The queen of theater ‘Proekt’ profiles Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite who’s made a fortune trading on her name and gaming Russian politics
Whatever you think about her, Ksenia Sobchak is one of the most recognizable women in Russian society today. The daughter of Vladimir Putin’s mentor, a television celebrity, a sometimes politician, and a wealthy business owner, Sobchak has managed to remain present in both Russia’s opposition and the national mainstream, mixing activism, journalism, and campaigning in ways that few others can. According to a new investigative report written by Olga Churakova and Mikhail Rubin, published by the website Proekt, perhaps the one constant in Sobchak’s career is her capacity to profit from her public prominence and fortuitous parentage. Meduza summarizes the report’s key findings below.
Note to readers: Like with most contemporary Russian investigative journalism, Proekt’s report relies heavily on unnamed sources in the Kremlin, persons “close to the Kremlin,” people who worked previously for Ksenia Sobchak, and so on. Proekt also spoke directly to Sobchak, who either denied allegations of any bad behavior or simply declined to respond to certain questions.
A lobbyist by birth
In recent years, Ksenia Sobchak has promoted herself as an independent politician, even running for president in 2018 (more about this below), but she and her Senator mother, Lyudmila Narusova, have been lobbying behind the scenes for far longer, according to Proekt. “Sobchak skillfully exploits the myth that she [and her mother] can always get a call through to Putin,” a source told the website. Narusova might actually wield this influence, the source admitted, explaining that the president’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino, likely tries to resolve any problems Sobchak’s mother raises, to keep matters from reaching Putin.
In addition to her seat in the Federation Council, Narusova also serves as president of the Anatoly Sobchak Foundation, where she reportedly draws donations from wealthy individuals such as the Kovalchuk brothers, Vladimir Palikhata, and Kenes Rakishev. In return for their financial support, the foundation’s sponsors “count on reciprocal aid, and they often get it,” says Proekt.
In 2009, for example, Vladimir Palikhata was named as a suspect in a felony investigation into the illegal seizure of several buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For help, Palikhata turned to Narusova, who inundated detectives with letters and even testified voluntarily in Moscow City Court in Palikhata’s defense. As a result, extortion charges were brought instead against Andrey Grivtsov, the investigator in the case. Grivtsov was later exonerated, but Palikhata was never prosecuted and remains in business to this day.
Lyudmila Narusova’s connections play an important part in Ksenia Sobchak’s ability to trade on her “mythological” political weight. Proekt discovered that Sobchak also connects her mother indirectly to Vladimir Palikhata: she gifted Narusova luxury real estate purchased in 2010 from one of Palikhata’s business partners. (Sobchak says the property was sold at market value “without any charity.”)
Sobchak’s most recent foray into lobbying occurred earlier this year when she tentatively planned to acquire a stake in Oleg Kan’s crab business, just as he was arrested in absentia on murder and smuggling charges. Kan reportedly recruited Sobchak in order to politicize his conflict with the “Russian Fishery Company,” which is owned primarily by Gleb Frank, billionaire Gennady Timchenko’s son-in-law. A source familiar with Kan told Proekt that Sobchak was merely a “front” in the scheme to “illuminate” the business dispute. Igor Soglaev, a former senior executive at Rosneft, allegedly provided all the money used for Sobchak’s investment offer.
With lobbying, Sobchak’s mother has been her indispensable partner. Narusova made the crab-business dispute a national scandal by exercising her right as a senator to appeal directly to Russia’s Supreme Court, asking the judges to ascertain why police froze assets owned by Kan’s fishing companies (these assets were seized just as Sobchak was brought in to become a shareholder, which blocked the deal). The assets were eventually released, but Sobchak withdrew her offer, admitting that she knows nothing about the fishing industry.
The chosen one
Throughout Ksenia Sobchak’s life as a public persona, she’s consulted regularly with the senior officials responsible for overseeing Russia’s domestic politics. In the late 2000s, the Kremlin invited Sobchak to head the youth division of the country’s ruling political party: United Russia’s Young Guard. (She says she wasn’t interested in the job, though multiple sources told Proekt that the idea simply lacked enough support within the presidential administration.) Ahead of the contested 2011 parliamentary elections, Sobchak reportedly met with Vladislav Surkov, then the president’s deputy chief of staff, to discuss her possible candidacy for the State Duma.
Vyacheslav Volodin later replaced Surkov, before Sergey Kiriyenko took Volodin’s place. Proekt says Sobchak has maintained close contact with both Kremlin officials.
Sobchak’s most infamous collaboration with the Kremlin was her presidential candidacy in 2018 — a campaign she insists was run independently. Sources told Proekt, however, that the Russian financier Yuri Kovalchuk cooked up the idea to field Sobchak as a spoiler who could blunt Alexey Navalny and divide liberal voters.
According to a source who helped the Putin administration choose 2018’s ideal “liberal spoiler” candidate, Kremlin sociologists studied the popularity of public figures like politician Dmitry Gudkov, journalists Anton Krasovsky and Elena Letuchaya, businessman Oleg Tinkov, and Ksenia Sobchak. Proekt says Letuchaya’s electorate overlapped too much with Putin’s and Gudkov was dangerously popular with voters, but Sobchak was the perfect combination: extremely well-known and widely disliked.
A source who worked on Sobchak’s campaign told Proekt that staff coordinated closely with Sergey Kiriyenko and even tweaked her platform at Kiriyenko’s request. Multiple political strategists admitted to Proekt that the Putin administration effectively hired them to work on Sobchak’s campaign. Another political expert told the website that he received an angry phone call from the Kremlin after writing an article criticizing Sobchak’s presidential candidacy. The Putin administration reportedly arranged for the collection of as much as 40 percent of the signatures Sobchak submitted to register her candidacy, though some regional officials apparently refused to cooperate.
To fund her campaign, Ksenia Sobchak turned to several affluent sponsors. She has named many of these people publicly, but Proekt says a few supporters never disclosed their roles. For example, Demyan Kudryavtsev (who still owned the newspaper Vedomosti) was reportedly one of the campaign’s key managers. The person responsible for paying campaign workers, moreover, was Tatyana Khalevina — known informally as Kudryavtsev’s “assistant and accountant.” Kudryavtsev told Proekt that Khalevina wasn’t working for him, but his family did employ her previously.
To win support for her presidential campaign, Sobchak apparently drew on the same “mythology” she leverages when marketing herself as a lobbyist. Dmitry Mazurov, the former owner of “Antipinsky Refinery,” told one of Proekt’s sources that “the right people” enlisted him to aid Sobchak, who recruited sponsors by promising them access to President Putin through her mother.
Cashing in on a flop
Ksenia Sobchak drew just 1.68 percent of the votes in Russia’s 2018 presidential election — far less than the 8 percent Mikhail Prokhorov managed to win as the previous race’s “liberal spoiler.” Despite the ballot-box catastrophe (which she blames on Alexey Navalny’s refusal to rally behind her candidacy), Ksenia Sobchak has earned roughly $5 million from advertisement deals and television projects since the election, according to Proekt’s estimates.
Sobchak owes her impressive earnings to four different enterprises:
- Enormously popular channels on social media, where she allegedly charges between 150,000 rubles and 1.4 million rubles ($1,920 and $17,930) for promoted content,
- A public-relations firm she co-owns with journalist Julia Prudko, which specializes in advertising for clothing brands,
- Paid appearances at corporate parties, where Sobchak demands as much as 45,000 euros ($52,650) for a single event, in addition to first-class treatment at every step, and
- Her own clothing line, acquired in September 2020, which sells merchandise that closely resembles products marketed separately by Maxim Ganisevsky.