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Ksenia Sobchak, Russian star linked to Putin, fled using Israeli passport

Television anchor and journalist Ksenia Sobchak, seen in 2021. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite and television anchor with a close family connection to President Vladimir Putin, used her dual Israeli citizenship to flee Russia on Tuesday after a police raid of her home that Russian authorities said was tied to a criminal investigation of two of her business associates.

Sobchak, 40, who earned fame as a reality TV star and has been known over the years as a Russian “It Girl” and Russia’s Paris Hilton, is the daughter of St. Petersburg’s first post-Soviet mayor, Anatoly Sobchak.

Anatoly Sobchak, who died in 2000, was Putin’s boss and political mentor. In 1990, Sobchak hired then-KGB agent Putin as a deputy mayor, and the two families remained close throughout the decade.

Ksenia Sobchak now runs the “Ostorozhno Novosti” project, which includes a network of Telegram news channels, a podcast studio, a YouTube channel and Sobchak’s own social media page. She has long straddled a fence between Russia’s political elite and its liberal political opposition, creating some distrust of her from both camps. In 2018, she ran for president against Putin, winning about 2 percent of votes.

Sobchak’s current legal troubles seemed to reflect tension within the well-connected elite as well as the climate of heightened anxiety amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. It also highlighted the urgency many well-to-do Russians feel about obtaining dual citizenship and a second passport.

Sobchak fled to Belarus and then Lithuania, which is a member of the European Union and along with the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, is effectively closed to Russian travelers — even those with previously issued visas permitting them to enter the European Union’s Schengen travel zone. Only dual citizens or Russian nationals with humanitarian visas and residency permits can enter.

But Sobchak, who is partly of Jewish heritage, used her Israeli passport to cross the border, Lithuania’s Interior Ministry confirmed Thursday. A video from a surveillance camera emerged on Telegram channels showing Sobchak entering Lithuania on foot and talking to border officials.

Earlier this week, police raided Sobchak’s residence outside Moscow and arrested her commercial director, Kirill Sukhanov, who was ordered to be held in pretrial detention until late December.

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According to Russian state media, investigators have accused Sukhanov and the former editor of the Russian edition of Tatler magazine, Arian Romanovsky, of extortion after a complaint by Sergey Chemezov, a Putin ally who heads a state-owned military and defense contractor, Rostec.

The state-run news agency Tass, citing case records, reported that investigators accused Sukhanov and Romanovsky of publishing a post on one of the Telegram channels, “containing information that could cause significant harm to rights and legitimate interests” of Chemezov and of then demanding 11 million rubles (about $180,000) to delete the post.

Investigators also implicated Sobchak in the extortion scheme, Tass reported, and issued a warrant for her arrest, but she eluded them. “She left Moscow late Tuesday night, at first buying tickets online to Dubai and Turkey to confuse the operatives,” the report said, citing unnamed law-enforcement sources.

The Washington Post could not independently verify the claims.

In a statement, Sobchak rejected the accusations. “What extortion, from who? What does any of this have to do with Rostec,” Sobchak wrote on her Telegram blog. “It is obvious that this is a raid on my editorial office, the last free editorial office in Russia, which had to be shut down.”

“Hopefully, it’s not the case, and this is all a misunderstanding,” she added, hewing to a diplomatic line that would seem to allow for the investigators pursuing her to be overruled by higher authorities.

It is not the first time that Sobchak’s home has been raided by law enforcement, nor is it the first time she has alleged an effort to silence her as a commentator and opposition figure.

In 2012, her Moscow apartment was raided as part of a sweep against Russian opposition activists including Alexei Navalny, who is now serving a long sentence in a prison colony after surviving a poisoning attack allegedly carried out by Russian security agents in August 2020.

Sobchak famously answered the door for the police wearing a negligee, and the agents confiscated roughly $1.5 million in cash, in dollars and euros, from her safe. She later told journalists, “They’re out to silence me.”

Sobchak grew up in St. Petersburg among the elites, having known dozens of now-politicians and ministers since she was a young child.

Until the raid in 2012, she was largely considered untouchable given her fame and family links to Putin. In recent years she seemed to continue to enjoy immunity from prosecution, unlike many others critical of the Kremlin who tried to build broad audiences outside of state-controlled media.

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Sobchak is a polarizing figure in Russian independent media and opposition circles. She first gained prominence as a reality TV host in the early 2000s, when she established a scandalous image and was referred to as Russia’s Hilton — a comparison she came to disdain.

She rebranded herself as an opposition figure after participating in the “white ribbon” anti-Kremlin protests that erupted in late 2011 and continued in 2012 over election fraud and Putin’s subsequent return to the presidency after four years in which he had relegated the top job to Dmitry Medvedev while serving instead as prime minister.

Tens of thousands of people protested in Bolotnaya Square and other Moscow locations at the time, marking the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Putin ultimately squashed the opposition, with increasingly repressive measures including arrests and prosecutions.

Sobchak has often carefully criticized Putin and his policies, but many opposition figures have accused her of trying to simultaneously appease liberals and the Kremlin.

Putin over the years has often faced “loyal” opponents in his presidential contests, and the Russian opposition cast Sobchak’s decision to run in 2018 as a ploy by the Kremlin to siphon away liberal votes and create a facade of democracy after officials barred Navalny, Putin’s chief nemesis, from running.

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Investigative news outlet Proekt reported in 2020 that the campaign was closely coordinated with the presidential administration, while Sobchak herself has denied that she ever asked Putin or his aides for permission to run.

More recently, Sobchak reinvented herself as a serious TV journalist and an anchor of a YouTube channel with more than 3 million subscribers.

The news of her swift departure from the country yielded predictably contradictory reactions.

“From the makers of ‘Sobchak on Bolotnaya’ and ‘Sobchak the President’, watch out for the comedy show ‘Sobchak In Opposition 3.0,’ ” tweeted Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally and director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation. “Those who will buy into this once again are either not very smart or have bad intent,” wrote Zhdanov, who is living in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, to avoid arrest. “Don’t get fooled.”

But Alexander Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian film and television producer who worked in Russia for decades before the war, offered a more sympathetic assessment on his Instagram blog.

“Sobchak had a huge audience and she without a doubt offered it liberal and Western ideas,” Rodnyansky wrote. “In the conditions of the war and a systematic destruction of the civil society, anyone who must flee persecution deserves to be supported, in my opinion.”

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