Parsing the Marriage of Russia’s Paris Hilton
The wedding of a 31-year-old Russian socialite is hardly political news, unless the woman in question is Ksenia Sobchak.
Just a year ago, Moscow’s ultimate “it” girl threw herself passionately into the “snow revolution,” a then-powerful movement of middle-class Russians fed up with Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial tendencies. She even dated one of the most prominent anti-Putin activists, Ilya Yashin, and suffered political persecution -- of a kind.
Sobchak and Yashin were dubbed “the Russian opposition’s Romeo and Juliet” by The Daily Beast. But late last year, they quietly broke up after a holiday in Morocco. Now Sobchak has married film director Maxim Vitorgan in a surprise ceremony that invitees had thought would be just a private movie screening.
Sobchak’s trend-spotting and trendsetting powers are undisputed in Moscow. Just as she signaled a year ago that political protest was “in” and suddenly acceptable for the glamorous crowd, her loss of interest in Yashin and lightning- fast wedding show that opposition activism is boring and passé in 2013.
Sobchak has always moved with the times. The daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak -- who, as governor of St. Petersburg, gave Putin his first political job -- she became a symbol of new excess in the late 1990s and early 2000s, earning herself a reputation as Russia’s Paris Hilton. There was even a certain outward resemblance, and Sobchak underscored it by doing the Russian voiceover of Hilton’s part in the 2006 movie “Pledge This!”
Unlike the hotel chain heiress, Sobchak never stopped refining her image. By the end of the 2000’s she was known as an adherent of yoga and healthy living, as well as a society lioness with an endless chain of high-profile beaux.
In December 2011, just as the protest wave was rising in the wake of a rigged parliamentary election, Sobchak suddenly decided to attend the first mass rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. At the time, she was dating Sergei Kapkov, a top official in the Moscow city government. He reluctantly accompanied her to the gathering, but drew the line at the next one, where Sobchak intended to speak.
“So I went alone, and I met Ilya,” she remembered in a frank interview with Hello! magazine. “It was very cold, and he let me speak before my turn. He was fifth on the list and I was tenth, just a 30 minutes’ difference, but it mattered to me because I was freezing and my teeth were chattering.”
Sobchak was booed: The anti-Putin crowd figured the apolitical socialite was just trying to climb on the bandwagon. Yet Yashin “sensed her sincerity,” as he later recounted in an interview with the TV channel Dozhd.
Soon, the couple were being detained together at rallies. In June 2012, Sobchak’s apartment was raided by investigators looking into Yashin’s involvement in street fighting the day before Putin’s May 7 inauguration as president. The activist, who makes a meager living writing political analysis for think tanks and private clients, was living with Sobchak by then. His own austere quarters were deemed insufficiently comfortable for the princess of Moscow’s jet set.
The investigators confiscated more than $1.5 million in cash, which Sobchak apparently earned by emceeing posh corporate events and award ceremonies. That further spurred her protest activity. No major event passed without her impassioned participation, and in October 2012 she was elected into the opposition’s Coordinating Council. That same month, police refunded the confiscated money. Coincidentally, the Sobchak- Yashin relationship was coming to an end.
In November, the couple traveled to Morocco to celebrate Sobchak’s birthday and do a photo shoot for Hello! In Sobchak’s interview, one could already sense the differences that ultimately killed the relationship.
“He does not understand why one needs 20 pairs of shoes when one already has a good pair for summer and another for winter. He comes to my place and he asks every time: ’Why do you need so many handbags? Can’t there be just one handbag?’ He has such wary astonishment in his eyes, as if he is witnessing a world of crazy people with their endless bags, shoes and discussions of fashionable designers.”
Sobchak also claimed she was “deriving pleasure” from Yashin’s attempts to get her to tone down her extravagant look. Apparently, the pleasure did not last long.
Yashin, for his part, claimed in the Dozhd interview that he had “never wanted anything to do with the world of glamour” and that he believed the “glamorous patina had fallen off Ksenia” as she lived the simple and dangerous life of a political crusader. That illusion, too, turned out to be short- lived. In December, Ksenia was already seen with the worldly Vitorgan, and Yashin started going out with a little-known St. Petersburg actress.
When The New York Times reported the breakup earlier this month, Sobchak’s only comment was an expression of pleasure at the article’s reference to her “traffic-stopping beauty.”
When news of Sobchak’s wedding became public, the Twitter hashtag #СохатыйЯшин (Cuckold Yashin) briefly became the top trend in the microblog service’s Russian segment. Some users pitied Yashin. Others were quick to ridicule him.
“Now, with his cuckold’s horns, he won’t fit into a Black Maria,” user K_Chugunkin wrote.
“Yashin’s girlfriend Sobchak has married Vitorgan. The revolution is over,” mocked another user, bigboom.
The “snow revolution” had fizzled earlier, anti-Putin marches getting thinner and thinner, the president consolidating his somewhat-less-than-legitimate power with scare tactics and a spate of illiberal laws. Yet if the end of the short-lived era of middle-class protest needed a powerful symbol, Sobchak’s return from the floundering opposition movement to her accustomed circle of Russian celebrities and TV personalities has provided it. The “it” girl has spoken, and life goes on as before.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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