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Ksenia Sobchak is a megastar with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Why did she just flee Russia?

A police raid and apparent escape have many rich and well-connected Russians worried.

Two things just happened in Russia that had previously seemed impossible.

First, Ksenia Sobchak, a huge media celebrity with a longtime connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin, became a suspect in a criminal case. And second, the security services let her slip away.

It’s a thriller and a celebrity story rolled up in one, and so it may not be surprising that Sobchak’s flight from Russia has drawn bigger audiences on social media than Putin’s major address to the nation Thursday. But its wider importance has to do with the chilling message it sends to any number of other rich, well-known and well-connected Russians: No matter who you are, or who you know, you are not immune.

Beyond her celebrity, the news shocked because Sobchak belonged to the inner echelons of Russia’s wealthy and powerful. Hence the worry that is now buzzing across the higher ends of Moscow and St. Petersburg society: If they can go after her, they will go after anyone.

The Putins and the Sobchaks: a family connection

Who is Ksenia Sobchak?

She’s both a friend of the Kremlin and a Kremlin critic, a friend to many of Russia’s richest and most powerful people, and she is one of the most famous media personalities the country has ever known.

Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was himself a powerful figure — the mayor of St. Petersburg and an influential player on the national stage. In 1990, he hired a young KGB agent named Vladimir Putin as a deputy mayor; Sobchak has often been described as the man who mentored Putin and helped launch his political career. The Putins and Sobchaks were close; Ksenia Sobchak said often that Putin was always “Uncle Volodya” to her, rather than “Mr. Putin” or “Mr. President.”

Anatoly Sobchak died young — in 2000. By then, his young daughter was planning a career of her own.

The Paris Hilton of Russia

In the early 2000s, Ksenia Sobchak began a run of roles on TV series that might best be described as lowbrow and occasionally scandalous — reality TV fare that included “Blonde in Chocolate,” “Sweet Life of a Blonde,” and “Who Does NOT Want to Be a Millionaire?” She became a mainstay on the party scene in Moscow and St. Petersburg, was photographed constantly for glossy publications, and in 2007, Sobchak’s sex video with popular rapper Timati became an internet sensation.

Later, in one of many reinventions, Sobchak embarked on a career in independent media and commentary, and her popularity only grew. She became a frequent guest on popular TV shows and government receptions, and received huge fees for emceeing corporate parties and even the weddings of Russian oligarchs.

Later she would criticize her friends and fellow socialites and their way of life — though she herself was a part of the same society. It was a world that had made her famous.

More recently, Sobchak ran “Ostorozhno Novosti” (Russian for “dangerous news”), which includes a network of Telegram news channels, a podcast studio, a YouTube channel and Sobchak’s own social media page. As of this week, Sobchak could boast 9.4 million followers on Instagram, 3.21 million subscribers on YouTube and 3.2 million followers on her various Telegram channels. Taken together, her digital audience is more than 15 million people. That’s roughly 10 percent of the population of Russia.

From reality TV … to politics

In 2011, as anti-Putin protests took hold in Moscow, Sobchak decided to join the political life of her country. Russia’s Paris Hilton exchanged her leopard leggings and silver boots for plaid shirts and jeans, and shifted from the nightclub scene to the demonstrations in the streets.

“My name is Ksenia Sobchak, and I have something to lose. But I am here!”

With those words, spoken at a 2011 demonstration, Sobchak’s political career was born. After the presidential election of March 2012, in which Putin won 63.6 percent of the vote, Sobchak spoke at a rally under the heading “For Fair Elections.”

Then, in 2017, Sobchak bought a collection of formal suits and announced a run for president.

Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure who was prevented from running due to a criminal record (and who languishes today in a Russian prison), criticized Sobchak for her decision to run, arguing that she was a perfect foil for the Kremlin, which needed a spoiler, a “cartoon liberal candidate.”

In the 2018 election, Sobchak took fourth place, garnering just 1.68 percent of the vote. Putin won 77 percent.

In recent years, she continued to enjoy immunity from punishment, unlike many other Kremlin critics. After all, as many knew, Uncle Volodya was always there to protect her.

Sobchak’s choice — after the invasion

Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, Sobchak felt that her Uncle Volodya had forced her to make a choice.

Almost immediately after Feb. 24, when the first Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, Russian society was divided into those who responded with protest, those who remained silent, and those who left the country as quickly and quietly as possible.

Sobchak was among the first group — a small minority who spoke out against the invasion.

It was a powerful public stand, taken by an immensely popular public figure. Sobchak’s Telegram channels began broadcasting news from Ukraine to her millions of followers in Russia. She posted videos of the shelling of Ukrainian cities, speeches by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Western leaders accusing Russia of aggression — but at the same time, she shared the points of view of Russian politicians and data from the Russian Ministry of Defense. In other words, her digital output included content that could be read with favor in both state-run Russian and Ukrainian media.

Once again, Sobchak was accused of trying to have it both ways.

Until she didn’t.

What really happened?

The Sobchak criminal case and her escape from Russia is a hot topic not only in Russia but also in Ukraine and among Russian dissidents in other countries.

As a former Russian journalist and political commentator, I have watched political life in Russia for 25 years. I have also seen up close the intertwined relations of the political and media elites — the worlds in which Sobchak lived — and I know many of these people personally.

But whoever was behind the pursuit of Sobchak, one thing is clear to me: This really is a signal to the elites who remain in Russia. While millions of ordinary Russians will always associate Sobchak’s name and career with words like “circus” and “farce,” for the elites her fate can be seen only as a profoundly frightening and dangerous development. It’s like an artillery shell that has exploded not in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, but in their backyards.

At risk are any of the more liberal-minded, Western-leaning Russians — and there are many — who have felt safe in a kind of cocoon of the wealthy and well-connected. There are politicians in this group, along with business leaders, artists and others. Now, any sense of safety in that cocoon is shattered. Even a connection to Putin himself is no longer a shield. Because the other people who have absorbed a lesson from the Sobchak story are the police and the security services — the lesson being that they have a free hand to go after targets they may have long despised but never dared touch. Until now.

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