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Meet The Russian TV Personality Running For President Against Putin

Feb 7, 2018

Who's the most famous person in Russia? That's easy: Vladimir Putin.

But the second most famous person in Russia? Arguably, that would be Ksenia Sobchak, a name that's not familiar to most Americans.

The huge former reality TV star has millions of followers on social media, and is running for president in Russia's elections on March 18 — a description that might sound familiar.

While the 36-year-old, who is also a journalist, is trying to channel President Trump, her outspokenness is of a different nature.

"Liberal things that I say, they're as shocking as saying [in the U.S.], 'You're a nasty woman, or 'Immigrants go home.' For Russians, when you say 'we want freedom of speech, we want the rule of law' ... this is the same kind of radical shock," Sobchak says during an interview Wednesday in Washington, D.C., where she is visiting think tanks and officials.

Her candidacy is also noteworthy for another reason: Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was mayor of St. Petersburg ... and a mentor to Vladimir Putin.


Interview Highlights

On her chances of beating Putin

No, I think I don't have any chances to win, because these elections, to my mind, are a kind of fake elections. They are not real. You can't win in a casino-- the casino always wins. In the same way, Putin always wins. ...

I think it's fake elections, because not all the candidates can take part. We don't have the equal media coverage on all the candidates, and we cannot fully control the vote itself. So by all those three parameters, they are fake.

On why she is running anyway

To be the voice for people who share liberal values. Because Russia is a country where many people still do not have access to Internet, they don't watch independent channels — their only source of information is federal channels, which are highly propagandistic, because they all belong, again, to Putin. So, those elections are the only chance to get, by constitution, a certain time on federal TV channels. So this is my chance to speak up for all those people, who do not want the situation to last forever.

On whether she can criticize the Kremlin in ways others can't

Well, I'm saying what I think, and I get a response, such as raids in my home — which I had — such as political bullying, such as people calling me at night with some words, they will kill me and things like this. But still I say what I want. The thing that really matters is that for me it's easier to say that then for people who do not have that much media coverage.

You should understand that in Russia I am a very famous person. I've been famous for years through my entertaining programs, through my show business activities. ... I did lots of shows — Survivor show in Russia, many, many, many concerts, whatever. All Russian people know who I am. So, I use this to the good, because it's really hard to shut my mouth up — because I am too bright and I am too many years visible to everyone.

On what she means when she wants to "harness the Trump effect"

I mean that many people would like to have a protest vote. Many people voted for Trump just to say their "no" to the system, they didn't like the system and Hillary [Clinton] was obviously one of the leaders of the political establishment. So that was like, "look, we don't like it anymore, we don't want the establishment, so we will vote for Trump to show our 'no' to the system."

Actually my "Against All" [campaign] slogan is also our "no" to the system, to say we are tired of those guys, we are tired of Putin, we are tired of his friends who corrupt the country. I am not the best president, as you can imagine — I am a journalist, and before an ex-TV star — but let's just say "no" to them. The candidates are so boring, we are so tired of them, it is all so unfair, that candidate Ksenia Sobchak is actually your best option. So, this is what my strategy is about.

On what comes after the election

I will go to form my movement, with which I am planning to go to parliament of Russia. I think the only way we can try to change things now, without going to prison, is the evolutionary way. We are not for revolution, we're not the ones to have fights with police. We are the ones who will try insistently to change the situation by peaceful measures.

Monika Evstatieva produced the broadcast version of this interview, which was edited by Jolie Myers.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Our Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim has covered Russia for years. And if you ask him, who's the most famous person in Russia, he'll tell you - no brainer - Vladimir Putin. Things get interesting when you ask Lucian, who is the second-most famous person in Russia? It's a name not familiar to many Americans yet.

KSENIA SOBCHAK: My name is Ksenia Sobchak.

KELLY: Ksenia Sobchak was a huge reality TV star. She has a huge social media following, and she's running for president - sound familiar?

SOBCHAK: Liberal things that I say - they're as shocking as saying, Hillary, you're a nasty woman or, like, immigrants, go home. So for Russians, when you say, we want freedom of speech; we want the rule of law and things like this, this is the same kind of radical shock.

KELLY: Sobchak is in Washington for a visit, and I sat down with her at her hotel today. I began by asking, does she think she can beat Putin in next month's presidential election?

SOBCHAK: No. I think I don't have any chances to win because these elections, to my mind, are kind of fake elections. They're not real. You can't win in a casino. The casino always wins in the same way Putin always wins.

KELLY: You're saying it's rigged.

SOBCHAK: Yeah. I think it's fake elections because not all the candidates can take part. We don't have the equal media coverage on all the candidates, and we cannot fully control the vote itself. So by all those three parameters, they're fake.

