Anatoly Sobchak, who died in 2000, was Putin’s boss and political mentor. In 1990, Sobchak hired Putin, then a KGB agent, as deputy mayor, and the two families remained close throughout the decade.
Ksenia Sobchak now heads 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 a fence between Russia’s political elite and her liberal political opposition, creating some mistrust of her on both sides. In 2018, she ran for president against Putin, winning around 2% of the vote.
Sobchak’s current legal troubles appeared to reflect tensions within the well-connected elite as well as heightened anxiety amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. He also highlighted the urgency many wealthy Russians feel to obtain dual citizenship and a second passport.
Sobchak fled to Belarus and then to Lithuania, which is a member of the European Union and, along with the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, is effectively closed to Russian travelers – even those who have already issued visas to them. allowing entry into the European Union Schengen journey. area. Only dual citizens or Russian nationals with humanitarian visa and residence permit can enter.
But Sobchak, who is of part Jewish descent, used his Israeli passport to cross the border, the Lithuanian Interior Ministry confirmed Thursday. Video from a surveillance camera appeared on Telegram channels showing Sobchak walking into Lithuania and talking to border officials.
Earlier this week, police raided Sobchak’s residence outside Moscow and arrested his business manager, Kirill Sukhanov, who has been remanded in custody until the end of December.
According to Russian state media, investigators have accused Sukhanov and the former editor of the Russian edition of Tatler magazine, Arian Romanovsky, of extortion after a complaint by Sergey Chemezov, an ally of Putin who runs a contractor state-owned military and defense, Rostec.
The state-run Tass news agency, citing records, reported that investigators accused Sukhanov and Romanovsky of posting an article on one of the Telegram channels, “containing information that could seriously harm the rights and interests accounts” from Chemezov and then demanded 11 million rubles (about $180,000) to remove the post.
Investigators also implicated Sobchak in the extortion scheme, Tass reported, and issued a warrant for her arrest, but she eluded them. “She left Moscow late Tuesday evening, first buying tickets online to Dubai and Turkey to confuse officers,” the report said, citing unnamed law enforcement sources.
The Washington Post could not independently verify the claims.
In a statement, Sobchak denied the charges. “What extortion, to whom? What does all this have to do with Rostec,” Sobchak wrote on his Telegram blog. “It is obvious that this is a raid on my editorial office, the last free editorial office in Russia, which had to be closed.”
“I hope that’s not the case, and it’s all a misunderstanding,” she added, following a diplomatic line that would appear to allow investigators pursuing her to be dismissed by higher authorities.
This is not the first time Sobchak’s home has been raided by law enforcement, nor the first time she claims to have tried to silence her as a commentator and opposition figure.
In 2012, his Moscow apartment was searched as part of a sweep against Russian opposition activists, including Alexei Navalny, who is currently serving a long sentence in a penal colony after surviving a poisoning attack allegedly carried out by Russian security agents in August 2020.
Sobchak answered the door for the police wear a negligee, and officers confiscated approximately $1.5 million in cash, dollars and euros, from his safe. Later, she told reporters, “They want to shut me up.”
Sobchak grew up in St. Petersburg among the elite, having known dozens of politicians and ministers since she was young.
Until the 2012 raid, she was widely considered untouchable given her fame and family ties to Putin. In recent years, she has appeared to continue to enjoy immunity from prosecution, unlike many other Kremlin critics who have tried to build a large following outside of state-controlled media.
Sobchak is a polarizing figure in Russian independent media and opposition circles. She first rose to prominence as a reality TV host in the early 2000s, establishing an outrageous image compared to the Russian Hilton – a comparison she has come to scorn.
She rebranded herself as an opposition figure after participating in the anti-Kremlin “white ribbon” protests that erupted in late 2011 and continued into 2012 over election fraud and Putin’s subsequent return to the presidency after four years in which he had relegated the top job to Dmitry Medvedev, while serving in the place of prime minister.
Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Bolotnaya Square and other places in Moscow at the time, marking the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Putin eventually crushed the opposition, with increasingly repressive measures including arrests and prosecutions.
Sobchak has often been harshly critical of Putin and his policies, but many opposition figures have accused her of trying to appease liberals and the Kremlin simultaneously.
Over the years, Putin has often faced ‘loyal’ opponents in his presidential contests, and the Russian opposition has touted Sobchak’s decision to run in 2018 as a Kremlin ploy to siphon off liberal votes and create a facade. of democracy after officials banned Navalny, Putin’s candidacy. main sworn enemy, to run.
Investigative outlet Proekt reported in 2020 that the campaign was being closely coordinated with the presidential administration, while Sobchak herself denied ever asking Putin or his aides for permission to run.
More recently, Sobchak has reinvented herself as a serious television journalist and host of a YouTube channel with over 3 million subscribers.
The news of his rapid departure from the country elicited predictably contradictory reactions.
“From the creators of ‘Sobchak on Bolotnaya’ and ‘Sobchak the President’ pay attention to the comedy show ‘Sobchak In Opposition 3.0’,” tweeted Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally and director of his Anti-Navalny Foundation. corruption. “Those who will accept once more are not very smart or have bad intentions,” wrote Zhdanov, who lives in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, to avoid arrest. “Don’t be fooled.”
But Alexander Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian film and TV producer who worked in Russia for decades before the war, offered a more sympathetic assessment on his Instagram blog.
“Sobchak had a huge following, and she undoubtedly offered liberal and Western ideas to him,” Rodnyansky wrote. “Under the conditions of war and systematic destruction of civil society, anyone who has to flee persecution deserves support, in my view.”