Sobchak, now 35, was born in Leningrad towards the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, her father, a co-author of the Russian constitution and democratic reformer, became the first elected mayor of her home city.
The elder Sobchak also gave a young Vladimir Putin — whom he first taught as a law professor at Leningrad State University in the 1970s — a role in his administration, his first job out of the KGB.
Sobchak was an important mentor to Putin over the next decade, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political scientist. “Because Putin was far from politics then and hadn’t yet formed his own political views, I would say that Sobchak even affected him ideologically,” Pavlovsky said.
A personal conversation with Putin during the summer of 1998 sticks out for Pavlovsky: At one point, Putin used a phrase that he recognized as Sobchak’s.
“Power can be influential in two ways,” Pavlovsky remembers Putin saying. “Citizens can either feel the government belongs to them or they can be frightened by it.”
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist, says the connection between Putin and the Sobchak family is inextricable. “Sobchak was a father figure to him,” says Oreshkin. And Putin, he added, “helped Sobchak till the end.”
Sobchak was defeated in his 1996 re-election bid and fled to Paris amid corruption charges, reportedly helped in his escape by Putin. He only returned in 1999, after his protege had become Russia’s prime minister. When Sobchak died the next year, Putin wept at his funeral.
In 2012, Sobchak’s longtime aide Vatanyar Yagya, put it plainly: “Putin saved the life of Sobchak.” At her first press conference since announcing her candidacy, Ksenia Sobchak echoed his words: “Of course for some Putin is a tyrant and dictator. Others consider him Russia’s savior. But I’m in a difficult position,” she said. “Putin helped my father — and practically saved his life.”
To be a celebrity
After her father’s death, Ksenia and her mother, Lyudmila Narusova, who would soon become a high-ranking government official, moved to Moscow. “Putin took Sobchak’s family under his wing,” says Oreshkin. “He gave Sobchak’s widow government status and protection.”
Ksenia enrolled in Moscow’s prestigious State Institute of International Relations, but she was already seeking out the spotlight: Her work on the popular reality TV show “Dom-2” (House-2) began while she was still in school, she has said.
Sobchak was hard at work in those years, remembers Krasovsky. “She would travel outside Moscow where filming took place twice a day, seven days a week, working 10-11 hour days,” he says. “It was never-ending.”
Sobchak certainly did begin to build an empire, and her own personal brand. “Dom-2,” in which contestants built a house and competed to partner off, was a litany of raunchy behavior. It was also hugely popular.
She hosted other shows, too, opened a restaurant, launched fragrances, developed an image as a fashionista, authored several books, including “Philosophy in the Boudoir” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” and appeared nearly nude on the covers of Playboy and Maxim. According to Forbes Russia’s latest tally, Sobchak is worth $2.1 million.
But Sobchak was also enjoying life, throwing herself headlong into the hedonism and materialism brought into Russian society by the oil boom. It was a time when, as Krasovsky puts it, “The wealthy and happy Russia was just starting. No one was thinking about politics.”
A 2007 W magazine profile described Sobchak, then only 25, as “the new zeitgeist” — “an emblem for a way of being in today’s Russia — brash, sultry, self-involved.”
She entered into high profile engagements as quickly as she broke them off, and paparazzi captured her scandalous acts: cursing drunkenly, dancing lasciviously, kissing publicly. Through it all, she propelled herself into the highest reaches of the celebrity stratosphere.
“I was beautiful and stupid, and I loved my life,” Sobchak would later say. “I felt like a starving girl who was allowed into a candy shop, and I ate all the chocolates.”