Two things just happened in Russia that had previously seemed impossible.
First, Ksenia Sobchak, a huge media celebrity with a longtime connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin, became a suspect in a criminal case. And second, the security services let her slip away.
It’s a thriller and a celebrity story rolled up in one, and so it may not be surprising that Sobchak’s flight from Russia has drawn bigger audiences on social media than Putin’s major address to the nation Thursday. But its wider importance has to do with the chilling message it sends to any number of other rich, well-known and well-connected Russians: No matter who you are, or who you know, you are not immune.
Police raided Sobchak’s Moscow home on Wednesday. The Russian news agency TASS reported they had orders to detain Sobchak and charge her with participation in a scheme to extort 11 million rubles ($180,000) from Sergey Chemezov, head of the defense corporation Rostec and a close friend of Putin’s.
Sobchak took to her Telegram channel to reject the accusations: “What extortion, from who? It is obvious that this is a raid on my editorial office, the last free editorial office in Russia, which had to be shut down.”
Sobchak wasn’t there when the police came. Multiple Russian media outlets reported that she had tricked the security services by purchasing an airplane ticket to Turkey and then fleeing via another route, first to Belarus and then walking across the border with Lithuania. She carried a recently obtained Israeli passport. Surveillance camera video showed Sobchak entering Lithuania on foot and speaking with border officials.
Beyond her celebrity, the news shocked because Sobchak belonged to the inner echelons of Russia’s wealthy and powerful. Hence the worry that is now buzzing across the higher ends of Moscow and St. Petersburg society: If they can go after her, they will go after anyone.
As Russian journalist and filmmaker Roman Super said in an interview with the Zhivoi Gvozd YouTube channel, “It’s a … signal from the special services, which tells Ksenia Sobchak and everyone else: ‘Guys, martial law has been declared in the country.’ We are all adults. Let’s close all our mouths and not irritate the Supreme Commander and his close circle.”
The Putins and the Sobchaks: a family connection
Who is Ksenia Sobchak?
She’s both a friend of the Kremlin and a Kremlin critic, a friend to many of Russia’s richest and most powerful people, and she is one of the most famous media personalities the country has ever known.
Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was himself a powerful figure — the mayor of St. Petersburg and an influential player on the national stage. In 1990, he hired a young KGB agent named Vladimir Putin as a deputy mayor; Sobchak has often been described as the man who mentored Putin and helped launch his political career. The Putins and Sobchaks were close; Ksenia Sobchak said often that Putin was always “Uncle Volodya” to her, rather than “Mr. Putin” or “Mr. President.”
“Putin was just an uncle who came and stole my dad from me,” she recalled in an interview just two months ago, “because I knew that when Putin comes, it means that dad will leave for work now, and I will be left without the promised time with him.”
Anatoly Sobchak died young — in 2000. By then, his young daughter was planning a career of her own.
The Paris Hilton of Russia
In the early 2000s, Ksenia Sobchak began a run of roles on TV series that might best be described as lowbrow and occasionally scandalous — reality TV fare that included “Blonde in Chocolate,” “Sweet Life of a Blonde,” and “Who Does NOT Want to Be a Millionaire?” She became a mainstay on the party scene in Moscow and St. Petersburg, was photographed constantly for glossy publications, and in 2007, Sobchak’s sex video with popular rapper Timati became an internet sensation.
She was outspoken and often outlandish, and it was during this period that Sobchak earned the sobriquet “Russia’s Paris Hilton.”
Later, in one of many reinventions, Sobchak embarked on a career in independent media and commentary, and her popularity only grew. She became a frequent guest on popular TV shows and government receptions, and received huge fees for emceeing corporate parties and even the weddings of Russian oligarchs.
Later she would criticize her friends and fellow socialites and their way of life — though she herself was a part of the same society. It was a world that had made her famous.
More recently, Sobchak ran “Ostorozhno Novosti” (Russian for “dangerous news”), which includes a network of Telegram news channels, a podcast studio, a YouTube channel and Sobchak’s own social media page. As of this week, Sobchak could boast 9.4 million followers on Instagram, 3.21 million subscribers on YouTube and 3.2 million followers on her various Telegram channels. Taken together, her digital audience is more than 15 million people. That’s roughly 10 percent of the population of Russia.
From reality TV … to politics
In 2011, as anti-Putin protests took hold in Moscow, Sobchak decided to join the political life of her country. Russia’s Paris Hilton exchanged her leopard leggings and silver boots for plaid shirts and jeans, and shifted from the nightclub scene to the demonstrations in the streets.
“My name is Ksenia Sobchak, and I have something to lose. But I am here!”
With those words, spoken at a 2011 demonstration, Sobchak’s political career was born. After the presidential election of March 2012, in which Putin won 63.6 percent of the vote, Sobchak spoke at a rally under the heading “For Fair Elections.”
