Sobchak. A presidential anti-candidate.
Ksenia Sobchak, the new Russian presidential candidate, does not pose a threat to Putin. She is too controversial to build a wide front of support, even among the critical, liberally-minded parts of the Russian society. Thus she is an ideal sparring partner for Putin, while Navalny would be too risky for the Kremlin.
It’s official. Ksenia Sobchak will run for the Russian presidency in the spring 2018. At the time when the possibility of her candidacy was first discussed on the Russian news portal Vedomosti in early September, it seemed surreal. Sobchak did not deny anything back then, leaving room for speculation. Now we know that these rumours have proved to be true.
In Russia Sobchak needs no introduction. She is the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak who was the first democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg and an important figure in modern Russian history. He was politically active since the late 1980s, working with Boris Yeltsin and preparing Russia’s new constitution. As mayor of Leningrad he changed the city’s name back to St Petersburg.
Today, he is mostly remembered for his relationship with Vladimir Putin. However, it is difficult to guess how Sobchak would be looking at the current policies of the Russian president, given his liberal-democratic views. Sobchak died of a heart attack in 2000 soon after Putin came to the Kremlin. Now his daughter, Ksenia (born in 1980), is the one who explains her father’s views towards Putin and Russia. She usually discusses these topics through the independent channel TV Rain and is often very critical.
Sobchak’s path to opposition journalism was quite long. After moving from St Petersburg to Moscow, where she studied political science at the prestigious MGIMO (the Moscow State Institute of International Relations), she entered the world of show business. Known for her entertainment programmes and money-making skills, Sobchak unexpectedly got involved in the opposition protests on the Bolotnaya Square in 2011. At that time the media were also covering her love affair with the famous Russian oppositionist – Ilya Yashin. Soon after that, Sobchak became a news anchor with TV Rain.
Interestingly, Vedomosti (the same outlet which was the first to inform about Sobchak’s possible candidacy) published an article confirming this fact on October 18th 2017, even though in its link, the date September 30th appears. Seemingly, someone had known about Sobchak’s decision two weeks before it was publically announced.
Sobchak claims that if Alexei Navalny is allowed to run in the presidential election in March 2018, she will consider giving up her candidacy. However, it is rather difficult to question that her unexpected decision to run was not directed against Navalny. It is clear that when a potential candidate, who can mobilise a significant social support (for the Russian context) and get people to the streets, cannot – for formal reasons (which was ensured by the Kremlin) – take part in the election, somebody needs to fill this vacancy. And it should be someone who would add adequate spice to the whole situation in order to get the attention of the public.
Until recently Russia’s upcoming election looked like a sad duty to confirm the course of the current president. Aware of this mood the Kremlin political technologists started to seriously fear a low turnout. Considering the fact that Putin has not yet presented any campaign platform to run on (and considering that starting another war seems too risky and too expensive), it has become clear that the Kremlin has run out of fresh ideas. In that context Sobchak brings an element of showmanship, which, incidentally, is something at what she excels.
Most importantly, she does not pose a threat to Putin as she herself is too controversial to build a wide front of support, even among the critical, liberally-minded parts of the Russian society. Sobchak is an ideal sparring partner for Putin while Navalny would be too risky for the Kremlin.
Little is still known about Sobchak’s programme. Her slogan “against everybody”, refers to broad dislike towards all the candidates. By using it, however, Sobchak shows that she is not a presidential candidate, but rather an anti-candidate. As someone who has always generated mixed feelings, it is difficult to expect that now she will become uniter and not divider.
What is more, her earlier criticism towards Putin is now being forgotten and more emphasis is being put on the fact that Sobchak has known the president since childhood and that he was a family friend. In an interview she gave to the head of TV Rain, Natalia Sindeeva, shortly after she had announced her decision to run for president, Sobchak discussed Putin in a more sincere way. This in turn gives people an argument that Sobchak is most likely a project which has been created by the Kremlin from the start. Metaphorically speaking, she is the Trojan Horse implanted into the liberal and opposition groups. The most radical version of this hypothesis assumes that even her love affair with Yashin might also be part of that wider project.
Should this be the case, it would prove once again that the Russian political process is governed by the rules of literature. In his book The Invention of Russia journalist Arkady Ostrovsky wrote how a good command of narration rules and the ability to build dramaturgy (dramaturgia) is used by Russian political technologists (Vladislav Surkov’s literary ambitions are no coincidence here). Seemingly, Sergey Kiriyenko, the current head of the presidential administration, has come to the conclusion that some intrigue is urgently needed. Otherwise there will be no happy ending. Isn’t Sobchak the perfect literary figure?
Waiting for further development, we can only hope that Ostrovsky will write one more chapter about the presidential elections in Russia in 2018. Maybe he will risk an allusion to the newest season of Twin Peaks, where during the scene at Black Lodge the One-Armed Man says to Dougie Jones: “Someone manufactured you for a purpose, but I think now that’s being fulfilled.”
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Paulina Siegień is an ethnographer, linguist and translator. She is a graduate of the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw and Russian Philology at the University of Gdańsk. She is currently doing her PhD at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdańsk.