We are nearing the end of our two-course supper at Moscow’s swanky Tverbul restaurant when my guest, socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak, has an urgent request: she needs to borrow my phone.
This is strange for two reasons. The first is that Sobchak’s iPhone is lying right in front of us on the table. The second is that it is working. I know this because for the past hour she has been on it constantly, using it to send half-a-dozen tweets, to answer three phone calls and to take a photograph of me, the interviewer, for posterity.
But Sobchak is insistent: she must have my phone. She has recently joined the ranks of Russia’s nascent opposition movement and her every conversation is, she says, being clocked by Russia’s security service. “They are listening to me,” she insists, leaning in conspiratorially.
I solemnly hand over my phone, ears pricked for insights into the country’s biggest anti-government protests in 15 years, the subsequent backlash from authorities and the secret strategy of the opposition.
She dials. A pause. Then: “Thank you so much for the flowers!” Sobchak gushes into the receiver. What follows is a five-minute conversation about horticulture.
The 30-year-old Sobchak is a woman of many iterations. The daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, a perestroika-era political reformer and early mentor to Vladimir Putin, she grew up with connections to the Kremlin elite. In her teens and early twenties she was the rich kid who rolled up to Moscow club openings in BMWs, wearing sable and chinchilla.
In her mid-twenties, the socialite aimed for notoriety. She shook her barely clothed derrière in music videos, posed for Russian Playboy and hosted a foul-mouthed, sex-mad reality TV series called Dom-2. The nadir was a reality show about her life, called Blonde in Chocolate, when she was filmed drunk and falling out of a bejewelled mini dress as three security men escorted her to bed by the wrists and ankles. “I went to bed fine,” she says calmly in an overlaid interview, “why are you asking?”
These days Sobchak wants people to take her seriously. Since last December, when irregularities in parliamentary elections sparked mass protests in Moscow, she has refashioned herself as a political activist and journalist. She has come out on to the street against Putin, who despite fierce opposition was re-elected for a third term as president in March, and now hosts two surprisingly hard-hitting interview programmes, grilling oppositions members and Kremlin associates.
Needless to say, some have been sceptical of Sobchak’s transformation. The first time the star spoke at an opposition protest, she was booed by the audience, with many believing she had been sent by the Kremlin to guide the protesters into dialogue with the state. Others have accused her of joining the protest movement just because it is fashionable, noting that she would not face the same repercussions as, say, the members of punk band Pussy Riot, who recently received a two-year jail sentence for a 30-second anti-Putin concert in a Moscow church.
Sobchak is adamant that the new version of herself is 100 per cent real. So what if she was never politically active before the December protests? As she points out, neither were most of the 100,000 other Muscovites who took to the street last winter. She even claims she has more to lose than them, given her prestigious position.
While all this may be true, the new Sobchak is not immediately evident from her choice of restaurant, a place she happens to co-own. Socialites in long flowing skirts sip cocktails, flatscreen televisions are showing a channel called Fashion TV and a trio of model-thin hostesses stands guard.
Having arrived 40 minutes late for our 8pm supper, she first makes a circle of the restaurant, doing the requisite round of smiles and air kisses. The fur and jewels are gone, replaced by a hipster’s uniform of jeans, lumberjack shirt and Buddy Holly glasses. The only things not sacrificed to the makeover are her perfectly coiffed blonde hair and, apparently, her diet. Before our meeting, her assistant emailed to ask if the eating part of Lunch with the FT was “binding”.
When Sobchak reaches our table, she flags down a waiter and orders herself a pot of tea and a mint-flavoured hookah. Next, she turns to me and asks curtly, in Russian, how long this is going to take. I remind her we are here to share a meal and she brightens considerably. “Well, let’s order something to eat!”
We settle on starters – cucumber and tomato salad for her, tuna tartare for me – and we both pick the sea bass, Sobchak’s favourite, as entrée. I am anxious to pin down her apparent transformation from Russia’s Kim Kardashian to its Christiane Amanpour. Is, I ask, the new Ksenia Sobchak for real?