Technically, she was part of a burgeoning opposition movement in Russia, but in the years that followed, Sobchak managed to alienate Kremlin supporters and opponents alike. She was a Putin critic, but a gentle one, who favored dialogue with the Kremlin and defended riot police in a notorious case involving the beating of protesters.
Many in the more liberal camp were skeptical of a woman they sarcastically called “Sobchak the oppositionist” and suspected that her participation in the protests had been preapproved by Putin.
But Sobchak kept coming to the protests. She trained as an activist and hosted programs on the independent TV channel Dozhd. According to a 2012 poll, Sobchak was the most recognizable opposition figure in Russia.
Then, in 2017, Sobchak bought a collection of formal suits and announced a run for president.
“In an unwinnable election, it makes sense to participate only to say out loud what others don’t say and do things that might be difficult to do otherwise,” she wrote on Instagram.
Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure who was prevented from running due to a criminal record (and who languishes today in a Russian prison), criticized Sobchak for her decision to run, arguing that she was a perfect foil for the Kremlin, which needed a spoiler, a “cartoon liberal candidate.”
In the 2018 election, Sobchak took fourth place, garnering just 1.68 percent of the vote. Putin won 77 percent.
In recent years, she continued to enjoy immunity from punishment, unlike many other Kremlin critics. After all, as many knew, Uncle Volodya was always there to protect her.
Sobchak’s choice — after the invasion
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, Sobchak felt that her Uncle Volodya had forced her to make a choice.
Almost immediately after Feb. 24, when the first Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, Russian society was divided into those who responded with protest, those who remained silent, and those who left the country as quickly and quietly as possible.
Sobchak was among the first group — a small minority who spoke out against the invasion.
“We are all now locked in this situation,” she said on Instagram. “No exit. We, the Russians, will be dealing with the consequences of today for many years to come.”
It was a powerful public stand, taken by an immensely popular public figure. Sobchak’s Telegram channels began broadcasting news from Ukraine to her millions of followers in Russia. She posted videos of the shelling of Ukrainian cities, speeches by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Western leaders accusing Russia of aggression — but at the same time, she shared the points of view of Russian politicians and data from the Russian Ministry of Defense. In other words, her digital output included content that could be read with favor in both state-run Russian and Ukrainian media.
Once again, Sobchak was accused of trying to have it both ways.
In response, she wrote on her Instagram: “Ukrainians criticize us for publishing the official position of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the Russian authorities blacklist us for quoting the Ukrainian side. I want to remind everyone, we just do our journalistic work, and we try to do it objectively, not succumbing to emotions.”
For eight months of war, Sobchak continued working from Russia. In May, some media reported that she was under investigation for foreign funding and interference. But the story faded, and that only confirmed the idea that Sobchak was immune from any forms of punishment. She would always get away with everything.
Until she didn’t.
What really happened?
The Sobchak criminal case and her escape from Russia is a hot topic not only in Russia but also in Ukraine and among Russian dissidents in other countries.
In the wildly conspiratorial ways in which Russian news is received these days, some commentators have suggested that the whole thing must have been a Kremlin plot to introduce Sobchak into the ranks of political emigrants as their agent of influence. Others, including the Ukrainian journalist Ivan Yakovina, have concluded that Sobchak’s escape was a performance she directed with the help of friends from Russian special services. In this version, Sobchak was motivated by a wish to evade Western sanctions. “I am absolutely sure that this performance was staged for her at her own request … to get out of Russia and make it look like her regime is being pursued and personally hunted by Vladimir Putin.”
As a former Russian journalist and political commentator, I have watched political life in Russia for 25 years. I have also seen up close the intertwined relations of the political and media elites — the worlds in which Sobchak lived — and I know many of these people personally.
I don’t believe the conspiracy theories. I do believe that someone must have pushed for the raid to happen. It may be — as one Telegram channel reported — that Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, was the instigator. “Katerina had a conversation with her father,” this account went, “where she urged that Ksenia Sobchak should be ‘closed.’” It may be that the Russian left-wing journalist Maxim Shevchenko is right when he says that the catalyst was the TV star and Kremlin propagandist Tina Kandelaki. It may also be that rogue elements within the security services felt they had a green light — and that Sobchak had gone too far and had been given carte blanche for too long.
But whoever was behind the pursuit of Sobchak, one thing is clear to me: This really is a signal to the elites who remain in Russia. While millions of ordinary Russians will always associate Sobchak’s name and career with words like “circus” and “farce,” for the elites her fate can be seen only as a profoundly frightening and dangerous development. It’s like an artillery shell that has exploded not in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, but in their backyards.
At risk are any of the more liberal-minded, Western-leaning Russians — and there are many — who have felt safe in a kind of cocoon of the wealthy and well-connected. There are politicians in this group, along with business leaders, artists and others. Now, any sense of safety in that cocoon is shattered. Even a connection to Putin himself is no longer a shield. Because the other people who have absorbed a lesson from the Sobchak story are the police and the security services — the lesson being that they have a free hand to go after targets they may have long despised but never dared touch. Until now.
Tamara Ivanova contributed reporting. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.