Emerging from a friend’s Maserati on southern Spain’s Mediterranean coast, Ksenia Sobchak wants the world to know: Back home in Russia, fighting for change is futile.
“There is no resistance, nor can there be any,” she says. “This has to be understood.”
She can point to ample proof to support her pessimism: Thousands of Russians have been arrested for protesting the war. Hundreds of journalists are in exile. Opposition leaders are serving yearslong prison terms.
All this sacrifice has failed to stop President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and, in Ms. Sobchak’s view, these fruitless efforts only add weight to her message: Liberal Russians should find ways to live with Mr. Putin’s war because there’s nothing they can do about it.
Ms. Sobchak is one of the best-known media figures still based in Russia and the daughter of one of Mr. Putin’s first political mentors. She is able to widely communicate her call for Russians to just cope with the war, though her stance has also made her profoundly unpopular among two distinctly different sets.
A former reality-TV host who remade herself as a liberal politician and journalist, Ms. Sobchak, 41, is reviled by many opposition activists who see her as a Kremlin stooge — and by pro-war hawks who consider her disloyal.
But she is also a totemic figure of the Putin era: a celebrity influencer and media entrepreneur whose rise has tracked the acceptance of Mr. Putin’s rollback of democracy — and, now, his war — by swaths of the Western-oriented, urban elite.
Her story helps illuminate some of the central debates taking place about wartime Russia. Given Mr. Putin’s apparatus of repression, is it appropriate to expect Russians to look for ways to resist? Can the millions of antiwar Russians unable or unwilling to emigrate be condemned for trying to adapt to Mr. Putin’s system and seeking a sense of normalcy?
Back in 2018, Ms. Sobchak ran for president, warning it would be a “tragedy” if Mr. Putin were re-elected but also urging people not to “demonize” him. Now, she says that she opposes the invasion of Ukraine; but on her hugely popular social media accounts, the invasion is akin to a natural disaster — something to be endured, rather than a political choice that can be challenged.
“Putin made a pretty certain, clear decision,” Ms. Sobchak said in a recent interview while on vacation at a Spanish seaside resort. “At some point you’ve got to accept that you can’t influence it.”
To her critics, however, Ms. Sobchak’s profession of powerlessness rings hollow.
Mr. Putin has known her since he was a 1990s bureaucrat working for her late father, Anatoly A. Sobchak, then the mayor of St. Petersburg and the pro-democracy politician who launched Mr. Putin’s political career. Her mother is a member of Russia’s Parliament; her husband is a state theater director with a column in one of the government’s main online propaganda outlets.
But Ms. Sobchak says she has not seen Mr. Putin since the war began and has not tried to speak to him about the invasion. Instead, Ms. Sobchak has learned to abide the war and says she is trying to help her compatriots do the same.
On her Instagram account, with 9.5 million followers, Ms. Sobchak parades down a Moscow sidewalk showing off her combination of a vintage Chanel bag with a Russian designer dress. On her YouTube channel, where she posts celebrity interviews, a reality TV star confesses that “I lost my libido” because of the invasion. On the social messaging app Telegram, Ms. Sobchak and her team solicit help for residents of Russian border regions displaced by Ukrainian shelling.
“I believe that this is a horrific situation,” she says. “But we’re going to get through this time, we’ll get through it together with our audience.”
She says her main source of income is hosting events like birthday parties and weddings. She also sells sponsorships on her YouTube channel.
To her defenders, Ms. Sobchak is doing a service despite her compromising stance by offering alternatives to state television on platforms that are still accessible online in Russia.
Her YouTube channel also features interviews with critics of the war. Her team of journalists publishes frequent news updates to Telegram with stories that Russia’s state media tend to ignore: arrests of antiwar activists, violence committed by soldiers returning from the front and human rights abuses in the southern region of Chechnya.
The war has also amplified Ms. Sobchak’s status as a leading foil to Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader in prison since 2021.
In 2018, Mr. Navalny was barred from the ballot in Russia’s presidential election, but the Kremlin allowed Ms. Sobchak to run, giving a sheen of pluralism to the vote that delivered a fourth term for Mr. Putin.
Mr. Navalny’s backers argue that Ms. Sobchak should be under Western sanctions, and see her as a Kremlin propaganda tool targeting liberal Russians turned off by the pro-war bluster on state television. Maria Pevchikh, the exiled chairwoman of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said Ms. Sobchak is “planting in people a feeling of their own helplessness.”
“This is a very bad, very scary message,” Ms. Pevchikh said in a phone interview. “It really resonates with her audience because people take some solace in this: ‘There’s nothing to be done.’”
Ms. Sobchak denies working for the Kremlin and sees the calls from abroad for Russians to resist as misguided and immoral. The failed mutiny in June by the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, she says, underscores that whatever comes after Mr. Putin could be even worse.
“Where did the idea come from that after Putin, the ‘beautiful Russia of the future’ will arrive?” she asked, using a phrase popularized by Mr. Navalny.
Ms. Sobchak became famous as a reality-TV host in the early 2000s, then joined the Moscow street protests over election fraud in 2011. After the 2018 election, in which she came in fourth, she embraced a career as a lifestyle influencer and a journalist.
She says she last saw Mr. Putin at his annual news conference in December 2021, when American officials were already warning of an invasion. Rather than ask about the possibility of war, Ms. Sobchak questioned him about prison torture. Trying to spot her in the crowd, Mr. Putin referred to Ms. Sobchak with the informal Russian “you,” signaling he knew her well.
Like many Russians, Ms. Sobchak dismissed the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine. She wrote on Feb. 16, 2022, that “Putin looked like a mature, decent politician” amid the “hysteria in American newspapers.” When Russia did attack on Feb. 24, she posted a black square on Instagram and wrote: “We are all locked in this situation now. There is no way out.”
In the weeks that followed, the Kremlin forced the shutdown of most of what remained of Russian independent media, and hundreds of journalists fled Russia, fearing arrest under a new wartime censorship law. Ms. Sobchak said she cried and woke up in panic during the night.
But she did not emigrate. Doing so would have meant becoming a stranger in a foreign land “who must constantly castigate, blame and apologize for their own country.”
Instead, she declared she would do what she could to continue offering content from inside Russia, even if it meant eliding sensitive topics. Asked in the interview in Spain about her feelings toward Mr. Putin, she said: “Working in Russia, I prefer not to speak about my attitude toward people who have full power in my country.”
On her YouTube channel in February, Ms. Sobchak told viewers: “We decided to stay here, but also to follow the laws.” She added: “There are some things that I can’t say directly, and some that, unfortunately, I can’t say at all.”
She has also increasingly turned against Western governments and Russians in exile. Both groups, she says, dismiss the plight of antiwar Russians who have stayed behind. She also accuses Western leaders of using the war to their geopolitical advantage instead of brokering a compromise to stop the dying.
“The lives of people are simply instruments of bargaining for better positions,” she said. “This is monstrous and terrible. It’s the height of cynicism.”
Last October, Ms. Sobchak briefly fled Russia as three employees of her media company were arrested on suspicion of extortion. For a moment, it seemed that even those personally close to Mr. Putin could be the targets of repression. But after two weeks, Ms. Sobchak returned and publicly apologized to the Putin ally whom her employees were accused of extorting. She says she is still “fighting for their freedom.”
From her Spanish vacation spot by the marina of Puerto Banús, popular with super-rich Russians, Ms. Sobchak acknowledged she was worried about being hit by Western sanctions — but also that she could be persecuted back in Russia for her antiwar stance. She hopes to avoid both fates.
“People are born to live calm, happy lives,” Ms. Sobchak said. “People are not all born heroes.”