On Thursday evening, the Russian community of Columbia came out in high numbers to listen to and challenge Ksenia Sobchak, one of the opposition candidates running against Vladimir Putin in the upcoming Russian election. Betsy Ladyzhets, EIC and interested party whenever someone challenges Putin, was there to take copious notes and write belated coverage.
When I stepped into the Kraft Center on Thursday, I momentarily thought I had stepped into Moscow. I saw Russian newspapers, heard Russian voices, and sat in front of Russian TV cameras. Although the event, a conversation with Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, was sponsored by the Harriman Institute and NYU’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia for the ostensible purpose of increasing conversation about Russian policy issues in the U.S., it felt more like a campaign stop for Ms. Sobchak. She spoke in English and referenced American issues, but the most powerful moments of her talk were her addresses to Russian members of the audience, and her responses to their questions.
Ms. Sobchak is, in her own words, an “unusual candidate.” She first entered the public eye in Russia by hosting a reality TV show, Dom-2, then went on to host several more reality shows and act in a few movies before creating her own show, Sobchak Live, on which she challenges the dominant political opinion spread by the Kremlin’s intense media control. She is also a successful businesswoman, with her own fashion lines, and has been called “Russia’s It Girl.” She has never run for office before this current presidential campaign.
Many Russians are skeptical of Ms. Sobchak’s campaign, suggesting that she is only allowed to run as a distraction against Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia’s Progress Party and one of President Putin’s biggest critics. Mr. Navalny has not been allowed to run in this year’s election. Ms. Sobchak, critics believe, is only in the race to increase voter turnout and maintain the illusion of democracy.
Ms. Sobchak did not address these concerns in her opening statement, which primarily focused on the symbolic nature of her trip and her proposed reforms for the Russian economy. “Putin has reduced the Russian economy to a private venture,” Ms. Sobchak explained. She aims to destabilize the country’s oligarchy with more individual property rights and an end to corruption. She also emphasized the importance of fair and open courts, that would resolve property disputes on the basis of the law rather than as a result of bribes. In describing her action plan, Ms. Sobchak noted that Putin has yet to release or talk about his own plan for the next six years.
Russia is a great country, Ms. Sobchak said, that is skilled at “mobilizing its greatness” both to fight enemies and modernize its economy. However, in the past two decades, the country has fallen behind as a result of greedy, corrupt men in power. “We need just a small correction of this economic mess we’re having to put the individuals first, ahead of the state,” she explained.
At the end of her statement, Mrs. Sobchak turned to address the Russians in the room (who made up, from my point of view, most of the room.) “I want to tell you that I am very proud of you, and of your accomplishments here,” she said. “But also, I am very sad that Russia lost you. Because this is a huge loss, and this loss is felt everywhere in Russia… I hope that with a change of leadership in Russia, you all will realize that your help is invaluable… and you will come back.”
When the floor opened up for questions, it became evident that some of Columbia’s Russians were buying into Ms. Sobchak’s patriotic rhetoric while others were more skeptical. The first man to ask a question told her, point-blank, that he would only believe she was not a tool of the Kremlin if she a. sued Putin for not allowing Navalny to run, or b. dropped out of the race before April 18th (election day). Other questioners attempted to poke holes in her platform, asking why she is no longer an “against-all candidate,” how she would change Russia’s foreign policy, and if she plans on cooperating with other opposition candidates once the election is over. Some of the people who took the mic were supportive, however, such as a grad student who told Ms. Sobchak he would definitely vote for her in April, and a CC student who described how she has watched Ms. Sobchak on TV for years and was excited to see her running for office.
Ms. Sobchak is clearly aware that she has no chance of winning this election. She joked at one point that she can’t even count on vote percentages as a sign of support: she imagined Putin and two of his advisors sitting in a room, saying, “How much do you think I should win by, 72% or 75%?” But she is also optimistic; she discussed her plans to run for the Duma (Russian parliament) after the presidential election, with both national and international support gathered during this campaign. She believes that these next six years will be Putin’s last term as president, and she believes that the young people of Russia will rise and transform the nation into a more Western capitalist, democratic society.
Is Ksenia Sobchak a tool of the Kremlin or an independent candidate? And if she is truly in the opposition against Vladimir Putin, then will her presidential campaign make any lasting political change in Russia, or is his dictatorship too powerful? Although I pay more attention to Russian politics than I pay to those of other countries (as my father is one of those Russian citizens “lost to America” that Ms. Sobchak would like to bring back), I feel little qualified to answer these questions – at least, I am far less qualified than many other journalists who were in Rennert Hall on Thursday evening.
But whether she’s a real candidate or not, her words rang true with me. I want to believe that this powerful journalist and businesswoman when she says that Russia’s line of Tzars will end. I want to believe that the country can have a leader who wins their people’s respect with democratic action, rather than autocracy and media control. I want to believe in Ksenia Sobchak. And so I will say that, if Thursday night was a political rally for Ms. Sobchak, it was a successful one.
Photo via Betsy Ladyzhets