Is the Russian Opposition’s ‘Paris Hilton’ Really the Kremlin’s ‘Kim Kardashian’?

Ksenia Sobchak has announced she’s a candidate for president in next year’s Russian elections. Maybe she’s serious, but mainly she’s a distraction, and Putin will benefit.

TV presenter, editor-in-chief of Russian L'Officiel magazine Ksenia Sobchak on the television channel "Rain" on October 18, 2017 in Moscow, Russia.

Gennadiy Gulyaev/Kommersant via Getty Images

MOSCOW—Russia is used to seeing the famous “It girl” Ksenia Sobchak changing her many costumes and roles. Millions loved and millions hated to watch “Russia’s Paris Hilton” on TV, listen to her on the radio, pour over her erotic pictures on glamour magazine covers, and occasionally see her on stage at opposition rallies.

Not many realized the extent to which this hardworking woman was a fearless perfectionist.

So when the 35-year-old socialite donned a new costume, as a presidential candidate intending to run in next year’s elections, thousands huffed and puffed in bitter criticism all over social media.

Her Communist, far-right, and also her liberal critics compared her to a clown. Some remembered that last fall Sobchak, when she was pregnant, was posing naked for the cover of Tatler in a shot reminiscent of Demi Moore’s iconic Vanity Fair cover from 1991.

But this fall Sobchak wears a shiny gray suit, big cats-eye glasses and runs for president with what appears to be an anti-Putin agenda.

Liberal critics see Sobchak’s decision as a betrayal of the detained opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whom the Kremlin would not allow to register for the election, in spite of his supporters’ rallies around 80 Russian cities.

Why would Sobchak run and take the spotlight off Navalny’s fight for recognition as a candidate?

Most observers, including her friends and fans in the opposition, are convinced that Sobchak has made a deal with President Vladimir Putin— a disgraceful step for any true anti-Putin activist.

Forget Paris Hilton, is she more like the Kremlin’s covert Kim Kardashian?

After all Sobchak, the daughter of Vladimir Putin’s former boss, Saint Petersburg Governor Anatoly Sobchak, was known in Russia as “Putin’s goddaughter.” And earlier this month Sobchak interviewed President Putin for a film about her father. The BBC reported that Sobchak stayed and spoke with Putin after the cameras were turned off.

Immediately, observers from all political wings concluded that there was some dirty game being played behind the scene.

Sobchak’s close friend Mikhail Zygar said he is upset about her decision: “In today’s Russia no candidate can register without some agreement, either directly with Putin or with his administration.”

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Six years ago Zygar, the founding editor-in-chief of independent Rain TV created the “Sobchak Live” show for his celebrity friend. “I’ve been her director, the show’s producer, her friend helping her for years,” he said.

“I understand what Ksenia’s thinking is—she wants to open a big public discussion on TV channels, to be able to speak out about the murder of [opposition leader Boris] Nemtsov’s, the killing of gays in Chechnya, pressure on Navalny’s supporters—the topics that nobody touches on TV,” Zygar told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

“Ksenia is eager to participate in lots of projects, she is sincere about everything she is doing, whether she shows up at a fashion show in Paris or in a Basmanny courtroom in support of [theaer] director [Kirill] Serebrennikov,” jailed on charges of embezzlement.

Like many other Sobchak critics, Zygar could not see why his famous friend would take part in a game where the Kremlin makes up all the rules. “Since 2003 we have seen a huge number of ‘technical’ opposition candidates who have made a deal with the Kremlin,” he said. “They were all used and cheated.”

A few years ago, when Ksenia Sobchak had lost her jobs at the Kremlin-managed TV channels, and millions of dollars, because of her active role in anti-Putin’s rallies, she told The Daily Beast that she wished she were a man.  “I do have iron balls,” said Sobchak, wearing her cool glasses and a little black dress in one of her restaurants. “I wish I were a man. It would make my life easier in this sexist society.”

This week Sobchak explained her decision to run: “I intend to be a candidate for those who want to vote against everyone.”

Many Russians today would like to indicate their rejection of Kremlin-controlled elections but there is no “against everyone” box to check on the ballot.

On Wednesday Sobchak posted a video on her Instagram asking her more than 5 million followers questions: “If you are not going to vote, how to make it clear that you are indifferent? How to make it clear that you are against? How to make your voice heard?”

The answer would be: Vote for Sobchak, if you are against all other candidates.

Just look at her Instagram and make your own judgment about Ksyusha, as many call her. Here is Sobchak spinning with a toy rabbit in a self-made ad for a furniture designer, there she is with one foot on a little chair, and then here again with Russia’s famous artist and opposition activist Irina Prokhorov at court, supporting her arrested friend.

Sobchat guest edits the Russian edition of the L’Officiel fashion magazine, hosts shows on Rain TV, and advertises all sorts of products. Sobchak is clearly passionate about any chance to hang out, be in public, be useful, be above all ubiquitous.

Who knows, maybe Putin is planning one more “successor operation,” as he did with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, when the once and future prime minister subbed for Putin as president. Nothing is predictable in Russia.

“One thing is clear,” Olga Bychkova, deputy editor in chief of Echo of Moscow radio station told The Daily Beast. “These presidential elections are a total fake, so in this case Sobchak is not less or more legitimate than any of the other candidates.”