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Ksenia Sobchak: The Jane Fonda of Russia's Dissident Movement

Russia’s Paris Hilton has turned into a Russian Jane Fonda.

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.

***

While Sobchak is on the mat, the protesters are on their way to Bolonaya Square, the sanctioned site of protest. The crowd bottlenecks on a bridge over the Moscow River and the leaders sit down. Police charge in, beating people with nightsticks. The crowd fights back with rocks and bottles. A small group of radicals – including Udalstov – try to break through police barricades toward the Kremlin. At the end of the day, 400 protesters are in police custody. It is the first instance of violence and detention at a sanctioned rally after five months of peaceful mass rallies.

The next day is Putin’s inauguration. Hundreds of mostly young protesters roam central Moscow with white ribbons – the symbol of the opposition – threaded through their lapels. Others carry white balloons or are wrapped in white scarves. They quiver with a quiet kind of rage, puzzling over yesterday’s brutal police tactics. They can’t comprehend the rationale behind all the detentions. This is different than the other winter protests. It’s smaller, unsanctioned and therefore mostly silent, like protests used to be before protesting became hip.

The city is empty. The regime has closed down ten central Moscow subway stations and the roads leading to the Kremlin. The only people on the streets are the protesters, the ones in white. Detentions continue en masse, as the protesters attempt to flee from the blue camouflage–clad police. Shouting erupts intermittently: Russia without Putin! one man yells as he is carried by four policemen, hands behind his back, to a paddy wagon.

I stop and watch a middle-aged woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk, shouting at the troops streaming past her in pursuit of a group of protesters: “Gentlemen!” she shouts. “These are just children! What are you doing?” By the end of the day, another 300 people are in custody.

That evening I meet Sobchak around dinner time at Tverbul, an upscale restaurant she owns. The lighting is kept low, the walls are of exposed brick, the patrons sit on plush divans. She orders a hooka. In a blue shirt with a belt wrapped tight around her tiny waist, she is radiant. I describe for her the scenes I witnessed in the street, just outside her restaurant, and ask what she thinks they forebode. She is all the more convinced she was right to sit these latest protests out. Russia is headed one of two ways, she says: infinite Putin or bloody revolution. Neither path works for her.

I ask Sobchak about her transformation – the beguiling entanglement of politics and Playboy people are trying to figure out behind her back. Why her? Why now?

She tells me that because of what Putin did for her father, she felt she couldn’t speak out earlier. “Later, I approached a point in my life that to continue, because of gratefulness, to keep quiet about what I’m truly concerned with and feeling horrible…  I couldn’t. So I started talking about it,” she says. “There was a point where it became clear that silence was also betrayal.”

That point came last year, when she turned 29 – she had a delayed quarter-life crisis, she tells me. It had been an unusually shitty year. She felt pulled in every direction. “I understood that I am a lot bigger than what I do, that I have a bigger potential,” she says. She looks off to stage left, briefly, trawling for the right memories, for a way to convey what happened: “I felt like an actor who can’t get a part in the theater, so he’s playing Santa Claus on children’s morning programming. And he’s good at it. He’s getting paid well, kids love him and he’s even been featured in a Coke commercial as Santa, but he hates himself for it, because he has a different assessment of himself. But no one will take him in the theater, because the theater has a certain censorship and putting on Hamlet isn’t fashionable.” Also, she felt like a big fish in a small pond of stagnant water, which was politics in Russia, so when the opportunity presented itself, Sobchak stirred the water, took off the red suit. She shakes her head, stumbling. The analogies almost make sense.

Yet the intimacy of her confession, the sincerest mixing of metaphors, still seems to contradict her behaviour. Sobchak wants to be known for talking seriously about politics. She repeatedly tells me her biggest challenge is getting her audience to trust her, but she has continued to inundate her Twitter feed with inane prattle and sexy photos. On April 26, roughly a week before I came to Russia, she posted a picture of a guy with the text: “The man who wakes me up.” Ten minutes later she posted a photo of herself in a bed, appearing to be wrapped only in sheets, with that guy in the foreground. The tweet launched internet speculation about her relationship status.  She also posted a picture of one of her friends in her underwear: “To fall asleep next to my favourite girlfriend-happinessJ”

I don’t understand it at all, I tell her. Nowadays, she’s behaving seriously, so very politically. But at the same time there’s this Twitter feed that’s so immature it’s almost mortifying. Why? I ask.

