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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
It’s hard not to savor the irony of the abrupt departure of Russian celebrity and onetime presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who fled midweek to Lithuania, after police raided her villa on the outskirts of Moscow and arrested one of her associates. According to Russian media reports, police were poised to raid her Moscow apartment as well.
Did she reflect, I wonder, on the escape of her father, Anatoly Sobchak — a former law professor, St. Petersburg’s first post-Soviet mayor and onetime Boris Yeltsin rival — who had to make a similarly hasty dash out of Russia in the 1990s, pursued by allegations of extortion and corruption?
And did she wryly smile, remembering that her father’s journey to safety was organized by none other than his trusted aide, current Russian President Vladimir Putin?
The 40-year-old Ksenia is a former socialite and broadcaster, once famous for a raunchy reality show. She also stood in the 2018 presidential election, garnering just under 2 percent of the vote, but she was seen by Putin opponents as a stooge, accused of coordinating her campaign with the Kremlin and helping to give the elections the appearance of democracy. By this point, serious opposition candidates like Alexei Navalny had been barred from standing.
However, Ksenia recently appeared to mildly question Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, accusing authorities of concocting an extortion case against her, which she said is an effort by the Kremlin to put pressure on her media group. “My editorial team and I view this as yet another example of pressure against journalists,” she wrote in a statement on her Telegram channel. “There’s nothing to fault us with . . . They keep detaining my journalists.”
While it’s never been fully established whether Ksenia is, in fact, Putin’s goddaughter, he did attend her baptism. Ksenia’s father was Putin’s first political mentor, and his climb up the greasy pole of Russian power started from his position as Sobchak’s indispensable right hand — the aide who negotiated with the security agencies and the city’s mafia mobs, the man who cut behind-the-scenes deals, tripped up Sobchak’s opponents, greased palms and distributed spoils.
How Putin came to be her father’s key lieutenant for six years is clouded in mystery though.
Some suspect the KGB maneuvered Putin close to Sobchak and arranged for him to infiltrate his entourage, as security agencies saw Sobchak as a dangerous liberal reformer.
Putin himself subsequently claimed he met Sobchak by chance, and that the mayor remembered him as a former law student at St. Petersburg State University. However, that story has struck Putin biographers as implausible — the president wasn’t a particularly stand-out student and was one of thousands who had attended Sobchak’s lectures over the decades.
Nonetheless, from then on, Putin hardly put a foot wrong — that is, until he was in the Kremlin administration and risked wrecking his career by helping Ksenia’s father flee Russia in 1997.
Mired in a corruption probe, Sobchak was in hospital undergoing cardiac tests at the time. And while Yeltsin was privately sympathetic toward him, the former president couldn’t be seen as protecting him from investigators.
So Putin flew to St. Petersburg, confiding in his boss Valentin Yumashev — also Yeltsin’s son-in-law — “I’m going there to try to help,” and added, “if it doesn’t work out, please tell Yeltsin I felt I had no choice.”
According to Putin biographer Philip Short, Yumashev warned Putin, stating that if Sobchak’s escape failed, “I’ll have to fire you.”
But the escape went smoothly and was carried out with aplomb over a holiday weekend, when Sobchak had received permission from prosecutors to leave the hospital to spend time at home. Instead, an ambulance organized by Putin took him to the St. Petersburg airport, where a chartered medical evacuation plane, paid for by an oligarch, whisked him off to Paris.
Much in the same way that Putin managed to throw watchers off her father’s scent, Ksenia has displayed similarly smart “tradecraft’ to fool agents when affecting her escape. Russian media reports suggest she bought airline tickets online for Dubai on one day, and then for Turkey the next, but she then used her Israeli passport to board a flight to Lithuania via Belarus before she could be intercepted.
The fact that even Ksenia has now become a target is being cited by Putin’s opponents — and his loyalists — as further evidence that the Kremlin is determined to stifle any dissent from any quarter. “It means there are no untouchables,” said Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst.
Indeed, while Sobchak did openly criticize Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea, she has been careful not to express any overt criticism on her social media channels about the February invasion of Ukraine. To date, the statements she has made appear ambivalent and carefully hedged. She has said, however, that she doesn’t feel free to voice her thoughts on Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Since arriving in Lithuania, she has kept a low profile and hasn’t responded to requests, including from POLITICO, for comment. Maybe she hopes her silence will help ease a safe return to Moscow — with Putin persuaded that someone who shows such smart tradecraft should be forgiven.