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The Sensastional Ms. Sobchak

Socialite Ksenia Sobchak Is the New Face of Protest Politics, But How Long Will Her Star Shine? Kseniya Sobchak gives lecture at cultural center of National Research University Higher School of Economics By Dan Peleschuk Russia Profile 04/10/2012

Once Russia’s “It Girl,” often likened to ditzy American hotel heiress Paris Hilton, Ksenia Sobchak has reinvented herself through Russia’s protest movement. Earlier she was the symbol of a timid and servile moneyed class in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but she has now become the voice of a generation in a reawakened and more politically active country. Yet how far can her celebrity status take her at a time when the flashy mass protests are over and grassroots politics is what matters?

Sobchak’s latest action perhaps best describes how far she’s come since being known primarily for hosting the notoriously raunchy and diluted “Dom 2” (“Home 2”) reality TV show in Russia. Standing defiantly onstage this week at the Nika Awards ceremony, Russia’s top film competition, Sobchak faced down a nervous and visibly shaken Chulpan Khamatova – a noted actress and philanthropist accused of stumping for President-elect Vladimir Putin in exchange for funding for her children’s charity. Sobchak, almost instinctually, seized the opportunity to ask the actress whether she genuinely supports Putin before a stunned audience.

“I decided to merely ask the question that has bothered me and, it seems, many other people as well,” Sobchak later wrote on radio station Echo of Moscow’s Web site, in a tone whose babe-in-the-woods innocence masks a razor-sharp intellect. But the fact is that Sobchak had gone far beyond just asking a question; in recent months, especially as the protest movement kicked off on the heels of last December’s fraudulent parliamentary elections, Sobchak has emerged as one of the single visible faces of the movement – and the voice of an increasingly disgruntled urban intelligentsia.

Her story is an unlikely one. The daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, St. Petersburg’s first post-Soviet mayor, her family remains closely intertwined with Putin, who owes most – if not all – of his career accomplishments to the elder Sobchak, his first patron. The issue sparked controversy when the erstwhile socialite first appeared on the roster of notable protesters, her presence greeted with a wave of jeers and overwhelming suspicion at a December 24 rally.

Yet since then it seems Sobchak has proved her worth. She has remained at the forefront of the movement, having appeared at every rally– and to a much more welcoming response. Her new line-up of television programs, such as “State Department” on the Snob Web site and “Sobchak Live” on the Dozhd TV network showcase her newfound talent for engaging in serious debate. In countless interviews with top politicians, media figures and activists, she has made even the sternest personalities – such as the firebrand leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Vladimir Zhirinovksy – squirm in discomfort.

Long after that first awkward appearance on Sakharov Avenue, Sobchak’s talent and outspokenness have earned her praise from the more hardened opposition activists, cementing her place among the darlings of the opposition movement. "It has been interesting to watch her change. When she came to the first meeting, she said we need to talk [with the government]. Now she is radicalizing in front of our eyes," opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova told The Guardian earlier this year.

But after Putin’s reelection, the demand for flashy and impressive street protests has receded dramatically. If the RuNet and social networks – the nerve center of Russia’s protest-minded urban youth – is a worthy judge, the new celebrities on the block are the young, up-and-coming local activists, such as Vera Kichanova and Maxim Katz, two prominent figures elected to Moscow City Councils who symbolize the anti-Kremlin movement’s new direction. So what does the future hold for Sobchak, whose socialite personality has nevertheless loomed large in the face of opposition leaders’ calls for more grassroots actions?

Experts say her utility may actually outweigh her novelty. According to Masha Lipman, a politics and society researcher at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, what was once known as the “protest movement” has since given way to a broader – if much more abstract – sense of shared defiance, something of which middle-class Russians knew little only years earlier. Now, Lipman said, Sobchak leads the way not necessarily as the face of the opposition movement, but as a symbol of a newly activated citizenship. “There is definitely a change in mood away from indifference and cynicism toward values and a sense of being a citizen – she’s definitely part of that, and her act [at the Nika Awards] belongs in this paradigm,” Lipman said. “She has this strength about her that if she does something, she has no doubts. She projects this sense of righteousness about what she does.”

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