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Russian It Girl's path from parties to protests

Thursday - 6/14/2012, 12:30pm  ET

NATALIYA VASILYEVA and LAURA MILLS
Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) - "I'm Ksenia Sobchak, and I've got something to lose. But I'm here." That's what the 30-year-old blond socialite and TV personality said when she began her unlikely foray into political activism by taking the stage at a huge anti-Putin rally in December.

It was a shaky start.

Sobchak was greeted with jeers and boos from protesters, who derided her as a rich party girl and were suspicious of her motives because of her family's close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Six months later, Sobchak has been accepted into the ranks of Russia's protest leaders, completing a transformation that reflects the civic awakening of millions of young Russians after a decade of political passivity.

Young Internet-savvy office workers, students and members of what is known as the "creative class" form the heart of the protest movement that has drawn tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow since a December parliamentary election was won by Putin's party with what observers said was widespread fraud.

Putin has taken a tougher approach toward the opposition since returning to the presidency in May. But while hundreds of demonstrators have been detained over the past month, Sobchak found out only this week that she does indeed have something to lose. Her apartment was among the homes of protest leaders that were raided by police. They read her personal correspondence, seized her passport _ and confiscated at least 1 million euros ($1.3 million) in cash.

It was a quick change of fortune for Russia's It Girl.

Sobchak had been considered untouchable because of Putin's enduring loyalty to her late father, who as mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s gave Russia's future president his first government job and launched his political career. Putin began a third term on May 7 after four years as prime minister.

When asked about Putin, rumored to be her godfather, Sobchak has expressed gratitude to him for taking care of her family after her father, Anatoly Sobchak, fell out of political favor. She has been restrained in her criticism of Putin himself, while at the same time calling for more open government, fair elections and an end to the corruption that pervades Russian society.

While still in her early 20s, Sobchak became one of the most recognized figures in Russian entertainment, the girl everyone loved to hate. She dated pop stars and wealthy men and co-wrote a bestselling book called "How to Marry a Millionaire." Her fashion tastes were often over the top. In 2007 on the Russian show "Circus of the Stars," Sobchak wore an enormous pink bow while prancing around the stage with two French poodles.

One of Sobchak's most controversial projects is "Dom-2," a scandalous reality show modeled on "Big Brother" that she has hosted since its interception in 2004. Russian viewers also saw her shimmying across the stage of "Dancing With the Stars" and posing as a scantily clad Tarzan on a 2006 cover of Playboy magazine.

Throughout the 2000s, this enfant terrible epitomized the hedonism and materialism ushered in by the oil boom. By her own account, she earns more than $2 million a year.

"I don't understand why they hate me so unanimously," Sobchak said in a 2008 interview with the newspaper Izvestia. "I don't call for killings, riots or overthrowing the government. I'm just a hostess of entertaining shows."

Sobchak did not respond to interview requests sent by email, Twitter and text message.

In recent months, Russians have watched Sobchak trade her bows for boxy spectacles and her millionaire boyfriends for a low-key romance with Ilya Yashin, a leading figure of the opposition.

To those who question the sincerity of her transformation, Sobchak asserts that her move toward the opposition was long in the making. In an interview following her debut at the Dec. 24 protest, Sobchak said the entertainment industry had served as her escape from her expected path. After graduating from a Moscow university favored by Russia's political elite, she knew she could have had her pick of government jobs.

"It was a conscious choice, to build my own career, to make a name for myself," she said in the January interview with the New Times weekly. "Another issue here, of course, is that I used all means to build it and was ready to pay any price for it."

Her embrace of the opposition was another conscious choice, she said. "I'm against this system. I'm against bureaucratization, corruption, seeing the same people in power," Sobchak said in the New Times interview. "But I'm not personally against Putin."

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