Russian It Girl's path from parties to protests

Associated Press SHARE

By LAURA MILLS and NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — "I'm Ksenia Sobchak, and I've got something to lose. But I'm here." That's what the 30-year-old blond socialite and TV personality said when she began her unlikely foray into political activism by taking the stage at a huge anti-Putin rally in December.

It was a shaky start.

Sobchak was greeted with jeers and boos from protesters, who derided her as a rich party girl and were suspicious of her motives because of her family's close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Six months later, Sobchak has been accepted into the ranks of Russia's protest leaders, completing a transformation that reflects the civic awakening of millions of young Russians after a decade of political passivity.

Young Internet-savvy office workers, students and members of what is known as the "creative class" form the heart of the protest movement that has drawn tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow since a December parliamentary election was won by Putin's party with what observers said was widespread fraud.

Putin has taken a tougher approach toward the opposition since returning to the presidency in May. But while hundreds of demonstrators have been detained over the past month, Sobchak found out only this week that she does indeed have something to lose. Her apartment was among the homes of protest leaders that were raided by police. They read her personal correspondence, seized her passport — and confiscated at least 1 million euros ($1.3 million) in cash.

It was a quick change of fortune for Russia's It Girl.

Sobchak had been considered untouchable because of Putin's enduring loyalty to her late father, who as mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s gave Russia's future president his first government job and launched his political career. Putin began a third term on May 7 after four years as prime minister.

When asked about Putin, rumored to be her godfather, Sobchak has expressed gratitude to him for taking care of her family after her father, Anatoly Sobchak, fell out of political favor. She has been restrained in her criticism of Putin himself, while at the same time calling for more open government, fair elections and an end to the corruption that pervades Russian society.

While still in her early 20s, Sobchak became one of the most recognized figures in Russian entertainment, the girl everyone loved to hate. She dated pop stars and wealthy men and co-wrote a bestselling book called "How to Marry a Millionaire." Her fashion tastes were often over the top. In 2007 on the Russian show "Circus of the Stars," Sobchak wore an enormous pink bow while prancing around the stage with two French poodles.

One of Sobchak's most controversial projects is "Dom-2," a scandalous reality show modeled on "Big Brother" that she has hosted since its interception in 2004. Russian viewers also saw her shimmying across the stage of "Dancing With the Stars" and posing as a scantily clad Tarzan on a 2006 cover of Playboy magazine.

Throughout the 2000s, this enfant terrible epitomized the hedonism and materialism ushered in by the oil boom. By her own account, she earns more than $2 million a year.

"I don't understand why they hate me so unanimously," Sobchak said in a 2008 interview with the newspaper Izvestia. "I don't call for killings, riots or overthrowing the government. I'm just a hostess of entertaining shows."

Sobchak did not respond to interview requests sent by email, Twitter and text message.

In recent months, Russians have watched Sobchak trade her bows for boxy spectacles and her millionaire boyfriends for a low-key romance with Ilya Yashin, a leading figure of the opposition.

To those who question the sincerity of her transformation, Sobchak asserts that her move toward the opposition was long in the making. In an interview following her debut at the Dec. 24 protest, Sobchak said the entertainment industry had served as her escape from her expected path. After graduating from a Moscow university favored by Russia's political elite, she knew she could have had her pick of government jobs.

"It was a conscious choice, to build my own career, to make a name for myself," she said in the January interview with the New Times weekly. "Another issue here, of course, is that I used all means to build it and was ready to pay any price for it."

Her embrace of the opposition was another conscious choice, she said. "I'm against this system. I'm against bureaucratization, corruption, seeing the same people in power," Sobchak said in the New Times interview. "But I'm not personally against Putin."

When she took the stage at the opposition rally, dressed in jeans and a white bomber jacket, Sobchak was visibly nervous.

"The most important thing is to be able to influence the government, not seek to overthrow it," she told the crowd to shouts of "bitch" and worse. At later rallies, she was met with more restraint and even some applause.

The socialite's public stand has taken a toll on her career. Previously a welcome guest on entertainment shows on all national television channels, Sobchak says she has effectively been blacklisted by the Kremlin-controlled networks. Her attempt to bring political discourse to a younger audience failed when her show on Russian MTV was taken off the air after just one show.

The early morning raid on her apartment this week, though, was the first time she had come under direct pressure. The investigators announced the seizure of the $1.3 million in cash, apparently hoping the enormous sum would dispel any sympathy for Sobchak. She said she earned that money as one of Russia's best paid television personalities and she was keeping the cash at home because she doesn't trust Russia's banks.

Sobchak said the search was humiliating but would not change what she describes as her "moderate" political views.

"I still stick to the same things," she said in the radio interview. "You can't just chant 'Putin, go away!' because it doesn't make any sense at this point. We need to chant: 'Putin, give back our votes!'"

A month before her debut at the protest rally, Sobchak starred in an hour-long talk show dedicated to her 30th birthday. Wearing a long and somber black dress, Sobchak said she was ready for a new life.

"Before I turned 30, I worked to create Ksenia Sobchak," she said. "Ksenia Sobchak turned out to be appalling and terrible in some respects, but nice in others. Now that I've created this Ksenia Sobchak, I need to pursue new goals."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.