“Why was I going around in rhinestones before, and am now wearing a plaid shirt and glasses?” she muses with mock seriousness. “It’s not a question of fashion. It’s a question of time and yourself. The country changed, I grew up, life changed. It’s normal.”
Yet for much of the country she represents a group that got filthy rich as the rest starved, and then rubbed it in their faces. In 2003, for example, talking to the New York Times, she bemoaned the need to shuttle between “home, the car, the health club, entertainment” to avoid ordinary people. “You go out on the street and it’s dirty,” she explained. “There are people and their envy. It’s a lot of negative energy.”
Sobchak admits that, in retrospect, she would “probably do differently” the previous 10 years of publicly chronicled partying and debauchery. But she is unapologetic about how she got to where she is. “I wanted to become a star, of course. That was very important to me. I wanted to achieve something,” she says.
Did that have anything to do with being known for something besides her famous father, the first democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg? “Probably.”
Sobchak’s recent transition is further complicated by her family background. In the 1990s, her father appointed the future president Putin as his deputy, essentially paving the way for the latter’s political career. Anatoly was once spoken of as a future president himself, and events surrounding his sudden death in 2000 are still disputed. However, Sobchak and her mother, Lyudmila, a pro-Kremlin MP, have retained close ties with Putin, with some media reports claiming that Putin is Sobchak’s godfather – something she denies.
For sceptics, it is one of the absurdities of Russia’s “revolution of the satisfied” that anti-government protests in Moscow are being championed by a rich, Kremlin-connected socialite. Yet the reasons she cites for joining the movement, such as wanting a vibrant civil society to develop in Russia, are hard to fault. She declares that fighting for honest regional elections and calling for an early Moscow mayoral vote will be her main objectives in the autumn.
Despite all this, Sobchak insists she is not one of the movement’s leaders. “To present me as the main face of the opposition movement is completely incorrect,” she says. “I’m not a person who is ‘against Putin’. I’m just a person who is standing up for a fair society, for free elections. If Putin can do this, I think it would be the ideal scenario for everyone because there won’t be any revolution or any protests.”
It is this type of assertion, with its suggestion that Sobchak is willing to enjoy the political limelight while still trying to retain special immunity, that riles other protesters.
I ask her a question that has been bugging Kremlinologists this past year: is it possible for Putin to change? “Maybe yes, maybe no. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t depend on me.”
At this point, her mobile rings. She spends the next five minutes simultaneously discussing the details of an upcoming magazine party at Tverbul and stabbing at her tomato and cucumber salad, which has arrived along with my tuna tartare.
The salad and the phone call finished, we move on to murkier matters, specifically a police raid on Sobchak’s apartment in early June. Newspaper accounts of the events that morning read like an extract from a Jackie Collins novel. At 8am on a Monday, a bleary-eyed Sobchak wearing only a negligee opened the door to about 20 armed policemen (she thought it was the cleaning lady). Inside the apartment, the police found not only her boyfriend, opposition leader Ilya Yashin, but more than €1m in cash, reportedly divided into 121 different envelopes.
The cash has understandably raised some questions, which Sobchak has answered to varying degrees of satisfaction. Tonight she says: “In a country where there is so much instability, I believed it was advisable to keep my cash at home. I think it’s the only way to feel safe here.”
But why so many envelopes? “I’m not going to answer that question because I have my own tactics,” she replies cryptically. “Yes, there were envelopes, but not as many as they said and not with those sums of money. It was quite a lot of money but what’s the problem with keeping money in envelopes. What else are you supposed to keep it in – socks?”
I am briefly entertained by the thought of Sobchak keeping her money in a hundred cashmere socks, when, taking a long drag from her hookah, she accidentally drops the pipe and shatters her teacup.