The first thing she says is that she’s not a hypocrite. She’s not going to be anyone other than herself. “I’m very drawn to the story of Carla Bruni,” she says. “Why is everyone talking about her? Specifically because everyone sees the first lady, but they know she was somewhere, topless, and had some Hollywood lover. There is some contrast in this person. I have these contrasts,” she says, unabashedly.

One of the reason’s Sobchak is proving to be an asset to the movement is that people in remote regions of the country don’t know any of the other opposition figures, she tells me. Even meatheads posting comments online volunteering that they would totally do her – even that is a political asset.

This is the difference between the current protesters – the internet generation – and Putin’s old guard: These young Muscovites have the internet, they have fun, they joke around and they post stupid pictures online. “It’s a different generation living under different laws, and in that sense from time to time I give fun photos or ask what dress I should wear. It’s part of my life and I can’t lose those people who come to Twitter to find that Ksenia Sobchak.”

Sobchak flits between sincerity and coyness, but she doesn’t allow her own television show guests the same courtesy. Her interview style is forthright and masked slightly by flirtation, yet it is always challenging and blunt. She admits she likes to get her guests worked up by asking uncomfortable questions about whatever will make them squirm – be it politics or sex – to see who they really are. Watching her shows I wondered why she doesn’t display the same frankness when she’s the one answering the questions. Sobchak insists she’s an open book.

“Why don’t you tell people whether Putin is your godfather?” I ask then.

“You can ask me,” Sobchak says with an amused smile. “Not one journalist in the past 12 years has asked me the correct question on this topic – not one – you can be the first.”

I stall for time, asking Sobchak for a hint of a journalism lesson, remembering one of the first times we spoke and she told me I was too pretty to write about politics.

Sobchak keeps urging me to try – “but make sure it’s correct” – with just a hint of a smile on her lips.

“Is he your godfather?” The question hangs in the air, and I feel Sobchak looking me over more carefully than she has before.

“No!” she exclaims. “Congratulations, you’re the first person to ask that question, the first in the whole story of journalism in Russia.”

For a second, she looks almost disappointed and somehow I feel like I’m getting played. “What do they ask?” I ask her.

‘Is it true that Putin is your godfather?’ And I say, ‘No comment,’ because, I think, when people say is it true that Putin is your godfather and I say no, it’s like I’m distancing myself from him.” She goes on to parse words. “You know, no one asks: ‘Who is your godfather?’ They could ask it that way,” she says. While she talks, I wonder what kind of person plays these semantic games. “My compliments,” she says at the end of her monologue. Then, she reaches across the table to shake my hand. As we touch, I notice how smooth her palm is.

***

Early the next afternoon, Sobchak and I are sitting in her Audi A8L in front of a shopping mall. Her driver is inside buying umbrellas. Overnight, a few hundred protesters in white ribbons continued strolling through the city’s ring of boulevards, and this afternoon they’ve assembled at a park called Chisti Prudy. Sobchak has decided this is something she can get behind, so she is goingto deliver them supplies and food. She’s on her phone, composing a somewhat nonsensical tweet about the exchange she just had with the umbrella saleswoman: “Buying umbrellas. Saleswoman laughs and asks – Ksenia, why do you need so many umbrellas? – Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring you something to barter? #Enterprising.” The rain beats down on the car windshield.

After getting lost, we arrive at Christi Prudy later than Sobchak had hoped, and she is anxious to deliver her donations. She grabs two bags and a bundle of umbrellas and hurries into the park. There are maybe 400 people here, kids mostly, standing together on the plaza, waiting to be detained.


© Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR

Sobchak,” people remark to each other as she walks by, “Sobchak.” A scrum gathers around her as she makes her way to the impromptu food distribution point set up by volunteers at the edge of a small pond. By the time she stops to hand out baked rolls, photographers, journalists and protesters are fighting to get close.

“Ksenia came and the rain stopped!” someone shouts.

“It’s a good sign,” Sobchak replies with a smile as she sets off on a leisurely stroll. The mosh trips over itself to stay by her side. When she stops, a local journalist asks for an interview. The first question is why didn’t she come to the March of Millions.

“I’m against a bloody turn of events. I think in our country that’s especially dangerous. I think we should participate only in peaceful protests and not show or give the authorities an opportunity to accuse us of being extremists or provocateurs.” She was forewarned of a plot to provoke the authorities, she says, but then qualifies the statement. She wasn’t really forewarned, not exactly; she knew of a preexisting plan to stage a sit-in after the time for the permitted protest ended. She knew that would be provocative.

“But you came here,” the journalist says.

“This is fun, and very cool. It’s like a peaceful square. I think we need to keep at it and increase it – like holding nightly concerts.” Sobchak looks around before training her eyes on a ginger-haired kid in the crowd.