KELLY: Why run?

SOBCHAK: To be the voice for people who share liberal values because Russia is a country where many people still do not have access to Internet. They don't watch independent channels. Their only source of information is federal channels, which are highly propagandistic because they all belong, again, to Putin. So those elections are the only chance to get by constitution a certain time on federal TV channels. So this is my chance to speak up for all those people who do not want this situation to last forever.

KELLY: Your candidacy has been unusual because you have been able to give interviews on television news in Russia, something most of the opposition is not allowed to do. Let me ask you another direct question, which is, what is your answer to critics who say you are a Kremlin plant, that Putin wants you in this election to make it look like a free, legitimate, democratic election which he will then win?

SOBCHAK: I would say it's a lie because I think Putin maybe underestimates me, or he is less afraid of me then he's afraid of, for example, Alexei Navalny. But that's...

KELLY: Another opposition leader in Russia.

SOBCHAK: Yes. But that's good for me, and that's good for opposition because it gives us a chance to squeeze through all those restrictions they have for all the opposition leaders. As for TV coverage, I didn't have my TV coverage for more than six years. Moreover, when I first went out on the streets six years ago with the protests which started in Moscow in 2011, I lost all my jobs. I was immediately fired from all my programs and TV channels. So I actually lost my business since then, and I had to rebuild it from the very beginning.

KELLY: Let me follow up on that because you mentioned Alexei Navalny, probably the most prominent opposition leader. He is not being allowed to run in this election. He's called for a boycott. He says the whole vote is rigged and that the only appropriate response is not to legitimize it, telling people to stay away. Why is he wrong?

SOBCHAK: Because it's double standard because when you wanted to run for presidency, you didn't tell anyone. Well, I'm legitimating Putin. But as soon as they didn't let you do this, you say that all the others legitimate. This is kind of unfair situation. Secondly, a boycott is not a way out because mathematically it's wrong. Where many people who are against staying at home, we only play on Putin's ground. We make him gather more percentage.

KELLY: That's your campaign slogan, by the way - Sobchak against all.

SOBCHAK: All - yeah.

KELLY: Let me let you respond to another question that has been raised, which is, for Americans who don't follow Russian politics closely, your father was the mayor of St. Petersburg. He was Putin's mentor, his boss. I'm assuming you have known Vladimir Putin since you were a child. Are you able to say things, to be critical of the Kremlin, say things that others can't?

SOBCHAK: Well, I'm saying what I think, and I get a response, such as raids in my home, which I had, such as political bullying, such as people calling me at night with some, you know, words - they will kill me and things like this. But still I say what I want. The thing that really matters is that for me, it's easier to say that than for people who do not have that much media coverage. You should understand that in Russia, I'm very famous person. I've been famous for years through my entertainment programs, through my show business activities and my business.

KELLY: You were a big reality TV star before you were a journalist.

SOBCHAK: Not only reality, but I did, like, lots of shows - survivor show in Russia, many, many, many concerts, whatever. All Russian people know who I am. So I use this to the good because, you know, it's really hard to shut my mouth off because...

(LAUGHTER)

SOBCHAK: ...I'm too bright, and I'm too many years visible to everyone.

KELLY: You've talked about wanting to harness the Trump effect. That's been...

SOBCHAK: Yes.

KELLY: ...Words I've seen you quoted saying. What do you mean by that?

SOBCHAK: I mean that many people would like to have a protest vote. Many people voted for Trump just to say, you know, their no to the system. They didn't like the system, and Hillary was obviously one of the leaders of the...

KELLY: The establishment - political establishment.

SOBCHAK: ...Establishment - yes, sorry. So that was just, like, look; we don't like it anymore; we don't want an establishment, so we will vote for Trump to show our no to the system. So actually my against all slogan is also our no to the system, to say, look; we're tired of those guys. We're tired of Putin. We're tired of his friends who corrupt the country.

So I'm not the best president, as you can imagine. I'm a journalist and, before, a next TV star. But let's just say no to them. So the candidates are so boring. We are so tired of them. It's all so unfair. That's - candidate Ksenia Sobchak is actually your best option. So this is what is my strategy is about.

KELLY: So what comes next for you? You're in this election which is going to take place next month. You say you don't think you're going to win. Where does that leave you? What will you do?

SOBCHAK: I will go to form my movement with which I am planning to go to parliament of Russia. I think the only way we can try to change things now without going to prison is evolutionary way. We are not for revolution. We are not the ones to have, you know, fights with police. We are the ones who will try insistibly (ph) to change the situation by peaceful measures.

KELLY: Ksenia Sobchak, thank you very much.

SOBCHAK: Thank you. Thank you very much for the interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.