Anatoly Sobchak, who died in 2000, was Putin’s boss and political mentor. In 1990, Sobchak hired then-KGB agent Putin as deputy mayor, and the two families remained close throughout the decade.
Ksenia Sobchak now runs the “Ostorozhno Novosti” project, which includes a network of Telegram news channels, a podcast studio, a YouTube channel and Sobchak’s own social media page. She has long straddled the fence between Russia’s political elite and its liberal political opposition, creating some distrust of her from both camps. In 2018, he ran for president against Putin, winning about 2 percent of the vote.
Sobchak’s current legal troubles seem to reflect a climate of tension and anxiety within the well-connected elite amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. It highlighted the urgency many well-to-do Russians feel about dual citizenship and obtaining a second passport.
Sobchak fled to Belarus, and then to European Union members Lithuania and the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, which are effectively closed to Russian travelers – holders of visas previously granted permission to enter the European Union for Schengen travel. Zone Only dual citizens or Russian nationals with humanitarian visas and residency permits can enter.
But Sobchak, who is of partial Jewish heritage, used her Israeli passport to cross the border, Lithuania’s interior ministry confirmed Thursday. A video from a surveillance camera emerged on Telegram channels, showing Sobchak entering Lithuania on foot and talking to border officials.
Earlier this week, police raided Sobchak’s residence outside Moscow and arrested his commercial director Kirill Sukhanov, who was ordered to be held in pretrial detention until the end of December.
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According to Russian state media, investigators accused Sukhanov and Arian Romanovsky, the former editor of Tatler magazine’s Russian edition, of extorting Putin ally Sergei Chemezov, who heads state-owned military and defense contractor Rostec.
State news agency Tass reported citing case documents that investigators accused Sukhanov and Romanovsky of publishing a post on Telegram channels containing information that could significantly harm Chemezov’s rights and legitimate interests. 11 million rubles (about $180,000) to delete the post.
Tass reported that investigators implicated Sobchak in an extortion scheme and issued a warrant for her arrest, but she eluded them. “He left Moscow late on Tuesday night, first buying tickets online to Dubai and Turkey, confusing the operatives,” the report said, citing unnamed law enforcement sources.
The Washington Post could not independently verify the claims.
In a statement, Sobchak rejected the allegations. “What extortion, from whom? What does any of this have to do with Rostec,” Sobchak wrote on his Telegram blog. “It is clear that this was an attack on my editorial office, the last free editorial office in Russia, which had to be closed.”
“Hopefully, it’s not like that, and it’s all a misunderstanding,” he added, using a diplomatic line that allows him to have investigators pursuing him dismissed by higher-ups.
This is not the first time law enforcement officers have raided Sobchak’s home, nor the first time they have been accused of trying to silence her as a commentator and opposition figure.
Her Moscow apartment was raided in 2012 against Russian opposition activists, including Alexei Navalny, who is serving a lengthy sentence in a prison colony after surviving a poisoning attack by Russian security agents in August 2020.
Sobchak famously knocked the door on police in a negligee, and agents seized nearly $1.5 million in cash, dollars and euros from her safe. He later told journalists, “They are going to silence me.”
Sobchak grew up among the elite in St. Petersburg, knowing dozens of politicians and ministers since he was a small child.
Until the attack in 2012, she was largely considered untouchable given Putin’s fame and family connections. In recent years, he has continued to enjoy immunity from prosecution, unlike others critical of the Kremlin who have sought to build a wider audience outside the state-controlled media.
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Sobchak is a polarizing figure in Russia’s independent media and opposition circles. He rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a reality TV host, establishing a scandalous image and being referred to as Russia’s Hilton – something he rejected.
She rebranded herself as an opposition figure after participating in the “White Ribbon” anti-Kremlin protests that erupted in late 2011 and continued in 2012 following election fraud and Putin’s return to the presidency after four years. Dmitry Medvedev, while serving as prime minister instead.
Tens of thousands of people protested in Bolotnaya Square and other Moscow locations at the time, marking the largest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union. But Putin eventually cracked down on the opposition with increasingly repressive measures, including arrests and prosecutions.
Sobchak has often been cautiously critical of Putin and his policies, but many opposition figures accuse him of trying to simultaneously appease liberals and the Kremlin.
Putin has faced “loyal” opponents in his presidential contests over the years, and Russia’s opposition blamed Sobchak’s decision to run in 2018 after officials barred Navalny, Putin’s main enemy, from the race to siphon Kremlin liberal votes and create a democratic front.
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Investigative news outlet The Project reported in 2020 that the campaign was closely coordinated with the presidential administration, but Sobchak denied ever asking Putin or his aides for permission to run.
More recently, Sobchak has reinvented herself as a serious TV journalist and anchor of a YouTube channel with over 3 million subscribers.
News of her imminent departure from the country drew predictably mixed reactions.
“From the makers of ‘Sobchak on Bolotnaya’ and ‘Sobchak the President’, check out the comedy show ‘Sobchak in Opposition 3.0,'” tweeted Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally and director of his anti-corruption foundation. “Those who buy it again are not very clever or have bad intentions,” wrote Zhdanov, who lives in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania to avoid arrest. “Don’t be a fool.”
But Alexander Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian film and television producer who worked in Russia for decades before the war, offered a more sympathetic assessment on his Instagram blog.
“Sobchak had a large audience and he offered undoubtedly liberal and Western ideas,” wrote Rodnyansky. “In conditions of war and systematic destruction of civil society, anyone who has to flee persecution deserves support in my opinion.”