It was a scene straight out of a wedding ceremony. Opposition leaders Ksenia Sobchak and Ilya Yashin, Russia’s most talked-about sweethearts, were holding hands and bouquets of white roses in a tight group of activists and TV cameras. The group proceeded toward the Federal Security Service headquarters on Lubyanka Square, passing gray rows of police trucks and a cordon of officers.
They didn’t get far. The police were waiting for them in an underground passage. They surrounded Sobchak and Yashin and wordlessly separated the two from their astonished companions. “That’s it. They’re driving us away in a police truck,” Yashin said quickly into his cellphone a few minutes later.
The romance between Yashin, a famously fearless opposition leader, and Sobchak, an It girl turned political activist, has captivated the public and the authorities alike this year.
The Kremlin’s foes respect the couple for their guts. Journalists gossip about their relationship. And the authorities are doing all they can to break up the pair’s symbolic love story. A special police unit has searched their bedroom, prosecutors have questioned them, and investigators have threatened them with long prison terms.
The future looks grim for the sweethearts. Dozens of their friends are already behind bars, and almost 70 have fled the country, fearing prison time.
Just before their arrest Saturday morning, Sobchak, 31 and Yashin, 29, met with The Daily Beast in a downtown café, one of many places around Lubyanka where President Vladimir Putin’s critics gathered before the unsanctioned march.
The couple argued about whether the opposition should ever compromise with the authorities. Yashin insisted that Muscovites should be free to protest in any public square in the capital. “People should be ready to get clubbed and arrested for democracy,” he said in a forceful tone.
That view sounded “boyish” to Sobchak, who said she believed the opposition could have accepted the street that Moscow’s City Hall had originally proposed for Saturday’s protest. (The authorities rejected all six squares requested for the demonstration.)
The couple often disagree. Indeed, they hardly have anything in common, at least not on the surface. Sobchak, a socialite, favors right-wing views and adores the “powerful Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher; she flies first class; she works around the clock hosting radio and TV shows, manages gala nights, and owns two restaurants that are popular with Moscow’s elite. She is rich and getting richer. Last week she made $1.3 million selling shares in a Russian telephone company.
“I do have iron balls,” she said over a dinner in one of her restaurants, where all eyes were on her and her retro glasses and little black dress. “I wish I were a man. It would make my life easier in this sexist society.”
Yashin argues that Sobchak isn’t as strong as she appears and insists she needs his protection. He’s never had a chance to make money. For the last 12 years, his job has been to lead opposition movements—a rather unprofitable enterprise. Today he heads the Moscow branch of the People’s Freedom Party. He has only one pair of winter shoes and a modest winter jacket, too thin for this freezing day. “Her designer purses and 100 pairs of glasses make no sense” to him, he said.
And although he’s always insisted on paying all their bills (”She immediately understood how important it was for me the first time I insisted I pay for our dinner,” he said), the scale of her fame, and the rumor that he’s after her money, hurt Yashin’s pride. “My inner battle with my own ego is sometimes bloodier than any revolution,” he said.
The couple’s recent photo shoot for Hello! magazine at a luxurious Moroccan hotel was Sobchak’s idea, Yashin said gloomily: “I agreed only because I wanted her to be happy on her birthday.” Critiques of their glamorous vacation last month left him feeling “awkward,” Yashin acknowledged.
But the disparity in their backgrounds was obvious from the start. She grew up as a princess in the spacious home of St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s political mentor. Putin was deputy mayor. He visited her father for family meals. Yashin spent his childhood in a modest apartment in the Moscow suburbs, hating Putin from his teenage years.
While she wore mink and dated oligarchs, he once suspended himself under a bridge over the Moscow River holding a banner saying, “Give the elections back to the people, bastards!” His iPhone is full of videos and photographs of his arrests. In one of them, the police split open his forehead by slamming his head against the metal door of a police truck. Many images show the police twisting his arms and dragging him away from anti-Putin rallies, and other videos feature pro-Kremlin youth pouring dirt on him.
Sobchak attracted Yashin’s attention at her first street protest last December. That night, Yashin spotted the celebrity shaking in the ice-cold wind, waiting in line to take the stage and speak before a crowd of protesters. As a well-mannered gentleman, he let her go in front of him and speak first. Unfazed by hecklers screaming “Sobchak, get out!” “This isn’t a fashion show!” she forged ahead with a confident speech.
“She’s the woman of my life,” Yashin now says firmly. Sobchak doesn’t hide her feelings for Yashin, either. When the police investigator who searched her home in June asked her for her autograph, she wrote: “Please don’t put my beloved man in prison.”
A year later, “the authorities are cutting the oxygen to the Russian protests,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the detentions on Lubyanka.
It’s riskier to to demonstrate against the authorities in Russia today than it was last winter. To continue the struggle, or give up, is a personal choice every Russian opposition member must make. But at least two activists have made up their minds. “You have to analyze yourself and develop inner resources,” Sobchak said in the coffee shop, before stepping out to be arrested. The bead embroidery on the back of her coat said “Revolution.”