“Do you play guitar?” she asks.

“I’m learning,” he stammers.

“OK, you play what you’ve learned and I can sing,” Sobchak purrs back.

“Let’s go?” he suggests.

“Let’s go!” Sobchak cries, and the mob of admirers and journalists turns into a slow-motion stampede, crossing the small cobblestoned plaza.


© Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR

Gathering around the foot of a monument to a Kazakh poet, the horde shoves in, and every few minutes someone once again yells for everyone to take two steps back, to give Sobchak some space. The plan for the concert is quickly forgotten. So much for hearing Sobchak sing. People shout questions about politics: does Sobchak think Russia will turn into Egypt? At the edge of the crush, a teenage girl gives up and walks away with her companion. “I just wanted to take a picture with her,” she tells him.

Outside the mob, but close enough to hear, stand the haters. “She said she knew about the violence,” says a man in a blue rain jacket, darting in and out of the periphery of the horde. “People were here all night, and she came in the afternoon for a bit of PR.” He shakes his head in disgust.

***

A few hours later Sobchak is speeding through the dark streets in the passenger seat of a car driven by Ilya Ponomorov, a parliamentarian from the opposition party Just Russia. That afternoon, Sobchak had left the protests early to film two episodes of a political talk show. Ponomorov, dark-haired and slender, possessing an acerbic wit, had been one of her guests. 

Dispersed from Chisti Prudy, the protesters are back to roaming the downtown streets in packs, and Sobchak and Ponomorov are on their way to rejoin them. Sobchak is explaining the peaceful appeal of the small strolls, when Ponomarev interrupts. “It’s a carnival,” he says. “And it’s wonderful, except this is no way to take power. Ksenia, our goal is to take power.” His tone is bellicose. Ponomarev is serious. 

“That’s your goal,” Sobchak says.

“Our goal is to get the bitch,” Ponomarov says. By “bitch,” he means Putin. “String him up by the knees, so others know what happens when you rob the country.”

“Are you insane? I completely refuse to string someone up by the knees,” Sobchak says with an intoxicating mixture of challenge and flirtation.

Ponomorov insists he was just speaking figuratively. “If your goal isn’t to take power, then why are you participating?” he asks her.

“I’m not for seizing power, I’m for justice in the country and for democratic elections.”

“Oh, and how are we going to get this – is Putin going to do that? Or who?”

“Wait, if we string someone by the knees, it will just be a new dictatorship under someone else,” she says. “I think in the next year, they’ll make so many mistakes, we’ll have so many options… They’ll drown in their own shit, so why do we have to hang them?”

Ponomorov points out he’s been in politics since 2002.

“Fine,” Sobchak, says, giggling, but her mirth seems forced. “You wanted me to understand that you’ve been in politics full-time, and I’m just a dumb blond.”

***

At the designated meeting point, a young woman with fire red hair informs us that the police began detaining people and everyone has scattered. “So, there’s no one in charge?” Ponomorov asks. “OK, then let’s stroll.” And off they stroll, leading the small group along Tverskaya, Moscow’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue. As we go, our little party attracts passersby, growing into a crowd of about 30. 

The media, materialising from the darkness, is frantic. Cameramen dash madly ahead, their flashes blinding those of us in the tight inner circle that’s formed around the pair. It’s increasingly difficult to stay by Sobchak’s side. “Everyone is calm,” Ponomorov says. “We’re just walking, breathing fresh air. The weather is nice, there’s no rain. Everything is OK!”

Within minutes, someone shouts, “Police!” Before us a dozen officers in blue camouflage uniforms stand with locked arms, forming a human chain across the sidewalk. The crowd falls silent. A police commander steps forward to confront Ponomorov and Sobchak. He is a white-haired captain who looks to be on the verge of retirement. It’s quite obvious he would rather avoid the showdown everyone knows is coming. “For the moment, you can pass, and journalists can pass, but everyone else has to stay,” he says wearily.

“Why?” Ponomarov asks, eyes trained on the captain.

“As a parliamentarian, you can pass, but everyone else is at an unsanctioned march.”  

“What unsanctioned march?” Sobchak chirps. “This is just a nightly stroll.”

The captain is so unimpressed, so exceedingly uninterested in their antics. He turns to leave.

“Wait!” Ponomorov calls out, reaching for his arm, “Where can we go?”

“Don’t touch me. Did I touch you?” the captain says, and without another word, he fades into the human chain.

