Kseniya Sobchak: Putin’s Plant or the Oppositional Oligarch?
On Wednesday, October 18th, 2017, exactly one day following the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Kseniya Sobchak announced her decision to run for presidency in the 2018 elections in Russia. Branded as an entertainer, actress, and reality TV star, Sobchak is also a journalist for the independent news channel Dozhd. In recent years, Dozhd has not hesitated in opposing state narratives perpetuated by the Kremlin and is arguably one of the few remaining independent news sources in the country. Dozhd is so critical of the Kremlin that they were forced to shut down their TV channel and is now only available online with a paid subscription. This is a huge blow to Dozhd as the vast majority of Russians get their news on TV, and basically all Russian TV channels—especially news channels—are state-owned. As a reporter, Sobchak herself actively participated in a number of opposition and independent events supported by Dozhd among others, including the famous 2011 to 2013 Bolotnaya protests.
While her decision to participate in the election may seem hasty, Sobchak has spent her entire life operating alongside acclaimed political officials. She is the daughter of prominent political figure Anatoly Sobchak, who was the first democratically elected mayor in St. Petersburg after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nine years after taking office, he—along with his two bodyguards at the time—died mysteriously of heart failure.
Despite an unconventional path to politics, Kseniya Sobchak professes that she is: “Против Всех,” or “against everyone.” In a video aired throughout Russian news sources, she states: “My name is Kseniya Sobchak. I am 36 years old, and like any other citizen of Russia, I have a right to run for presidential office. I decided to use this right, if only because I am against all of those who have usually used this right.” Given the most recent anti-corruption protests in March 2016 spearheaded by Alexey Navalny, some speculate that Sobchak is the “perfect candidate” for those seeking an alternative to Vladimir Putin, who is assumed will run for—and win—a fourth term in the 2018 election.
The political climate in Russia right now is tense, and this is potentially going to be a very important election for the future of the country. Putin is not getting any younger, and while many dismiss this fact with assurances that he will be replaced by yet another crony of the Kremlin, the cultural climate is begging for something different. People are frustrated—they are frustrated that the ruble, which plummeted in value compared to other currencies in 2014, has continued to stagnate; they are upset that power has increasingly centralized as a part of Putin’s “power vertical” consolidated in Moscow; they are discouraged by fraudulent institutions that then beget a vicious cycle of corruption; and they are disappointed by Russia’s standing on the world stage, a sentiment exploited by Putin and the ruling class through nationalistic rhetoric and actions, including the annexation of Crimea.
Since Navalny has spent significant time in jail for his unsanctioned anti-corruption protests, he is likely barred from the upcoming election despite his status as the leading figure in the opposition party, though it is unclear whether or not he can actually run. In light of Navalny’s absence, there is a need for a truly opposing candidate willing to resolve Russia’s domestic and foreign policy quandaries.
Unlike Vladimir Putin, Grigory Yavlinsky, or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who are all tainted political characters within Russia as well as potential 2018 candidates, Sobchak seeks to represent the new generation. This generation is special in a way that previous generations are not, namely because Russian millennials are the first to escape from carrying the personal memory of life in the USSR. These people were born shortly before or entirely after the collapse, and now they rely on stories and history books—which they acknowledge are rewritten to favor Russian and Soviet nationalism—to understand life in the USSR. This detail cannot be understated. Young people want more than just to survive—they want to live, they want to be trendy, to be Western, to have a real place in the world. Kseniya Sobchak might just be their way to do this.
In a letter published by the newspaper written by Sobchak herself, she states her vision:
“Russia is a European country. It’s equal partners and allies are European powers, democratic and prosperous countries. [...] Russia is a democratic country. All laws that prohibit or complicate citizens' demonstration of political will and initiative should be reviewed. All political and non-violent actions of a citizen, connected with the exercise of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and otherwise, should be permitted.”
This is lofty writing. Her “Against All” campaign seems broad, unplanned, and lazy at first glance. But after listening to her speak during interviews and reading her words about the future of Russia, she seems more and more like a capable candidate—assuming, of course, she is not simply a plant to make Putin’s all but guaranteed victory in 2018 seem legitimate.
There are two other points about her preliminary platform that are worth noting. The first is her emphasis on the importance of actively participating in elections in order to discuss the issues in the country that are currently being silenced. A very “Western” sentiment, she argues that things will not change unless society makes them change. In this way, Sobchak has distanced herself from the traditional political passivity and borderline fatalism that has plagued civil society in Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Secondly, given her history in political protests and in the statements she has made in her watershed letter, one might think she is ready for a revolution alongside the likes of Navalny and so many others in the opposition movement. However, in a surprising divergence from the norm, she plainly articulates: “I am against revolution. I am a good mediator and organizer. Alexey Navalny offered today’s highest ranking officials peaceful care—this is right and it is important for strengthening the procedure in the turnover of power within the country. They don’t trust him; they trust me. I can talk with everyone, both because I personally know a large portion of the Russian state establishment, and because I am a journalist whose profession is to be able to converse with everyone.”
Despite an intriguing backstory and an even more interesting manifesto, Kseniya Sobchak is not yet on the ballot. In order to run officially, a potential candidate must either belong to a political party or gather 300,000 signatures from fellow Russian citizens. As Sobchak does not represent a political party, obtaining signatures is her only option. However, in the case of Grigory Yavlinsky, who collected 2 million signatures for the 2012 elections and still wasn’t allowed to participate, even this might not be enough.
In the past month of circulating rumors surrounding Sobchak’s potential presidential bid, critics have argued that she has been employed by the Kremlin to show legitimacy in the election. This theory shouldn’t be immediately discounted, nor would it be uncharacteristic of the Kremlin to set up something of the like. However, the relationship between her father and Putin—which may or may not have turned sour, thus resulting in his death—seems like a feeble rationale in determining whether or not she herself was chosen to do this. Furthermore, the Kremlin could have chosen anyone to be their play toy; Sobchak doesn’t belong to a political party and hasn’t ever worked in politics. They easily could have chosen a more “legitimate” opposing candidate. The theory is sexy and plausible, but whether or not it has been applied to Sobchak herself is questionable at best.
Stephanie Reeves is a recently returned Fulbright recipient who was stationed in Kazan, Russia upon completing a Bachelor of Arts in Slavic Studies at Connecticut College.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Image by Evgeniy Isaev from Moscow, Russia (Ксения Собчак) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sophia Freuden also contributed to this piece.