of Oyub Tetiev, a human-rights activist who was arrested on what appear to be falsified drug charges. That brought her praise from some Russian activists and journalists who had been skeptical of her campaign.

It’s easy to be skeptical. Sobchak is a woman, blond, wealthy, of reality-television fame, and she has a close family connection to Putin. Her father was Anatoly Sobchak, the first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg, who, back in 1990, hired a K.G.B. officer named Vladimir Putin to be his deputy. The relationship lasted. Working in the shadow of his charismatic boss, Putin accumulated wealth and power. When the St. Petersburg city council suspected Putin of embezzlement and demanded a prosecution, the mayor disbanded the city council. In 1996, Sobchak lost his bid for reëlection. Soon after, he became the object of an investigation into the misuse of funds and city property, and his former deputy helped him leave the country. In 1999, Putin emerged from obscurity as the Prime Minister and likely next President—and within a few months he helped his former boss return from exile. In February, 2000, Sobchak suddenly died, and Putin, then acting President, cried at his funeral. All this is well known, as is the fact that no one gets on the ballot in Russia without Putin’s permission. In fact, his best-known opponent, the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, has been denied a spot—and has called for a boycott of the election in protest. It would follow that Putin put Ksenia Sobchak on the ballot.

Up close, Sobchak is a bit more complicated. I have observed her for more than ten years, and have interviewed her on a few occasions. In 2011, when mass protests broke out in Russia, I watched her join the demonstrations. She seemed to develop a political conscience overnight. It was like watching someone grow a new limb: she seemed surprised but determined, or resigned to changes in herself that she couldn’t control. She gave up a lucrative career on state television. After the protests ended and the political crackdown began, she was subjected to threats and at least one highly public and humiliating police search of her apartment. She became a host on a Web-based opposition television channel. In 2015, death threats compelled her to leave the country for a couple of months.

For a while now, Sobchak told me last Thursday, she has been working on a film about her father. She kept asking Putin for an interview, and he finally granted one this fall. She used the opportunity to tell him that she had decided to challenge him in the election. She said that he wasn’t pleased.

Here is where one has to bring up two long-standing rumors: the one about the baptism, and the one about the death. There exists a photo of Putin with Ksenia’s parents, taken, apparently, right after twelve-year-old Ksenia had been belatedly baptized. There have been persistent rumors that Putin is Ksenia’s godfather. She has said that he is not: Putin attended the baptism but had no formal role in it. (She also told me that she had submitted to the baptism solely to please her mother.) The other rumor concerns Ksenia’s father. Anatoly Sobchak had been campaigning for Putin when he died, of an apparent heart attack. The details are weird; the witnesses—two former K.G.B. officers who were accompanying Sobchak on the trip—are dead, both of gunshot wounds. Ksenia’s mother, a senator, has said that she knows the truth about her husband’s death but doesn’t feel safe disclosing it. Some people believe that Sobchak was killed in advance of Putin’s first Presidential election because he knew too much.

Ksenia Sobchak had a generally understanding attitude toward Putin. “I think he is a patriot,” she said. “I think he sees himself as holding Russia together through superhuman effort—and yet not letting it slide into some sort of a military-junta situation.” Putin has stretched, re-interpreted, and altered the Russian constitution to allow himself to stay in power for as long as he has, but Sobchak believes that, after another six-year term, he will be looking for a way to step down. And then he will need a successor.

Is that the position Sobchak is angling for? She demurred, saying that she was still an inexperienced politician. But a second later she became animated. “That’s the tragedy of our country,” she said. “Everyone is an inexperienced politician.” She confessed that she wants to become the kind of politician who enjoys both the confidence of those with power and the trust of those who oppose Putin.

Even assuming that this strange construction could be plausible, why would Putin choose Sobchak to be his successor? The answer is simple: he could trust her to protect him from prosecution the way that he once protected her father. She believes that Putin would want to leave office, if only his personal safety and the security of his wealth could be guaranteed.

Of course, that assumes that Putin isn’t going to try to stay in office indefinitely—and that he didn’t give an order to kill Sobchak’s father.

And what about those rumors? Sobchak believes that Putin is not a murderer: political murders that take place in Russia with some regularity are, in her opinion, the work of zealous supporters, rather than the execution of explicit orders. And back in 2000, she said, Putin did not yet have those kinds of zealous supporters. “I’m aware of those ideas,” Sobchak told me, about the whispers that Putin had her father killed. “But that’s just unthinkable. If that is true, then the world is an entirely different place than I imagine.”