On the Campaign Trail With a Former Russian Reality Star
Ksenia Sobchak comes to Washington
When I arrived at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon to interview Ksenia Sobchak, there was a line of Russian journalists waiting to speak to her. Sobchak’s strategist, Vitali Shkliarov, came out of the room where she was taking brief interviews. The journalists were all gathered by the door, jockeying to be next, except for one who told me he knew Sobchak when she was a child and then went into the room without being called.
Shkliarov asked how long I would need for an interview with Sobchak, a Russian presidential candidate. I asked for 40 minutes. She is very tired, he told me. Could I perhaps conduct the interview in the car?
I said I could and took a seat. The childhood friend who went into the room advised me to follow his example and just barge in. I nodded but kept waiting.
And so, shortly thereafter, I was ushered out of the National Press Building behind Sobchak and her team. Sobchak, dressed in a sharp red suit with her hair in an immaculate blonde bob, was stopped outside the building by a cameraman from TMZ, the celebrity news site.
“You’re referred to as Russia’s Paris Hilton,” the cameraman said. “Big difference, though, from Paris. You’re running for president against Vladimir Putin. What inspired you to do that?”
Without missing a beat, Sobchak replied in fluent English: “Well, first of all, I am a political journalist in Russia for more than 10 years.”
The 36-year-old Sobchak, who once appeared on the cover of Russian Playboy and hosted a popular Russian reality TV show, didn’t like his characterization.
“I don’t know who invented this about Paris Hilton, but really, it has nothing to do with me,” she said.
Sobchak was not done lecturing the cameraman for TMZ, whose employees are known for confronting celebrities and politicians with incendiary questions intended to elicit colorful responses.
“I mean, I’m a political figure in Russia for more than 10 years.… This is how people in Russia know me,” she continued. “They don’t know me like an entertainment star, which was 20 years ago.” (Sobchak, who began hosting the Russian reality show Dom-2 in 2004, left the program in 2012.)
“Our own president came from the reality world,” the TMZ cameraman offered. “And you did as well.”
“But I didn’t come from the reality world now,” she replied. “I’m in political life for more than 10 years.”
Sobchak is much more than a former reality star. She is also the daughter of the late mayor of St. Petersburg — and onetime mentor of President Vladimir Putin — Anatoly Sobchak. But the socialite-turned-political journalist began to make a new name for herself in 2011. That was the year Sobchak — who is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter — spoke out against the Russian president. She joined the ad hoc opposition in protesting electoral fraud. Her programs moved from TV to the internet and became, to quote the Financial Times in 2012, “surprisingly hard-hitting.”
None of that explains, however, why Sobchak is running what everyone believes to be a doomed — and, some believe, Kremlin-directed — bid for the Russian presidency. Or why, when her campaign is flailing in Russia, she is taking precious time to go to the United States. I wanted to get answers to those questions.
We got into a luxury sedan her campaign had hired. I told her I hoped my interview would be better than TMZ’s. She and Shkliarov asked what TMZ was. I explained that they are essentially paparazzi.
Shkliarov asked if I could give Sobchak a few minutes. She was tired.
“No, no, we can start now,” she said.
Sobchak, who arrived in Washington on Monday, had a busy schedule. She had already spoken at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, on Tuesday morning, and then at the National Press Center that afternoon.
Sobchak is one of two liberal opposition candidates running in next month’s presidential elections. The other, Grigory Yavlinsky, is a founder of the Yabloko Party and has been politically active since the 1990s. He and Sobchak combined are expected to receive no more than 3 to 4 percent of the vote — about what Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein, of the Green Party, received in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Why, I asked, with the Russian election next month, was Sobchak in Washington?
“It’s a sign … that I want our international relations to be different,” she replied. “That America’s not our enemy, but it’s a country with whom we should speak, with whom we should discuss, and find some issues that unite us.”
