At only 36 years old, Ksenia Sobchak is one of the most influential women in Russia. This is due both to her entrepreneurship as a TV celebrity and her social capital as a daughter of a late mayor of St Petersburg. She transitioned from the scandalous hostess of a reality TV show in 2004 to a celebrity socialite known as the ‘Russian Paris Hilton’, extending ‘brand Sochak’ to advertising, restaurant, fashion and other businesses.
After 2011 Sobchak became a vocal opposition journalist at the only independent TV channel ‘Rain’ (Dozhd’) and a political activist. Her appearance transformed to suit her new roles: from a brassy blonde in glamourous attire (at times featuring in male glossy magazines) to a modestly dressed journalist in glasses, with shoulder-length (and less blond) straight hair. Her scandalous personal affairs gave way to a secret marriage to a Russian actor in 2013 and motherhood in 2016.
In October 2017 Sobchak undertook yet another ‘re-branding’ as she declared her intention to run for the Russian presidency in March 2018 – the first woman to run since 2004. Sobchak’s nomination was met with various reactions ranging from confusion to a glimmer of hope.
Russia’s mediascape has variously presented Sobchak as a caricature candidate, a Kremlin stooge, a publicity-hungry socialite and a controversial female ‘entertainer’ in a managed ‘election exercise’. Prominent opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, who was denied registration, accused Sobchak of dividing and tainting oppositional circles.
But just how has Sobchak gone about re-branding herself in this campaign, and what is the impact of gender on this re-branding process?
A candidate for our times?
Sobchak’s characteristically provocative campaign slogan — ‘I represent the vote against everyone’ is intended to appeal to those who are dissatisfied with the established regime, its lack of credible democratic institutions and freedom of speech. Since ‘everyone’ presumably embraces those from the political ‘establishment’, the tabloid-style slogan is designed to distinguish Sobchak from the other ‘alternative’ candidates. Her aim, she says, is not to ‘unseat’ Vladimir Putin in 2018, but to instil ‘a hope for a change’ in the nation.
As a media personality, Sobchak has skilfully used social media to add immediacy to her campaign and target key demographic groups. She has also been given access to a broad spectrum of state media outlets to articulate her platform. At home, Sobchak appeared on high-profile TV talk shows including Malakhov and Solov’ev’s talk shows on TV Channel Rossiia 1, and Pozner’s show on Channel One. For an international audience, she gave an interview to RT.
Sobchak used her prime-time appearances to rubbish allegations that she is either a Kremlin stooge (included to give the impression of free speech and genuine competition) or part of a liberal wealthy elite that is detached from the masses.
Gender politics and the Presidential campaign
Unlike other candidates, Sobchak has had to address perceptions that her gender and age undermine her electoral credibility. A recent Levada survey (2017) showed that around 53% of the Russian population do not envisage a female president in the next 10-15 years. In a society with deeply-rooted patriarchal gender norms, appetite for women’s issues and gender equality is minimal and Sobchak is an easy target of ridicule.
Numerous attempts to discredit her include recirculation of glamour photoshoots and a video featuring her drunk, jokes involving her appearance (e.g. memes comparing her to a horse) and intellectual ability (sufficient only for the entertainment industry), and a neglect of her maternal duties. The most recent example includes on air defamation of Sobchak by another presidential candidate Zhirinovsky (previously a far-right candidate ‘normalised’ and mainstreamed by the regime) during one of the presidential debates. The insults included such epithets as ‘stupid’, ‘brainless’, ‘black dirt’, ‘whore’ and ‘a girl from the streets’. Sobchak retaliated with a glass of water thrown at the rival.
Sobchak has an extensive professional media background and utilises a range of (sometime contradictory) tactics to tackle gender-related issues on the campaign trail. At some times this means de-emphasising her gender; at others, this means using her age, gender and political inexperience as ‘weapons’. Sobchak claims that her youth, courage (smelost’) and view from outside are necessary to challenge the political establishment.
Sobchak often downplays her gender when she addresses a general audience, articulating her political position as a ‘person’ not a woman. In her November 2017 appearance on Solov’ev’s talk show, for instance, Sobchak told the presenter that now is ‘a historic moment’, but ‘not because I am a woman’. Yet, the same month, she appeared on the cover of Glamour magazine in a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Women, power’.
Sobchak has adopted many such (often contradictory) personae fluently and articulately throughout her campaign: an undisclosed feminist, a patriot, a mother, a naïve idealist, a politician cherry-picking western liberal ideas, etc. At the same time, Sobchak’s chameleon-like persona is multi-dimensional, playful and ironic. Her YouTube candidacy announcement was filmed in the kitchen, perhaps simultaneously alluding to the well-established stereotype of a woman’s place in Russian society and Mayakovsky’s poem where he claims that ‘every female cook can be taught how to manage a state’.
It is partly Sobchak’s manipulation of multiple roles, which allows her to exploit the rules and the limits of patriarchal culture. For instance, at the end of Pozner’s interview (Jan 2018) Sobchak responds to a silly question about whether she likes her own appearance with a simple ‘no’. If the same question were posed to a British female politician, she would be asking ‘Have you ever posed this question to a male politician?’.
Similarly, when asked whether she’d ever been a victim of sexual harassment, Sobchak avoided a potential trap by branding the matter too ‘private’ to discuss. Her ‘western’ counterparts would likely see it as a ‘public’ issue and answer readily. Then, Sobchak cleverly responded to a question about her perfect day: one spent with her husband and child.
In her TV appearances Sobchak adopts various communication styles ranging from very vocal and assertive to much more thoughtful and open (e.g. an interview with Pozner). On the whole, Sobchak seems to be oblivious to the fact that by being a proactive and assertive woman she plays into the hands of patriarchal culture with deep-rooted misogynistic views.
In other words, she behaves contrary to what a woman in Russia is expected to be and how she is expected to behave. This negates other aspects of a carefully staged image-making exercise.
The ‘F’ word
Finally, Sobchak avoids making a clear stance on feminism. She has never moved further than formulating a stereotypical image of a feminist in Russia as articulated by others (a masculine creature dressed a suit, smoking and spitting to the side). Russian understanding of feminism is largely based on the Soviet legacy and mythology of the (achieved) egalitarian status of women despite a persistent triple burden of mother, worker and wife.
This is, in turn, combined with the perception of ‘western’ feminism as something homogenous, radical and alien to Russian culture. On the one hand, Sobchak is known for a tense relationship with a token Russian feminist T. Arbatova and a controversial interview with Pussy Riot in 2014. On the other hand, Sobchak herself is a self-made woman who has been vocal about women’s rights in the past (e.g. criticising the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church on Twitter) and during this election campaign (e.g. an event dealing with violence towards women).
The 8th of March International Women’s Day celebration (beloved since Soviet times) somewhat clarified Sobchak’s stand. She congratulated Russian women and reminded them that this day symbolise years of women’s struggle for their rights. She also picketed (on her own!) outside the state Duma drawing attention to the cases of sexual harassment of women by the deputies. When she herself was congratulated on air for the festivity (by another presidential candidate who also provided a gentlemen-like apology for Zhirinovsky’s behaviour), Sobchak thanked him and replied that her ‘gender is not her ceiling’ probably referring to the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon in female career when women are stopped from progressing beyond certain level.
To conclude, Sobchak’s balancing between an embodiment of the feminisation of resistance (e.g. her participation in the 2012 anti-presidential campaign and current presidential campaign) and trivialisation of emancipatory politics is a remarkable skill. It remains to be seen how the outlook of the Russian electorate, which (for now) treats Sobchak largely with suspicion, dislike and irony, will change.