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 organisers 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 one boo. 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 rumoured 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-wrote Philosophy 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.
When I arrive in Moscow in May, Putin has just won a third term, officially garnering 63 percent of the vote, though calling it a fair election would be a stretch.The opposition – a disparate group of nationalists, fascists, radical socialists, communists, liberals, ex-regime officials and anarchists – is organising a protest called “March of Millions,” scheduled for May 6, the day before Putin’s inauguration.
On the morning of the rally, Sobchak is home, lounging on a white couch in her bathrobe. She has decided not to attend today’s march. “Our main goal is to unite the democratic forces into one big party,” she tells me, "and during the coming years create something like a shadow government and fight for original elections.” To Sobchak, protesting is not enough anymore – what Russia needs is a cohesive opposition. “No one is even trying,” she tells me emphatically. She also believes the people are tired of the same faces in the opposition. “We need to do some re-branding.”
Today’s protest – yelling about a Russia without Putin, after Putin won the election, however he did it – isn’t the key to change, she insists. That the presidential elections were cleaner than the parliamentary polls is something everyone can agree on. The problem wasn’t with the voting – Putin probably did win around 50 percent without rigging anything – it’s that his victory was assured from the start. He had a monopoly on the media and his competitors were widely seen as Kremlin-controlled marionettes. Besides, this protest was doomed to fail from the start. They called it a March for Millions, but millions will not show up. No one is going, and so she isn’t going, either. Those who are going, she knows, have a plan to start a sit-in to provoke the police. And she will not be associated with losers, or fringe elements who like to throw rocks at the police. Absolutely not. She is a representative of the “creative class,” the middle class and whatever happens, Sobchak is about evolution, not revolution.
“Everyone will say I didn’t go because I was frightened, or whatever; how can I explain it to you? I think in political life you can only know your position and stay in place, even though people always try to push you to one side. Maybe tomorrow the Kremlin will call and say, ‘Ksenia, look, you didn’t go to the protest, let’s work together.’ On the other side, Udaltsov [a radical socialist] will say, ‘Let’s go kill someone! You don’t want to? Pussy! You forsook your ideals.’ If you don’t have your own backbone they’ll knock you from side to side like shit in an ice-hole.”
Sobchak checks her phone. It’s around 4 PM and tens of thousands are flooding into the streets, surpassing all expectations of attendance.
“Well, that’s good,” she says with a tremble of uncertainty in her voice. Then she heads to yoga class.