Sobchak’s sojourn to Washington, in the middle a probe into possible collusion by now-President Donald Trump campaign with Kremlin-backed meddling into the U.S. presidential election, makes for awkward timing. Sobchak, for example, said her itinerary included meeting U.S. government officials, but she would not name precisely which ones. “It’s some guys from administration. Some of the officials. But off the record.”
She’s in the United States at a strange time in U.S.-Russian relations, I noted. Does she think we’re paranoid and hysterical here?
“We are both, both our countries, going deeper and deeper into a state of Cold War,” she said.
Sobchak was particularly critical of the recent “oligarch list” compiled by the administration, in response to U.S. legislation. The list, cribbed in part from Forbes magazine, was widely ridiculed.
“This Kremlin list, for example, looks to me like the Yellow Pages. Why did they do that? What for?” she asked. “Many of them are just businessmen who have nothing to do with Putin.”
And what did she make of the claim that she was running a fake campaign, a ploy by the Kremlin to draw support away from Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and leading opposition figure who is banned from running due to criminal charges widely suspected to be politically motivated?
“I had many talks with my friend, Alexei Navalny, on how we go on on those elections,” she said. “And from the very beginning I didn’t like his idea of boycotting the elections in case they don’t let him go. Because, I said, ‘It’s inevitable they won’t let you go. But we have to have a second, like, you know, in football. If one player gets out of the game, you have another one coming to the field.’”
But Navalny refused to cooperate with her, she said. “He said, ‘No, I can’t give my voice to anyone else, it’s only mine.’ So it’s very egoistic, in my point of view.”
Facing certain defeat next month in the presidential elections, Sobchak has already said that she will run for a seat in the Russian Duma. I noted that this seemed to suggest she knows her campaign is a lost cause.
“Yes, of course. It’s inevitable … It’s like in casino,” she said. “You can’t win in casino; you can’t win dealing with Putin. But still, this is a big chance to say out loud what you think.… The only way to get access to federal [television] channels is to take part in a presidential campaign.”
Soon, we were in northern Virginia. Sobchak had another interview. I waited in the car with her driver, who informed me that the stock market was recovering, and also that he is from Dubai but lives in Leesburg. It’s a 13-hour direct flight from Washington to Dubai, but he assured me that you don’t even feel it if you fly first or business class.
“Okay, I’m all yours,” Sobchak said after about half an hour, getting back into the car.
“I feel like I’m in a horror film,” she joked. “Everywhere I turn, there’s a journalist.”
Twenty minutes later, we pulled into the Four Seasons in Georgetown. She thanked me, said goodbye, and made her way into the lobby. Shkliarov ushered me into the hotel bar for a drink.
Sobchak is not the first woman to run for president of Russia (Irina Khakamada ran in 2004; she, too, was called a Kremlin project), but Shkliarov said that she is the first independent woman, and Sobchak is also the youngest-ever presidential candidate.
The 41-year-old Shkliarov, who was born in Belarus but got his Ph.D. in Germany in the late 1990s and now considers Washington, D.C., home (though he is in Russia for Sobchak’s campaign), campaigned for Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders during their respective presidential runs. I asked how he ended up campaigning for Sobchak.
Shkliarov ran nearly 1,000 independent, mostly novice candidates in the fall’s Moscow municipal elections. 267 won. Sobchak contacted him after and asked if he would join her team. He said that he tried to talk her out of running — it is a risk to run an opposition campaign in Putin’s Russia. But she has guts, he said.
Was he frustrated, I asked, that Sobchak’s campaign is suspected to be a Kremlin ploy?
“So much frustration,” he said.
He also expressed disappointment that the opposition wouldn’t support her. He argued that the opposition old guard is not so different from the Kremlin — it’s a tightly protected political circle that doesn’t want to hear from someone new.
We said goodbye. Shkliarov asked me to send him the link to the article once it’s published. American press, he said, is useful back in Russia. It reminds powerful people there that Sobchak is really running for president.