Ponomorov instructs the group to head back the way they came. “I’m going to stay in the back, Ksenia,” he tells Sobchack. “You go ahead and turn down the first alleyway.” Sobchak isn’t having it. She takes his arm. “We’ll go together,” she announces, trying to sound chipper, but you can see her fear.

On the other end of the block, a new human chain of police is waiting for us. The group surges into them too. “Guys, who’s in charge here?” Ponomorov asks.

Silence. Blank stares. The police just stand there.

Ponomorov realises that they are standing outside Russia’s first post-Soviet nightclub. “Should we go to Night Flight?” he proposes. Everyone laughs.

“Friends! We are being herded to Night Flight!” Sobchak calls out. “Where else would Ksenia Sobchak bring you? Only to Night Flight! Friends, this is fate!” She walks to the entrance, tugs on the tinted door, but the club is closed. The crush follows her, knocking into the stanchions, laughing. “This is Ksenia Sobchak, I want to get through face control. Please, let me in! I have your club card, I came with friends and we’ll buy a table!”

Her voice is sugar. She keeps pulling theatrically on the door in her enormous gray jacket. “For the first time in her life, Ksenia Sobchak has not passed through face control!” It’s adorable, so effortlessly charming, and the crowd is laughing, applauding and falling in love.

The horde follows the leaders down under an archway, into an alley. Ponomorov makes a call to figure out where to meet another group of roamers. The crowd around us has grown to around 70. And everyone is smiling, smiling, for this is charming, charming, strolling around central Moscow with Sobchak.

Sobchak is leading these people on a quest for freedom, entranced by her iPhone. So entranced she walks into a telephone pole. Laughter, three cheers for Sobchak, for she is so adorable. And right now we love Ksenia Sobchak. All of us here. Especially the photographers, who descend from nowhere, so numerous that I have a hard time keeping close to her.

“Hey girl, you’re in the way,” a photographer shouts at me.

I feel the gentle pressure of Sobchak’s hand on my back. Ksenia Sobchak is guiding me to the side, out of the shot, and I am back in the jostling mess to remain at her side. It’s overwhelming, and then I’ve lost her. The crowd sweeps her away as the rain once again begins to fall. From a distance I watch Sobchak’s inner circle turn a corner where half a dozen police trucks are waiting. The police encircle the protest leaders. Roughly 20 minutes later Sobchak is under arrest, beaming for photographers, in the back of a paddy wagon. 


Photo by Olga Kravets / Saltimages.ru

***

It is my last day in Moscow, and thousands have heeded the call of 12 famous writers to stroll to Chisti Prudy. In Russia, writers are still influential, and in response to the detention of people merely walking the streets of Moscow with ribbons, these writers decided to challenge the regime: Would the government really arrest literary giants as well? The square is packed, young and old. Everyone is marveling at the sight, talking about when, not if, the police will disperse the whole thing. But they are sure the authorities will never stamp out the movement; never kill this feeling of togetherness, the sneaking suspicion that real democracy is coming to Russia. It will not come tomorrow – maybe in two months, maybe in ten years – but things are changing and Putin can never take that away, they say, even if he begins a campaign of repression.

After spending a few hours in police custody the other night, Sobchak was released. She has not joined the march today, but later, on June 11, indications of this very repression campaign will appear. Eight men with guns will storm Sobchak’s apartment and tear through her belongings for hours. They will take her passport, her electronics and the $1.7 million they find in her safe. Several other high profile opposition figures will face a similar fate. If Putin was once Sobchak’s patron, it will appear that those days are over.

The following day – which will happen to be the opposition’s next mass rally in central Moscow – three protest leaders, including Sobchak and her boyfriend, will arrive for questioning at Investigative Committee offices about their role in organising the May 6 protest. Many will rally to Sobchak’s side, but not Ponomorov. He will suggest she take a time-out, away from the limelight, for the good of the cause. For this he will be virally slammed. Sobchak will soldier on; giving interviews to the Western press, telling them her choice is now between jail and leaving the country. Some of the people who doubted her when I was in Moscow will email me, confused. Putin will have singlehandedly cemented Sobchak’s place in the opposition’s in-crowd.

But on my last day in Moscow in mid-May, these events are still a month away. As I leave the Square, I pass by three old men arguing on the grass. “Ksenia Sobchak, Ksenia Sobchak, Ksenia Sobchak,” one of them bellows. “I’m tired of hearing the name Ksenia Sobchak.”

“What has Sobchak ever done?” another one shouts. “She just made Dom-2, that horrible show, and now she’s all we talk about. But tell me, what has she actually done?”

“You know what, let’s just stop talking about her,” the third says. “We’ll judge her in time, by her actions.”

@satopol