A few months before Americans head to the polls for the 2018 midterm elections, Russia will hold an election of its own. Not unlike America's last presidential race, an unexpected TV personality stepped up to run against President Vladimir Putin when Ksenia Sobchak announced her bid for Russian president last month. However, her connections to the Kremlin have raised a few eyebrows.
“My name is Ksenia Sobchak. I'm 36 years old, and like any other citizen of Russia, I now have the right to run for the presidency,” Sobchak said in her announcement video. "I have decided to use this right because I am against everyone who usually exercises this right."
She's running on an anti-establishment platform, offering Russians a chance to oust President Putin. She stepped in after the country's most well-known opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was convicted of embezzlement and banned from entering the race (he denies any wrongdoing and claims the charges were an attempt to keep him from running against Putin). But even Navalny is suspicious of Sobchak's motive, telling Reuters she's part of "this fairly loathsome Kremlin game that goes by the title of: 'Let’s put a liberal laughing-stock up for the elections in order to distract attention.'"
Sobchak's connections to Putin don't calm suspicions that she's simply a pawn to split the opposition vote or make the election appear more legitimate. Her father, a former mayor of St. Petersburg, mentored Putin and pushed the current president into politics.
Despite her father's personal ties to the Kremlin, she claims her motives are pure. When she interviewed Putin for a documentary about her father, Sobchak said she told the Russian president in person that she's running against him.
"I don't need anyone's approval for going to elections," Sobchak said. "I found it's appropriate to say face to face that I will challenge Putin on these elections."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sobchak “fulfilled all criteria” to enter the race, but she claims rumors that she is on Putin's side were delegitimizing her campaign. "The authorities have decided to suffocate me with affection," she told The Guardian. "It’s a very clever tactic. They’re doing everything to make it look like we’re together."
Although Sobchak hasn't held public office, she's a well-known figure and has long been a Russian socialite and "it girl." A stint hosting a Russian reality TV show loosely based on The Real World helped her rise in fame, and Vogue called her the "Slavic version of Paris Hilton" last year (a title she doesn't particularly care for — as she told CNN, Hilton has never had her house raided by the authorities). Sobchak also wrote a book titled How to Marry a Millionaire published in 2009.
She first got involved in politics in 2011 when she joined opposition protests, her "fight against the regime," as she described it to CNN. The huge demonstrations were targeted at President Putin himself, as protesters screamed "Putin is a thief" and "Russia without Putin" while marching. More recently, she spoke at an opposition rally in December. And although they've since broken up, she previously dated Ilya Yashin, another liberal Russian activist and politician.
In an interview with The Guardian a day after announcing her bid for president, Sobchak wasn't optimistic about her chances of defeating Putin in the election. She said, however, that she wants to use her platform to challenge the government and encourage others to do so as well.
"Any window of opportunity is important," she said. "If your hands are tied, you should swim with your legs. If your legs are tied, you should try to hold on to the edge of the boat with your teeth. We have to use every option."