“Bring me a new cup, will you please?” she asks the waiter, without batting an eyelid. A new cup is immediately fetched and, soon after, our sea bass arrives, white and tender, with grilled tomatoes and rocket salad on the side.
. . .
As we navigate the bones, Sobchak more deftly than I, we delve further into her recent police encounter, which appears to have taken her unawares.
Did she really not think that, after becoming a prominent figure in the opposition movement, she would be exposed to any number of charges, fictitious or otherwise?
“I didn’t kill someone or call for a siege on the Kremlin,” she counters.
But this doesn’t mean they can’t arrest you, I say. Take Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon imprisoned on tax evasion charges in 2003 – shortly after speaking out against Putin – and who is due to stay in jail until 2017.
Sobchak disagrees. “Khodorkovsky absolutely broke the law,” she claims. But, she admits, “he is not sitting in jail for the reason they arrested him.”
Many believe she will prove no more than a fair-weather friend to the protest movement. While most protesters end their public pronouncements with chants of, “We will win!” she is more measured. “There is a big possibility that if the political leaders don’t find a forum for joining together, the political will of the movement will drain out,” she says bluntly.
The movement, which has coalesced around a ragtag group of activists, among them the blogger Alexei Navalny and radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov, has planned its first big rally since June for September 15, a protest that will incorporate new grievances, such as the Pussy Riot jailing, and will focus on regional elections. At the same time pressure is being applied to various protesters, including Navalny and Gennady Gudkov, an opposition Duma deputy, both of whom face criminal charges for business dealings. Navalny, Udaltsov and Sobchak are also being questioned over their involvement in a May protest that turned violent – the pretext for the police raiding the apartments of Sobchak and others.
When Sobchak speaks about how the past six months have strained her relationship with her politician mother she goes suddenly quiet.
“She is in a difficult situation,” she finally begins. “On the one hand, she is my mother. On the other hand, she is a person who is loyal to the system.”
Would her father, I ask, support the regime in its current state? She looks as if she might cry. “No, I think he would definitely not be able to be part of this system.”
She is more upbeat when it comes to her own fate, almost naively so given the circumstances. “I’ve studied a lot of psychology. I’m religious. With situations that you have no power over, there is no point in worrying about one thing or another,” she says simply. “Why think about things that you can’t control?” It seems like the statement of someone who has grown accustomed to thinking that when one teacup is broken, a new one will appear.
Her phone rings again. It is Yashin – the Che Guevara to her Eva Peron. She has a request: she does not want me to write about their relationship. “Everything about me has already been written, published, smeared everywhere. Enough is enough,” she says.
Supper with a serious financial publication seems an odd place to make such a declaration, but I decide to let it slide. Instead, I mumble that it must be hard having all these famous relationships and famous boyfriends. I am thinking not just of Yashin but of the Moscow official with whom she turned up at her first protest and whom she later dumped; as well as of a handsome Russian-American businessman who was, briefly, her fiancé.
Sobchak gently corrects me. “I don’t think they were that famous until they started going out with me,” she says sweetly.
A few minutes later we get the bill and after a minute of back-and-forth, Sobchak agrees to let the FT pay at her restaurant. She is, thanks to the raid, down €1m, after all.
She gathers her things to go. When I remain sitting, she asks if I am planning to stay. I remind her that I am still waiting for my card. “Oh! I’ll wait!” she says.
Thirty seconds later I can tell she is getting restless, and tell her again to go ahead. This time she agrees.
“You’re a really pretty girl!” she exclaims, apropos of nothing.
It is her parting political shot, and she is off into the Moscow sunset. For Sobchak, the show goes on.
Courtney Weaver is an FT correspondent in Moscow
24 Tverskoy Bulvar, Moscow
Cucumber and tomato salad Rbs390
Tuna tartare Rbs750
Steamed sea bass x2 Rbs2,400
Strawberry lemonade Rbs380
Mint hookah Gratis
Total Rbs4,520 (£90)